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.

(7) comments


What a poignant and touching letter; my hat is off to you, Mr. McDermott.


Good letter.
Kevin, I think you’ve already met your dad’s expectations. He would be proud of you.


Great story, Kevin. Strange how age affects the mind.


Said a prayer for your father. My father is also 84 and suffering from Parkinson’s from the past 6 years. He was misdiagnosed initially and not until he went into a Pennsylvania VA home was he diagnosed correctly and began treatment. Doctors said he contracted it from Agent Orange exposure in Vietnam. I travel the 7 hours round trip to seem him every few months. Getting old really sucks and we need more emphasis on elder care and less on taking care of the rest of the world. I salute my father and all other veterans on this day. Thank you for your service!


User, your father must have been old, when he went to Vietnam. In 1961 the military was cutting back and reservists were allowed early outs from active reserves, allowing them to serve their remaining time in the inactive reserves.  At the end of that time they were given their earned military discharge. It wasn't until the Gulf of Tonkin incident that most U.S. forces went to 'Nam. That would have made your father 29, it he went in 1964 or later.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vietnam_WarAmerican military advisors began arriving in what was then French Indochina in 1950 to support the French in the First Indochina War against the communist-led Viet Minh.  Most of the funding for the French war effort was provided by the U.S.  After the French quit Indochina in 1954, the US assumed financial and military responsibility for the South Vietnamese state. The Việt Cộng, also known as Front national de libération du Sud-Viêt Namor NLF (the National Liberation Front), a South Vietnamese communist common front aided by the North, initiated a guerrilla war against the South Vietnamese government in 1959. U.S. involvement escalated in 1960, and continued in 1961 under President John F. Kennedy, with troop levels gradually surging under the MAAG program from just under a thousand in 1959 to 16,000 in 1963.By 1964, there were 23,000 U.S. troops in Vietnam, but this escalated further following the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident, in which a U.S. destroyer was alleged to have clashed with North Vietnamese fast attack craft. In response, the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution gave President Lyndon B. Johnson broad authorization to increase U.S. military presence, deploying ground combat units for the first time and increasing troop levels to 184,000.


Actually, right now I’m looking at a JSCM awarded to him in 1966 signed by Westmorland. He also has a Bronze Star that I had framed along with citation and it’s hanging in his room at the Delaware Valley Veterans Home. Being an Army Brat I remember moving all over the place including Heidelberg Germany and getting the announcement in school that JFK was murdered. He did two tours in Vietnam before he retired in 1970.


Heidelberg Germany, a great city. I loved it and it was only an hour's drive from Frankfurt. Did you go into the medical museum they have there, in the castle?

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