Portrait of the Carpenter as an Old Man Awaiting the Elusive Plumber
When you have grandchildren, sometimes the best thing you can do is to sleep near your tools on a thin mat on the floor of an old house with the walls open and floors ripped up, awaiting the elusive plumber (to say nothing of the plaster man, electrician, laborers, insulation guys, roofers, painters, and the grandmother tending the cook pot through the chaos), attempting to turn an address into a home as if you were born to do this, nail by holy nail.
KAZ SUSSMAN, Junction City
The faded cotton robe is old and frayed, so threadbare it can scarcely hold a patch. I carefully pin the fabric, hoping it won't tear when I sew the pieces together. It holds. The old man smiles gratefully; I let out a sigh of relief. Around me the metallic rumble of four sewing machines provides the sound track as I take a sip of water and pick up the next item.
Thirty years of cerebral toil in the academic trenches leaves me thought weary and craving the use of my hands for craft, not for pecking out words. I am volunteering at a repair event. The skills I bring are modest, yet I find enormous satisfaction in mending clothes. I feel competent, in command, even hip.
Never mind that my old Singer portable rattles like an old jalopy; it works fine for hemming, stitching, patching. Elsewhere in the spacious room, a volunteer takes apart a toaster while another sharpens scissors on a small sanding belt; a new clasp makes a necklace whole again while a broken bike is hoisted onto a stand. Let no object enter a landfill that can be saved.
I smile earnestly at a new customer, a young woman in a hurry. “My parking meter runs out soon, so please be quick,” she says. Of course she would hand me a zipper to fix, a complicated task that many workers refuse to accept. I take my time to do it right, and she becomes agitated. I don't react. I have entered the sweet, serene sewing zone. The woman makes it out the door just in time, repaired dress in bag. I sigh louder this time, and gulp down more water.
By the end of my three-hour shift, I have repaired six garments. I am tired and weary, but feel incredibly accomplished. After-visions of seams coming together, threading needles, hand stitching, edges trimmed, all blur together in a soothing balm. The background din recedes. I can relax because I have done enough.
M. J. COREIL, Portland
Fake Parts Don't Last
On a sunny afternoon in 1976, as we drove home from school, I excitedly told my dad about the last field trip of the school year. Our fifth-grade class was going to the hospital to meet with doctors and nurses and to find out what their jobs were like. As we pulled into our garage, he told me that I wouldn't be able to join them, because I was already scheduled to go to the hospital to have tests. There was a doctor, he said, who thought he could fix my heart.
I was always told that it was a miracle I was born alive. Later, doctors predicted I would die by the age of five. I persisted, despite being born with a heart on the wrong side and backward on the bottom, with arteries hooked up to the wrong part of the pumping mechanism, obstructed blood flow to my lungs, and five holes in the upper and lower chambers that separate oxygenated and nonoxygenated blood.
The circulatory system depicted in crisp red and blue illustrations in anatomy books did not exist in me. All my blood was mixed up, casting a purple hue over my lips, nails, and skin and severely limiting my physical abilities. No sports, no recess, no physical activity for me.
Later in life, I learned that the experimental surgery that saved my life, giving me pink lips and nails and energy like never before, didn't really fix my heart. In the 1970s there was no record of the long-term outcomes of surgical intervention. Now congenital cardiologists are circumspect about saying “fix,” which gives the impression of permanence. Truth is, they're often not able to make significant structural changes. In complex cases like mine, they can only use prosthetic devices and patches to make a funky heart act more like a normal heart. Fake parts don't last as long as the real thing. At twenty-seven I had open-heart surgery again to repair and replace parts from the first surgery. As a bonus, I also got a pacemaker.
I'm closing in on my fiftieth birthday now and the parts are wearing out again. I've had new minimally invasive procedures that were only partially successful, and I know more open-heart surgery is my future. I had my fifth pacemaker replacement surgery not long ago. Battery-operated things don't last forever.
I'm grateful every day for my wonderful life, but it's sometimes psychologically and emotionally exhausting to have to go through so many fixes. In my dream world, fixed is fixed forever.
TINA RINALDI, Eugene
Pretty Much Abandoned
The peculiar house my parents built was clearly out of place. Its disproportionate size, its odd turrets, and its neglected grounds offended members of the community.
