They say that my Grandpa Dale won’t be around much longer. Hospice has been called, and he’s ready to go home to my Grandma, who passed on 21 years ago. As I’ve worked to process that, I’ve been thinking about his influence upon my life, searching for the parts of me that may have come from him.
If I were to define Grandpa as anything, it would be a tinkerer. Most of my early memories of him involved the shop down the driveway from their trailer, where he would take things apart and put them back together, sometimes as Frankenstein monstrosities of industry. I remember a mechanical hacksaw that didn’t have any particular use. You really couldn’t cut anything with it that you couldn’t feed through by hand. Of course, for a tinkerer, the functionality of these inventions isn’t as important as the tinkering itself.
The first Christmas present I ever received from Grandpa was a set of pliers. I still have them, and they are sitting next to me as I write this. Most of you won’t be surprised to hear that I did not appreciate this “gift.” Whatever mechanical gene has been passed down through my family, it skipped me. I own just enough tools to get by, and none are power tools. I’m not handy, at all. I can’t weld or farm or hunt or build any structure that would withstand so much as a light breeze. I don’t fix cars or drive tractors. I can’t even drive a stick, much less a semi truck. Yet, these are the things that I think of as being a part of Grandpa Dale.
This Father’s Day, I went with my family to see Grandpa at the nursing home. He complained that they wouldn’t let him have his pliers or pocketknife. I shudder to think of what he might have done to his television, bed, or radio if he had them. He defines living by his projects, by constantly taking things apart and putting them back together again. In my memory, that was his life, whether he was at work or at home, hiding out in the shop.
That tendency to tinker is my inheritance, but I don’t take apart consumer appliances. I take apart ideas. I withdraw in to my workshop, just as I have done today, and I tear them to pieces. I examine how they work and put them back together. It’s probably the reason I keep taking college classes. It’s certainly the reason that I become obsessed with one subject or another, learning everything I can, before moving on to the next thing. See, a tinkerer doesn’t finish projects so much as he abandons them for new ones.
I often feel that way about writing. Dorothy Parker once wrote, “I hate writing. I love having written.” I can’t relate to that. I love re-writes, picking apart sentences, seeing which words work and which ones could be replaced with something better. I love thinking about story structure and how I can work callbacks in to earlier parts of the story. I love thinking about themes and how they work symbolically. I love the flow of the first draft, that feeling of meditation as you lay everything out the first time, just to see what you have. Actually finishing a story might be my least favorite part of writing.
I realize, now, that I am a literary tinkerer. If some nursing home took away my books and laptop, I would be smuggling in pencils and note cards. I would be diagramming sentences on the back of napkins and writing short stories on hidden rolls of toilet paper.
When Grandpa Dale complained that he couldn’t have a pair of pliers, what he meant was that he had lost a part of himself. When he gave me my first set of pliers that Christmas, he wasn’t offering me a tool, but a part of who he was. It has taken me a long time to realize that. As I step away from this essay, I am going to leave those pliers on my desk for those tough re-writes, so I can remember what part of me came from him.
I remember being at the trailer where Grandma seemed to always be working in the kitchen. When supper was ready, Grandpa Dale would come in the front door and go wash up. I like to imagine that is what Heaven will be like for him.
All the projects are finished, Grandpa. Go wash up.