I recently made a trip to visit my father-in-law, Bill. At 83, he’s showing his age. His decline from Parkinson’s has accelerated, with dementia making words harder to find and thoughts tougher to follow. But I still enjoy seeing Bill because he’s truly my dad.
Bill and Kaye (my mother-in-law) have been in their retirement home for 15 years. It’s a one-level home they designed themselves so they can age in place while still hosting their growing family. A crucial part of the house plan was Bill’s basement workshop (Billville). Revolving around his 1950s workbench, a workshop has been a staple of all his homes.
As usual, Bill and I spent some time in Billville where we tinker on projects or just talk shop. We share a passion for mechanical things and working with our hands. We speak the same language.
I always marvel at how organized and practical Bill’s workshop is, a testament to his career as an engineer. As you enter, directly in front of you is the storage area. Here you’ll find boxes labeled: “Thanksgiving decorations for mantel,” “Kaye’s craft projects,” and my favorite, “Decorations no longer used.” To the right is the circa 1940s Coolerator refrigerator holding discount beers. Next to that relic is the chest freezer with 40-month-old chicken breasts and other unrecognizable ice blocks.
Those areas may interest a Smithsonian curator or an archaeological dig team, but they’re just an afterthought for me and Bill. We always turn left toward his workbench. Here you’ll find other fascinating artifacts, such as Bill’s power tools, his overflowing tool pegboard, a jagged piece of paneling from his last house, a box of 10 lamp timers, a box of precisely stacked dead batteries, a battery tester, a homemade Christmas bulb tester, and a 1970s label maker … obviously used to label boxes of batteries, etc.
It’s a Wednesday night, so of course hamburger patties are served for dinner with chips and a vegetable. The 1970s Tupperware “pickle elevator” and other condiments are also set on the table. I partake of the pickles but have no desire to play “condiment roulette”—those expiration dates can be way too small for octogenarians’ eyes. We catch up on family affairs and have a few good belly laughs.
When my visit ends, I get a big hug from Bill and Kaye as I head to my car. After backing out, I give one last glance and notice Bill waving goodbye from his doorway. I think of what he was and what his disease has so cruelly robbed from him. I worry about my dad. Is he safe, will he be all right?
I gulp back the lump in my throat and convince myself Bill will be OK. I want Dad to keep Billville as long as possible. It’s his place of comfort in his ever-shrinking world and it’s so much a reflection of him: frugal, organized and methodical. It’s on that iconic workbench he helped make award-winning science projects, built and repaired countless pieces of furniture and appliances and wrestled with parts from his daughter’s 1968 VW Beetle. I could go on for hours. He did these things part out of love but mostly out of necessity. Raising seven kids required keeping expenses to a minimum.
Some believe the measure of a man is what he leaves behind, so they wrap themselves in their careers and go about building and accumulating monuments to themselves. Bill didn’t buy that. He had a very successful career, but he was never about his “stuff” or impressing others. To me, Billville is a symbol of something else he built and how he did it. That frail man in the doorway is the proud father of seven children, all of whom went to college on his dime. He’s a man from humble beginnings and modest earnings who brown bagged it his entire career. Bill didn’t buy a new car until in his 70s and he never blew money on other status symbols. He’s a husband who reared his kids through the turbulent ’60s and ’70s and unconditionally welcomed every child’s spouse along with the 16 grandchildren who followed. And to this day, all of those seven children, five stepchildren and 16 grandchildren (ages 8 to 30) eagerly look forward to family events at Grammy and Papa’s place, most chatting and laughing until five in the morning.
So, the next time a senior gentleman is shuffling in front of you or doing 40 mph in the left lane, give him a break. That guy wearing polyester pants and suspenders may have sacrificed over 60 years to build a loving family, a legacy which will last for generations. I’d call that one hell of a monument.
I pull away and say a prayer that Bill will be happy and safe in Billville. I also pray that I can someday be half the man and dad he is.
Happy Father’s Day, Dad.
P.S. I wrote this ode to my father-in-law in 2012, and we lost him one year later. We miss him dearly, but I know he would be pleased that his workbench is now the center of my busy basement workshop.