When my son was getting married, I knew exactly what I wanted to give his future wife at her bridal shower. Though this was the 1980s — well before women were seen on TV taking down walls with reciprocating saws — I ignored her registry and headed for Home Depot. I picked out common tools any housewife would need: to hang pictures, tighten a pot lid, maybe build a birdhouse. I spelled out “Jenny” in decals on the red metal box.
She opened the gift while surrounded by fragile crystal, impeccable china, fluffy white towels, and sexy sleepwear. She was gracious about it, but I realized that I’d been more focused on what I wanted to give than on what she wanted to receive.
Over the years that followed, I amassed a respectable collection of tools, even buying an electric drill when I had to replace the hardware on my kitchen cabinets. But when my nephew’s daughter was getting married, I didn’t ignore the gift registry. I got them an Instant Pot.
On the day of the wedding, the groom got up, raised a flute of champagne in the direction of his bride, and toasted to her beauty, kindness, and intelligence. Then he lifted his glass a bit higher. “I knew I wanted to spend the rest of my life with her when I saw her cutting a piece of half-inch plywood with a Makita circular saw. This woman knows her way around power tools.” He bent down and kissed her.
I smiled and thought, Welcome to the family.
My father was a small-town dentist, and many of my high-school classmates were his patients. One morning a boy named Miles said loudly to his friend, “Have you heard about Dr. Adams, the sadistic dentist? Here’s how he pulls a tooth: he ties twine around it, throws the ball of twine out the window, ties it to the steering wheel of his car, and drives away.”
When I repeated this to my father, he was amused and quickly devised a plan: We lived on a farm that had been in our family for generations, and he often made use of the antique tools that our ancestors had owned, including a rust-covered hook with a sickle-shaped blade as wide as a snow shovel, used for hoisting logs. The next time Miles came in for an appointment, my father came out to the waiting room brandishing the hook and said, “I’m ready for you, Miles.”
Suzanne Ketchum Adams
My ninety-year-old dad is extremely bright and complex, but also self-centered, controlling, and manipulative. He has left a wake of hurt feelings, painful memories, and fractured relationships in our family. I’ve become his caretaker, helping him deal with a number of health issues, and I struggle in the role. I’m not motivated by feelings of love and tenderness but rather a sense of obligation and the acknowledgment that, if I don’t help, who will?
I keep a journal to manage my frustration, writing down my feelings about his sarcastic comments or personal attacks. One day, when I was journaling about a painful memory, I decided, for balance, to find some happy moments to write about. It hadn’t all been bad, right?
The list was short, with the most vivid memory at the top: When I was in high school, my dad helped me with a loan to buy my first car. He also cut a pipe to about a three-foot length and showed me how to fit it over the car’s lug-nut wrench, extending the handle and allowing me better leverage. It came in handy for changing a flat tire twice. I’ve never forgotten it.
I’m not sure whether he intended to instill self-reliance in me, or if he simply didn’t want to get a phone call saying I was stranded somewhere. But throughout my life I’ve always felt capable of tackling home-improvement projects, leading projects at work, or managing legal or financial matters where most people would hire a professional. It’s hard to feel much love for my dad with our bitter history of hurts, but he did give me my belief that I can take on just about anything, whether he intended to or not.
When word got out that I had both a pickup and a chain saw, I became popular with a friend and her elderly mother, who live on a wooded lot. Each time I was invited to visit for dinner, after I’d showered and put on proper attire, they’d send a last-minute text saying they had some fallen pine limbs that needed cutting or junk that needed to be hauled off: a moldy futon, a bent child’s bike frame, half-used bags of hardened concrete mix, tattered gloves “someone” might be able to stitch.
These ladies cared deeply for others; they often reached out before snowstorms to make sure I had enough wood to keep me warm. Since they had no other tool-wielding men in their orbit, I had a hard time saying no when they needed something. But as much as I loved them, the fourth or fifth time I was sent into their garage to load some cracked toilet into the bed of my truck, I began to resent their requests.
