by Kim C. Flodin
Last week, I demolished the wall my father taught me to build. When my husband and I bought our Brooklyn townhouse 30 years ago, we couldn't tell the difference between a Phillips head and a slot screwdriver. Only able to afford a DIY fixer-upper, we asked Dad, a carpenter by trade, for help. "Sure, we can do that," he said and set out to train his know-nothing crew. "Set, drive, finish. Kim, you're hitting the nail like Minnie Mouse. Try again. Set, drive, finish." Dad whipped around my tumbledown house with a steady 1-2-3 rhythm during the year of weekends he gifted us.
The first thing he did when he arrived on Saturdays was to pull a brown paper bag from the pile we collected from takeout lunches. He folded the bag into a hat and placed it, pleased with himself, on his head. "You look like an overgrown gnome," I teased.
"A gnome with clean hair," he grinned and patted his hat.
We ate dinner in the makeshift kitchen. My father drank two vodka martinis, followed by several glasses of wine. Occasionally, I ran out of vodka. Not wanting to disappoint Dad, who asked, "What else you got?" I scrounged what I could, a gift of Amaretto, orange liqueur bought for a recipe, a half-bottle of rum. For a year, I watched my father drink himself into a Saturday-night swirl of inane conversation. Sunday mornings, I woke to his cheerful singing and found him sharp and ready to go. I grew up knowing my father liked his drink, but seeing his capacity during those intimate weekends, I realized he was an alcoholic.
His days were always sober, long, and productive. We followed suit and learned to work hard and skillfully. Farhan took to the carpentry, but I did not. Attempting to make use of his weak link, Dad assessed me with narrowed eyes and handed me a hawk. "I always thought women would make good tapers."
A big metal square with a thick rounded handle jutting out from the bottom's center, the hawk was awkward to hold. Dad loaded it with a hefty dollop of joint compound and positioned it in my left hand. In my right hand, he placed a taping knife. He explained it was my job with the taping knife to transfer the glop to the seam formed between the hung sheetrock, set a ribbon of paper "tape" into the compound, cover the tape with more compound, and feather it out to make the wall's sheetrock panels seem as one. It was messy, repetitive work with furious rounds of sanding between coats.
I apprenticed on that wall, the compound dripping down my arm. Balanced on a ladder, my two hands preoccupied with tools, I pressed hard against the steps while I reached the high corners and my legs bruised. A mask covered my nose and mouth when I sanded, but the fine dust settled into my eyes and coated my hair with a mist of gray. In the other room, Farhan hung more sheetrock and Dad set a door leading to the garden, all the while singing the Banana Boat song: "Come, Mister Tally Man, tally me banana. Daylight come and I wanna go home."
After four days, hands aching, arms sore, I announced, "Tally me banana, mister... I'm done. It's good enough."
My father surveyed the less-than-perfect seams, the dimples and buckles that, to my chagrin, would become more pronounced once painted, and reminded me with a comical finger shake: "Good enough is not good."
Beneath his humor, I knew my father was serious. It was the mantra of his life, the fuel that drove him from the ranks of swinging tools to management despite not having a college degree. "Good enough is not good" propelled him from the inner city to leafy Long Island though daily he commuted a three-hour round trip. It's the motto by which he set the expectation I would graduate from college and he would work to pay for the best school that accepted me, no matter the cost. The one time I saw him angry with my grandmother was when she suggested her son take it easier and send his children to community college. "Good enough is not good enough for my kids," he said through gritted teeth.
His philosophy was my exasperation as I faced the starter wall. "We'll let this one go," said Dad. "Taping takes a lot of practice, kid. You'll be getting a lot of practice," he added with a chuckle as he squeezed my shoulder with a big, capable hand.
All the walls on all four floors of my townhouse were replaced and taped. As umpteen bottles of vodka and our entire inventory of oddball liqueurs were emptied, I struggled to absorb how my father squared his not-good drinking with his passion for good. His sunny disposition was a constant even when he drank. He never raised his voice or got mean, but the nightly drinking blurred his charm and intelligence. An alcoholic: I didn't say the word aloud, but I tested it in the quiet of my mind. Profound disappointment existed uncomfortably with adoration and squeaked out as a low hum of sad confusion. Good enough is not good, Dad, I thought, but never said, wanting to spare his feelings.