The first time people hurled rocks through one of our windows, they shouted profanities and fled. I was fairly young. I hid in my closet and rocked myself to sleep. The window was eventually repaired and life went on until it happened again—and again, and again. Even today I can hear the yelling voices that accompanied the assaults: “Shame, shame, shame on you. You got what you deserved.” I can also remember the silence from the local authority figures who chose not to see or hear anything.
Over time, the broken windows were simply boarded up and not repaired. I suppose it was somehow safer that way. Eventually my parents gave up on the house and pretty much abandoned it.
Years later I returned to that peculiar place with its boarded-up windows and overgrown shrubbery that stood like sentries on guard. With as much determination as I could muster, I worked to reclaim what was rightfully mine. Friends new and old supported my efforts and helped me remove weathered boards covering broken windows. The months I had anticipated restoring that old house ended up taking years. Finally, I stood back and saw a grand old home rather than an old misfit dwelling. I've accepted that the floors will always squeak a bit and the house is drafty at times, but it is mine. I own it, and I'm proud of it.
Indeed, the windows of my life were opened and the world was full of possibilities—possibilities I never knew were possible, such as getting an education and learning to speak up. Now I'm an educator who wants her students to discover that world of possibilities. I know some of my students have boarded-up their windows just like I did. I believe their voices matter and need to be heard.
PAULA MARIE USREY, Sutherlin
Not Even God or Scared Little Brothers
All through junior high and high school I was sure prayer could fix my older brother's drinking, because when I went to my Irish Catholic mother in tears, she would tell me to pray about it—for him, for our family. So I lay awake nights praying hard I'd hear him come home before the curfew our father laid down with a fist on the kitchen counter. The digits on the clock beside my bunk bed always clicked past, and my heartbeat quickened, knowing what was coming when he finally got home.
I prayed that maybe when he turned eighteen he'd stop, because at eighteen you could get drafted. Go to Vietnam. Then it was twenty-one, legal drinking age. Then it was thirty. Then thirty-five. Then forty—surely by forty. By then I'd realized nobody has the power to “fix” addiction, not even God or scared little brothers.
My mother, frustrated by our lawsuit-happy society, once said, “The only time I'd ever sue anyone is if a drunk driver killed one of my kids.” Ironically, a drunk killed her on a rainy December evening as she was driving home after playing bridge.
Even her death didn't fix my brother. He wrecked cars, had close calls, and did time in prison.
A few years after our mother's death, our father arranged a family intervention for my brother, guided by a counselor in Portland. We all read him letters we'd written that cut off options and laid out consequences, including taking his daughter away if he didn't agree to go into treatment. When my father asked if he'd go, my brother replied, “Seems you haven't given me much choice.”
Today, my brother has fifteen Alcoholics Anonymous coins, one for every year he's been sober. I couldn't be more proud. Each fall, when he goes back to his treatment center in Utah for a reunion, he hikes into the mountains and slips his new coin into a small rock memorial he fashioned for our mother in an alpine meadow.
Last September, our eighty-five-year-old father and all five of us siblings and spouses went with my brother to celebrate his fifteen years. We hiked through quaking aspen groves to the memorial to celebrate our mother, too. I wish she'd lived to see us all standing there in that sunlit meadow honoring her life, my brother's sobriety, and the way he fixed himself.
GREGG KLEINER, Corvallis
Anything Except the Two of Us
The sound coming from my little record player sputtered. I was twelve, sitting on the floor of the bedroom I shared with my three sisters, trying to figure out what was wrong with it. Many times I had watched my father retrieve discards from the dump and breathe new life into them. For years, we had two or three televisions stacked on top of each other in the living room so that he could “raid Peter to pay Paul,” as he'd say. At least one of those TVs always worked.
My dad could fix anything except the two of us. He and I were doomed, I think, from day one. He was expecting a son after the three girls and three boys that preceded me. He was away, troubleshooting one of Western Union's new computer terminals, when my mother birthed me at the local hospital. Seven more pregnancies and five more kids followed.
I grew to hate him, especially after he took a lilac switch to my bare legs when I was six. I hated him so much so that I once put a plastic bag over my head and tried to suffocate myself. Another time, I plotted with my sister to poison him. He overheard only me.