One evening after dinner they asked if I might like to remove a large tree on their property in exchange for the “free” wood. It was summer and still light enough out to see. They showed me a towering red oak that posed a real threat should it topple onto their roof.
I told them they were wise to keep an eye on it, explaining that red oaks weigh nearly fifty pounds per cubic foot. I’d dealt with a similar tree at my property by hiring an arborist who had the right tools, know-how, and insurance for the job. Even after two glasses of wine I had the good sense not to try it. I reminded my hosts that I was a middle-aged man who mostly cut trees that were already on the ground — this was not my profession.
I politely explained that it would likely require three sturdy humans plus a crane, and that they wouldn’t want me, or any amateur, to attempt it. I told them about an arborist I trusted to do the job. “He’s prompt and reliable, nice to work with, and has a degree in forest management.”
“Oh, I don’t want someone with a degree,” the mother piped up. “People with degrees charge too much.”
I took a breath, hoping not to betray my years of pent-up frustration with what I said next. In the calmest voice I could, I told her, “I have a degree.”
Asheville, North Carolina
I was born with spastic cerebral palsy. I went to a special-education school and had therapy to teach me how to get around and get dressed, but learning to feed myself and to write were both a challenge. The therapists realized that, despite my spasticity, I had control of my head. They strapped me into something that looked like an electric chair, then placed on my head a leather helmet with a pointer stuck to it.
I was not happy. A strong-willed child, I screamed and tried to break the stick, but the therapists insisted. This went on for months.
Eventually I realized what I could do with it. The more things I accomplished with the helmet and stick, the more excited I got. The therapists removed the straps from my body one by one. The helmet got easier to use and felt lighter, and I started to write on an electric typewriter and eventually a computer. Wearing the helmet became second nature. I forgot I had it on.
Now I write stories and create art with my helmet. I even started my own business. It gave me my life.
When I was thirty-two years old, my longtime boyfriend confessed that he’d cheated on me. Devastated, I debated for months whether to stay or leave him and start over.
To help me figure out what to do, I went to a retreat center to learn how to meditate. While there, I attended a free class in tarot-card readings. When it was my turn to pick a card, I pulled the ace of wands — a picture of a hand holding a stick triumphantly. When the tarot reader asked what the card meant to me, I said, “Nothing.”
“Are there any new tools you’ve obtained recently?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said proudly. “I’ve just learned how to meditate.” She smiled and gave me the card, which I tucked in my wallet.
I stopped meditating after that and decided to work things out with my boyfriend. We got married the next year.
After we divorced ten years later, I was wracked with grief, living by myself in a new city, trying to rebuild my life from scratch. My self-esteem and confidence were at all-time lows.
At the end of a horrible week in which I thought about giving up men altogether, I accepted a dinner invitation from someone twelve years my junior. He was visiting from out of town. What the hell, I thought. At least I’ll get a meal out of it.
Our date lasted twenty-two hours. We meditated together, and he encouraged me to overcome my fears and tap into my creativity. The kindness and love he displayed sustained me for months after he left, but the longest-lasting benefit of our encounter was the reminder of the power of meditation. It’s become part of my daily routine and one of my most effective tools.
The annual lumberjack competition at the Hardwick Community Fair in Massachusetts is mainly a gathering place for plaid-shirted men wielding chain saws, but at the end is a genuine test of strength and speed: the crosscut-saw competition.
When I was twelve years old, I agreed to be my father’s sawing partner. For weeks we practiced in our yard: “Just pull,” my father yelled from the other end of the saw as it bent and jerked. “Don’t ever push!” He pulled, then I pulled, back and forth in rhythm until one log became two. We gradually got stronger and more coordinated, but I was doubtful about our chances when I saw the brawny men we were up against at the fair.
