"Perhaps this is my job as a parent, to be there and bear witness as he asks me to take hold of my end of the shelf, as he marks the holes."
The inscription inside the Reader’s Digest Complete Book of DIY I received for my birthday was in my father’s familiar jagged scrawl.
“My dear son – If you want anything done in life, do it yourself. All my love, Dad.” I think I must have given him a demure smile or shrug.
My father — may his eternal sleep remain undisturbed — relished any opportunity to convey life lessons to me.
He enlisted me in home improvement and repair tasks around the house, much the same as I pressgang my own children to do the same.
They are mostly unwilling or resistant, as this digs into the copious “me time” they have to pursue their teen-critical screen-related activities.
I’m not good at handling this charged atmosphere, whether it’s trying to put up a shelf together or a bathroom hook.
I find it difficult to field questions like: “Exactly how long is this going to take?” One device I’ve found that works is to break the task down.
Today, we’ll measure and mark the holes, tomorrow, drill and plug them, and the next day put up the shelf. On the weekend we can admire it. How does that sound?
Wouldn’t it be easier to do it myself, and follow my father’s advice?
I remember a poem I read in high school, penned by a fellow pupil a year or two older than me.
In it, he described his unwillingness to be marshalled into his father’s DIY projects, how boring he found them, how frustrating. Years later, he realises that he misses those sessions with his father, that they were an intimate activity that bound them.
I suspect his father had moved out, or died, or had grown old, I don’t remember the detail. I read it over 30 years ago.
The poem ended with him wishing his father would ask him once more to join him in one of those household tasks that had irked him so. He didn’t know how valuable they were at the time.
My father’s death prefigured my own mortality, and my children’s vitality hastens the end of my own, in a circle of life. They are growing up, and I’m growing older, on the other side of the wheel.
In a couple of years the oldest will move out, and will need help to put up his own shelves, fix his own taps, unblock the drain.
He’ll have a good idea of how to tackle these things, even if he resents being called into service doing them now. Perhaps this is my job as a parent, to equip him and his siblings for life, to help them stretch their wings.
To be there and bear witness as he asks me to take hold of my end of the shelf, as he marks the holes.
More than anything, it’s an attitude I hope to inspire, one that diverges from the advice my father tried to impress on me. Sure, the belief that “I can do this”, or at least, “I can figure it out if I try” is essential. I rely on myself.
But it’s more valuable to be able to ask for help, I think, than to fail on one’s own. My father’s advice hints at a lack of trust in others, an attempt to avoid disappointment.
I have been unused to asking for help. I have been raised to be resilient and independent, which has often cost me.
That’s why asking for my children’s help in these do-it-yourself projects is important to me. It connects me to them in this fleeting moment of life, as we pass each other in time.
I share with them the tricks that my father taught me. From him I learnt that anything worth doing was worth doing well, and more than that, worth doing together.