Six years later, I dived into fixing the record player, tearing it apart screw by screw, piece by piece, carefully diagramming on paper the location of each screw or part I removed, just like my father always did. When I couldn't go any further, I put it all back together and plugged it in. The sound was still broken. Suddenly, it hit me like clap of thunder on a hot midwestern summer night: it was the speakers.
I disconnected them and did what I had watched my dad do many times before: I trimmed each speaker wire by about half an inch, then carefully bit into the covering and used my teeth to pull the little sleeves of plastic from each. I now had fresh wire, which I twisted and wrapped around the connection terminals on the record player.
Then I turned it back on—the volume up a bit more. Music filled the room. My speakers were fixed.
Eventually, it was memories like this that helped me fix my dad and me, too—although forgiveness proved a lot harder to finesse than electronics.
JO OSTGARDEN, Portland
My husband, Chris, and I were desperate. We had one month to vacate our rental. A family had bought our home. We had searched for three weeks for a place to live without even finding a temporary landing place. Then our friend Bruce called.
“Have I got a deal for you,” he enthused. “A woman wants to just give away her mobile home. She's tired of commuting.”
“What kind of shape is it in?” Chris asked.
Bruce hedged. “Well, it's a fixer-upper, but you're a handyman, right?”
It seemed like an answer to our prayers, until we arrived at the property. The arborvitae hedge had bald spots, the lawn was a dandelion field, and the flower beds grew a dense crop of weeds. Inside, the dark paneling was yellowed with cigarette smoke, the kitchen cabinets over the stove were warped from a fire, and the long, brown shag carpet was decorated with dog pee spots.
One step from living on the street, we tried to focus on the newer roof, furnace, and the abundant cabinets.
After work each day until late and all weekend, we labored. Each week brought unforeseen difficulties. The stove gave out. When we tore out the old bathtub, we discovered the plumbing connecting the hot water heater had been improperly installed. The drafty windows had to be replaced. The dimensions were never standard, so enlarging or framing had to be done.
“What's that minty perfume you're wearing?” a coworker asked me.
“Um, it's Bengay,” I said.
As the place took shape, after scrubbing, painting, repairing, and decorating, friends would come over and say, in amazement, “Wow, you got this place free?” Well, yes, but also no.
Twelve years have rolled by. We keep making improvements. When we sit in our backyard swing, looking at our part of the world, we feel a sense of accomplishment. Our nightmare work project turned into the ideal place to retire.
RAMONA SCARBOROUGH, Salem
Architecture of the Broken
I have an opal-colored, oval rock on my five-dollar rummage sale bookshelf, carved with the word inspire. My licensed addiction counselor gave me this rock on my graduation as a message of encouragement, something to turn to when times were tough. It made my triumph traceable and palpable, something I held in my hand after a difficult day.
One year and six months after graduating, I got a call from my counselor. I immediately recognized the fluttering frequencies of her sweet soprano. I had sent her a card almost a year ago to thank her. I thought she had forgotten about me, that I was just another faceless patient. But she asked me to come to treatment and tell my story.
Maintaining sobriety for more than a few months seemed beyond my outstretched fingertips. But I made it. And I would be on the other side of the equation this time.
Upon returning to treatment, I felt a strange alchemy of emotions: elation, pain, happiness, apathy, pity, gratitude.
Since I left the treatment center, management had changed. They had taken down the fading picture of a haggard-looking Pope Benedict that was plastered on the wall outside the cafeteria. My junkie friend Tom and I tried to steal that picture for a souvenir of our pilgrimage through rehab. We meant no disrespect to the pope.
Other things had not changed. There was still a group of young and old and in-between people hovering around the perimeter of the building, stitched together by billowing cigarette smoke and brokenness. The bathroom still smelled pungently like garlic cloves.
I was among the architecture of the broken. These walls seemed too sturdy and at the same not sturdy enough. The lighting was still fluorescent, harsh, unforgiving.
I spoke, fidgeting, shaking, and fumbling. The patients' eyes brimmed with the same emotions I felt when I was in those same hard-backed brown chairs. I knew how their bruised limbs yearned for tenderness and hoped my words might provide some solace. I realized how peaceful I felt among them despite, or maybe because of, their brokenness, because I am still one of them. Broken people know this without asking. It is an invisible thread that knits us together.
TESSA TORGESON, Portland
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