My dad picked number one in the draw for places. I was wearing a hooded sweatshirt and shorts — not exactly a lumberjack outfit. That morning, while I’d gone to the vegetable competitions, frog-jumping contest, and watermelon-seed-spitting contest, my dad had been carefully sharpening and oiling his saw. I was nervous I’d let him down.
A hush came over the crowd as we stepped onto the sawdust-covered lot. There were whispers of “Aww. Must be his daughter” and “How cute.” Then we sawed through the log in twelve seconds.
It seemed buttery compared to the ones we’d practiced on, and my dad put his arm around my shoulders as we took our place in the stands to watch one pair of lumberjacks after another — all using the rusty, dull saw provided by the fair — fail to beat our time. I stood with my dad, proudly holding that blue ribbon in one hand and the saw in the other.
We repeated this act for several years and became something of a local legend. I believed I had superhuman strength — until it dawned on me that we’d won because my dad had the best tool. Unfortunately this dawned on the lumberjacks, too, and one year a competitor asked my father if he might borrow his saw. He and his partner beat us by a mile. We never won again.
Sixteen years ago my son Dustin died suddenly at the age of thirty-one. In a haze of grief and disbelief, my wife and I set up his memorial service and took care of the painful tasks that felt impossible but had to be done. When the time came to remove his belongings from his apartment, it was difficult not to become distracted by every item we packed, such as the toolbox we’d given Dustin one Christmas. We had put the empty toolbox under the tree, then hidden all of the tools to go in it around our house, like an Easter-egg hunt.
After Dustin died, I set the toolbox on the floor of our garage. Over the next five years I would use the tools when it was more convenient than going to my shop. Every time I put them back, I’d think, I wish I didn’t have these. I wish you were still using them. These thoughts sometimes brought me to tears, and I wondered if there would ever be a day when Dustin’s tools would not be yet another reminder of losing him.
One day, while putting away the tools and feeling my usual grief, I had a realization: a day may come when my son’s tools will remind me not of his death but of our life together. In that moment I knew I’d taken an important step toward healing.
Youngsville, North Carolina
My husband was away “folly hunting” for the week, a solitary pursuit where a motorcyclist sets off into the English countryside armed only with vague clues. The quarry was roadside oddities, ill-conceived projects, or inexplicable historic monuments, like an elephant made of plumbing fixtures, a house whose dimensions were entirely divisible by three, or a pyramid erected to memorialize a racehorse. He’d photograph his bike in front of each “folly” to prove he’d found it.
Meanwhile I was stuck working at the pub. One night, as usual, I got some unwelcome attention. I could have said something withering to embarrass the man in front of his mates, but I rejected him politely. He said he’d wait for me outside.
At closing, I left with my coworkers and looked around warily. The man was nowhere to be seen, but I took off as quickly as high heels and a pencil skirt would allow. I rounded the corner and saw a man I didn’t recognize in a telephone booth. He saw me, too, and he put the receiver down and started to leave the booth. I did my best to walk coolly. Perhaps he’d go the other direction?
No, he followed me. I strode along boldly, the sound of my heels on the pavement echoing off houses like gunfire. Whenever I thought he would be under a streetlight, I swung around and looked him in the eye. Then one time he wasn’t there. I didn’t see where he went.
Turning onto my street, I felt a sense of relief. Simon, the babysitter, would have seen me coming and already left for his house, two doors down. I let myself in by the side entrance, into the oddment room — a place to hang laundry and store things.
When I felt for the doorknob into the kitchen, I was grabbed from behind. I struggled, but he was bigger, stronger, and wearing a ski mask. I was frightened not just for myself but for my two-year-old daughter upstairs. Such a situation will squeeze the pacifist right out of you. I gripped my hands together and drove my elbow deep into my assailant’s gut, then grabbed a pipe wrench, hoping it would be enough. I was about to swing it when I heard a plea: “Lori, stop. It’s me.”
