Sunday, October 9, 2011

The Man Behind The Garage Door

I continue to feel trepidatious about entering that sacred most people its a dark, dusty garage; to me, its hallowed ground. It was time to clean out my Dad's garage and it wasn't going to be easy...on many levels.

This post is a sequel of sorts. My sister Mona, during the height of her mental illness years ago, surprised us all with a written dedication to Dad's garage that was so affecting that it was published in two local hometown papers. She captured his garage and what it meant to him perfectly: that dusty, tool-filled space was his workspace for sure, but it was also his private space. Its where he might turn the dials on the small wooden Magnavox radio; looking for a game or some music to listen to while he welded. We would all catch him napping in the old beat-up recliner. He would collect vegetables from his garden on the west side of the garage and arrange them in separate piles to bag up and drop off "anonymously" on his neighbor's back porches. His buddies would gather there daily to swap tall tales with him. He built furniture for us on that workbench...bookcases for me, footstools and end-tables for Mom, even display cases for the Greenhouse. It was Dad's space; a productive one, to be sure, but also an unspoken refuge from personal frustrations or just the world at large. It speaks to his warmth as a father that he would allow this private space to be taken over by me as a personal clubhouse when I was young. My friends would all come over and we would take chalk and write graffiti on the floors. I would crank the music as loud as I could on that Magnavox and sing at the top of my lungs; inevitably mangling the lyrics. Mom would bring us hot fudge cakes while we read Archie comics. Dad would work around us; smiling and shaking his head at my childish antics.

The last real use of the garage as a childhood haunt would be hit-and-miss moments in high school....a surprise 16th birthday party from my friends; the site of my "killing" in a teenage "assassin" game. Through the years, Dad would continue to box up "artifacts" collected by all three kids....yearbooks, articles and such and stash them in the garage rafters. Years later, as his now-adult children waded through life, bric-a-brac from various apartments would get added to the rafters.

As Dad aged and grew more frail, he found himself unable to maintain the upkeep of the garage. He kept trying, though...he would slowly walk there on his cane and in time, on my arm and try to straighten things up with my help. Towards the end, we would just go down to the garage where he would simply shuffle about and touch things. He would open the metal strongboxes and move his hands over some of the hundreds of nuts and bolts they held; gingerly caressing each one as if they were priceless rubies in a treasure chest. When we took him to the assisted living facility, I think he suffered more separation anxiety from that garage then he did his house.

So Monday, I walked in slowly, with Keith and my sister Shirley. I had been dreading the dig through the garage and was so grateful that Keith was willing to take it on with me. We brought everything down from the rafters. We pulled dust-covered crates from cabinets and boxes. Old paperback books crumbled in our hands from neglect. My sister was far less sentimental than me; she saw it as a cleaning project and that is probably the wisest standpoint from which to perform this task. Unsurprisingly, as boxes were opened; there were often emotional gasps of recognizance; mostly by me. These were treasures of a different sort; each offering a different glimpse of the man behind the garage door.

There was a bagged pile of newspapers from World War II days. Those nuts and bolts still in their metal boxes; his old welding tools. A makeshift mop utilizing old socks and a hand-cranked drill. His old metal minnow bucket from his fishing days. Old record albums....some mine, ranging from Marlo Thomas' Free To Be, You and Me to K-Tel. Some of the albums were his and Mom's...Peggy Lee, Tony Bennett, Frank Sinatra. Old, dusty notebooks revealing numerical codes to his vegetable gardens; a genealogy of the Haught family witten in 1948. Grocery lists for the goods he would buy for the Men's Fellowship Christmas baskets made to take to families in need. My First Year Camper award from band camp. An old plastic Santa that used to light up and when re-opened from the box that held it, made my eyes well up with tears...he knew I loved it when he put up that Santa every year.

That garage held a wealth of memories. It was a tearfully joyful flashback as that dusty old building spoke more about my Dad than he himself could tell. That garage told his story...about his industriousness, his humor, his character, his love for his family. It was a necessary thing; cleaning out that garage, but a rewarding and sometimes painful thing. I miss him every day. Now, when I drive by a garage or shed, I think of how it could be more than just a structure that houses a vehicle and some tools. Like my Dad's garage, it may just tell someone's life story.


Lisa Mandina said...

Wow. This post brought tears to my eyes. Made me think of how my step-dad's workshop in the basement would be like this for me. Or my mom's sewing room. Don't want to think about that yet, but I can imagine what you must be feeling.

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