Making Bookcases with Dad

As you’ll know from previous posts, I am a bibliophile with no wish to join a 12 Step programme that’ll cure me of the addiction. Like a great many addictions, it has been passed down by my family via nature (I insist there’s special DNA for book lovers) and nurture. To paraphrase Mildred Pierce, we bought books and were proud to read them.

When you have an obsession of this type, storage is a major issue. Our house wasn’t large, by American standards, and since leaving home I’ve always lived in flats. Space is finite, my lust for books infinite. Something has to give. The greatest sea change in my life has been my ability to perform semi-regular culls. Just recently I sent eight bulging bags of books to my local charity shop. Admittedly, I have to remind myself not to go in and accidentally buy them back.

My relationship with my father feels more complicated than my complicated relationship with my mother, which is one reason why I have been slower to share memories of him here. Let’s change that. I vividly recall making book shelves with my father out in our garage. He made the identical shelving units for our utility room and all the bedrooms in the house. And he used the template to create a floor to ceiling room divider to deal with the fact that our front door opened into the living room of the house, which for some reason he and Mom found unacceptable.

Who knows where he got the idea. He wasn’t the sort of Dad to need a garden shed and he was not one for spending hours in the garage pottering. Like his daughter, he was more likely found in his bedroom office, poring over a book or scholarly journal. So did he buy a DIY magazine? See this design in someone else’s home? Or did it spring from his fertile imagination?

I have no idea, but some of the hallmarks of his personality shine through. The units were sturdy and functional, they were not embellished. Their construction required a lot of “measure twice – cut once”, and they did not use any complicated hardware. They were always made of pine and stained dark brown, never painted.

After measuring the room, Dad would head to the lumber yard to buy long lengths of wood. A voice in my head is saying “two by four” but I don’t actually know what that means all these years later. Thick, sturdy planks, they were, and he also bought lengths of thick, sturdy dowels. He’d screw the thing together piece by piece, first the overall frame then upright dividers, so that individual shelves were not too long to bear the weight of our books.

Next he measured and marked out where he’d drill holes for the dowels – this is what held the shelves up. One segment of dowel, carefully placed, could support a shelf end on either side of the dividers.

All this work was carried out in the two car garage – emptied of vehicles – whose walls he’d covered in pegboard not long after we moved in. There was a hilarious/frightening incident transporting the vast sheets of pegboard, for they hadn’t been fixed to the roof of Dad’s Oldsmobile properly, and flew off onto the road. Or maybe the wind caused chunks to break off and take flight.

In any event, that wasn’t the first time.  I recall a similar mishap with a rocking horse my parents bought us. Not a sweet wooden one, like you’ll see in upper storey windows while strolling through the more salubrious neighbourhoods of London or Edinburgh. This was a metal, mechanical monstrosity called Blaze, and I loved it to bits. (Oh, look, I’m not having false memory syndrome:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blaze_(toy) – though I don’t remember mine carrying on conversations, like Mister Ed.)

To this day I have a mild horror of transporting things by car and a firm belief that you can never strap anything down too tightly. Imagine the family’s delight when bungee cords were invented! It meant the tent didn’t take to the skies like Dorothy’s farmhouse when we drove to Maine for camping holidays. This may also explain why my parents’ next car was a station wagon.

In one anecdote you can already identify the temperamental incompatibility between my folks. Mom was dramatic and volatile and more obviously entertaining. Dad was – outwardly, at any rate – much more measured, methodical and sensible.

We are a long time getting to grips with our parents’ complicated psyches – personalities that are independent of their needy, greedy kids. When I look in the mirror, and when I (please don’t puke) look into my soul, I can identify what I’ve inherited from both my progenitors, qualities both fabulous and frustrating. My mother always referred to herself as a “survivor”, though what she had to “survive” I cannot identify. All sniping aside, however, I know she bequeathed me a much-cherished stygian sense of humour that allows me to laugh at life’s awful absurdities.

But my sturdiness, I suspect, actually comes from Dad. Those bookshelves might not have been beautiful, but damn they were hard working and reliable. A bit old fashioned technologically, somewhat homely – in the American sense of being less than beautiful – they got on with the job and made it possible for us to focus on the really important stuff, the books they kept tidy in neat, unending rows.

Sturdy is good. Sturdy keeps us upright. Three cheers, then, for sturdy. And a big thanks to Dad.

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