Vol 3, Num 7 :: 2004.03.26 — 2004.04.08
The best part was the smell of the wood—I remember the smell on his clothes when he would come home from work and I would give him a hug or he would give me a “walk” on his shoes. I still enjoy the scent of fresh lumber when I walk in a home being built!
My mom remembers the smell of her father coming home from a day of working on a house. I remember it, too: a sweet smell, concentrated around his hands, embedded in his flannel shirts, that always got stronger when he took off whatever ball cap he had chosen for the day from his giant collection of complementary hats. It’s almost as strong in my memory as the scent of diesel fuel that meant my dad had returned from delivering another load with his tractor-trailer.
Our family on my mom’s side has a history of home-building. My great-grandfather built the house that still stands on Ridge Road in Munster, Indiana, when the property went miles back clear to the river. My grandma e-mails, “I loved the home I was born and raised in. Before my father built the house, he built the garage and the family lived in there while he built the house. My only brother, Don, was born in the garage.” I can imagine the cry of a newborn amid the quiet and dark, though it seems to echo somewhat in the distance between garage-births and tidy subdivisions.
There also seems to be a distance between those days of co-habiting with family and these days of highly individualized plots of claimed earth and structures. My grandma also remembers long afternoons of watching her older sisters work in the basement beauty salon that occupied their time while their husbands fought in World War II. After the war, great-grandpa remodeled the upstairs of that big farmhouse so my great-uncle and -aunt could move in with their two-year-old daughter instead of fighting the post-war housing shortage. Two more children would be added to that family before they moved out of the two-bedroom apartment, filling my grandma’s childhood with the company of her niece and nephews.
The house proved a haven for another young married couple when my grandparents moved into the basement apartment (formerly the beauty shop) shortly after their wedding. Originally intending to go into seminary, my grandfather chose instead to pursue carpentry, and has built every house they’ve lived in since they moved out of that apartment into a brand new, $12,000 brick 3-bedroom house at the age of 22.
It’s in this house that my mom’s memories intertwine with my grandparents’.
Even though I was only 6 years old when we moved from the first house, I could still draw you a picture of the inside. There was a hardwood floor in the hall, and every time I would pull my little toy with the wooden wheels across the floors you could hear the clump, clump, clump. It probably drove my parents crazy, but for me, for some reason, it was a very reassuring sound. My dad also had a work area in the basement of the first house, that he opened up to his boys’ group from church. Once a week, junior high boys would come over and work with him in his workshop. Being an only child [at that time], I loved the attention I got from them. I was so glad my dad had that workshop so I could say “hi” to the “big boys” and they would tease me before going downstairs.
The second house would be built just two lots down from the first, and the third (and current) house, less than a mile from the first two. The family lived in the old farmhouse on Ridge Road between each new home. Grandpa writes, “Of the three houses that I built, I think the one I live in now I’m probably the most proud of. It is my wife’s dream home and I am happy that I was able to provide that for her.”
Indeed, the whole of my family’s construction history seems to be one long story of providing for one another, tangibly and intangibly. Though my grandfather never built any house that I’ve lived in, he has provided me with an example of what it means to claim and fulfill a calling with joy and skill. More than words could, his quiet example of diligent work and his reputation in the community for being a just, kind, and humble man model what it means to shelter one’s family with the love of God.
After 1,000-plus homes, churches, commercial buildings, apartment complexes, and remodeling jobs, my grandfather is enjoying semi-retirement in Florida and the Midwest, alternately. My mom and I both harbor thoughts of coaxing him out of retirement to become a physical part of our own building daydreams, though we know his intangible example lives on in us. And in a way, I’m glad I can pause my memory of grandpa balanced on a rooftop in the sun with a hammer instead of a nail gun, building with strong and capable hands a structure that is as beautiful as it is sound, of which he can be proud.