The construction site morphed into a home where Dad visited for joyous Thanksgivings and the births of baby girls. Every few years, Farhan pulled out his hammer, and I, my hawk. With the skills and can-do optimism Dad taught us, we reworked a room into the next needed thing. The nursery became the laundry room, the guest room, an office; shelves added, closets rearranged. Sometimes my father came over to advise. I launched a quiet war of opaque defiance in the face of his ongoing drinking: I hid the vodka and the liqueurs whenever he arrived. "Oh, shoot, Dad, we ran out. Sorry." I'm sure he saw through my passive-aggressive protest, but he never called me on it, as I never called him on his drinking. Instead, we moved on to the task at hand.
The 2016 task at hand is a renovation of the floor where I learned to tape. Farhan and I are empty nesters and we are creating an Airbnb from our grown daughters' teenage rooms. Brooklyn has become cool, a transformation we witnessed firsthand. "Let's eat lunch on the stoop," Dad recommended back in the early days when our block was caught in a maelstrom of poverty and crack. "Say hello to everyone who walks by. Show them you're here. Get to know them, too." When eventually our neighborhood soared as a destination with pretty brownstones and cafes, people marveled at the turnaround. Dad was not one of them. "I always knew Brooklyn would come back."
But he did have his fears and they played out in his workmanship. Dad mounted hinges on the garden door's interior, making it nearly impossible to break in, and he set the door into the exterior brick in such a way that the frame wouldn't budge. We'll keep the frame and replace the door, which is rusted and swollen from 30 years of rain having seeped through an unfinished edge. "Your father told me to paint it," Farhan confesses. "I never got around to it."
"Good enough is not good." I wag my finger at my husband as Dad once did at me. Then, suddenly desolate, "I miss him."
I take a break from the renovation to make my monthly trip to the suburbs. Dad still lives there, under my brother's care. Throughout the weekend, whenever Dad wakes from his constant naps it appears to him I just arrived. "Hi," he says, looking perplexed.
"Hey, Dad. I'm visiting for a bit."
"Oh, OK." He toddles with his walker from bedroom to den, from den to bedroom, sleeping in both when he gets there and rising to make the trip back to the next room. Each time he passes, our exchange is repeated as if the previous one never happened. It occurs to me, watching him, I am the exact age he was when he taught me how to tape.
My father no longer touches booze. I morbidly joke to my brother that Dad forgot he's a drinker. The doctors toss around conclusions like Alzheimer's, but I know he pickled his brain, his personality stuck in the haze he drank himself into each evening.
On Sunday afternoon, I rouse Dad from his upright slumber on the couch. "I'm heading out, Dad. I'll be back soon."
"Where are you going?" he asks, puzzled.
"Brooklyn," I say. "Remember the house you helped me renovate?"
I search his vacant eyes for a reminiscent flicker of demolishing a column of bathrooms for new pipes. I saw daylight from the basement through four ceilings while his merry face, topped with a jaunty paper hat, peered from the rafters. Does he recall I learned to tape to near professional levels and, to my pride and delight, he applauded at the foot of my ladder when I completed the last wall?
Did I thank him for teaching me that with perseverance and pluck, I can always remake my circumstances? Did he figure out, as I did, that magnificence can shine through failings, love can survive disappointment, and sometimes, good enough is, in fact, good?
"I live in Brooklyn, Daddy. Remember?"
"Oh, OK," he whispers. Something ignites for a moment and his face animates with a sly grin of his former self. "Say hello to Brooklyn for me."
"I will," I say and kiss his head before I leave, back toward the home he helped me build.
Kim C. Flodin is a Brooklyn writer who specializes in parenting, health, and family issues. Her personal essays have been published in The New York Times, Newsweek Magazine, and The Christian Science Monitor among others. She also helps many hospitals in the New York City metropolitan area communicate with their patients, communities, and employees. Last, but not least, she is the mother of three young adult daughters.