On his way between two follies, my husband had decided to surprise me, imagining he could introduce some fantasy role-play into our marriage. I could have killed him — literally and figuratively. He never apologized, but he did remark that he would no longer worry about leaving me alone.
While living and working at a Zen-monastery retreat center, I learned to use power tools, perform general carpentry, and drive a backhoe and a tractor with a front loader. We built a 3,500-square-foot building from the ground up. Memories of my fix-it-guy father popped up often during the five years I was a resident there.
One year I traveled home to visit my family. We played a word game, listing as many objects as we could in different categories. When the timer went off, we took turns reading aloud from our lists. One category was tools, and when it was my mom’s turn to read, she said, “Handheld eggbeater.”
I laughed and exclaimed, “That’s not a tool!”
I regretted it as soon as the words came out of my mouth. I had disrespected a skill she’d worked hard at: making delicious meals for our family, usually from scratch. I remembered her homemade meat loaf from when I was a kid: ground beef, eggs — beaten with a handheld eggbeater — chopped onions, spices, and ketchup on the top before it was placed lovingly in the oven. I also remembered how I’d avoided the kitchen, where I might have learned from her.
I never apologized to my mom before she died. I hope she can forgive me now.
In prison, where survival is key, we are often forced to innovate.
For instance, suppose your T-shirt has a hole in the armpit. At home maybe you’d toss it out and buy a new one, but in prison we sew it up — not with sewing needles, which are considered contraband, but with a sharpened staple. (They’re also great for tattooing.)
You can use a denture cup to grate a block of cheese. Just flip the plastic part over and run your block of cheese across it. The empty denture cup catches the shredded cheese, so there’s no mess. Voilà!
Colored origami paper can be used to dye fabric. You need a small trash bag, approximately ten pieces of the paper, some table salt, and hot water. You pour the hot water into the bag with the salt, then tear the origami paper into pieces and add it along with a white piece of fabric. The longer you keep the mixture inside the bag, the more color is absorbed.
Anything can be a tool if you know how to use it.
When I was seven years old, I became obsessed with miniatures, and I scoured the woods, my home, and my grandpa’s cabinetmaking shop for objects with which to create replicas. With my Brownie troop I built a campsite diorama using dowels, sticks, and fabric for the tents; popsicle sticks for the picnic tables; and pebbles to mark the edges of the firepit.
My attempts at making a dollhouse out of cardboard, however, were unsuccessful. As I piled shoeboxes on top of one another, the cardboard buckled, and the structure collapsed. My dollhouse would need to be made with wood. I drew up plans to make a six-room saltbox at a scale of one inch to one foot.
When my father saw my plans, he had the idea to surprise me with a completed house for my birthday, but he didn’t have a workshop or the necessary tools. He consulted with my grandfather, who said, “She’s got it planned perfectly. Why not let her build it?”
I had been in my grandfather’s shop before, but I’d always been instructed to sit in the corner and watch and, above all, never touch the tools. Now I was allowed to touch almost everything — except the power saws. As he showed me his tools, Grandpa wiggled his left middle finger, which was an inch shorter than the one on the right, and told me he’d cut his fingertip off years ago when he’d been rushing a job and not paying attention. It was a lesson I never forgot.
Grandpa did the cutting and showed me how to glue and nail. The dollhouse turned out just as I had imagined. I decorated it with leftover paint, scraps of tile, carpet samples, and wrapping paper for wallpaper.
I wish I could say I grew up to become an architect or carpenter, but my dollhouse was my first and last major project. I design furniture, as Grandpa did, but my husband builds it. Girls of my generation were not often allowed into wood shops, never mind encouraged to pursue a career in woodworking.
I’m happy that things have changed. When my husband and I planned an addition to our house, we hired a company run by a woman, who worked with us and refined our plans. We did a lot of the work ourselves, and I kept my fingers away from saw blades.
Mary Elizabeth Lang
I guess I didn’t realize how much I’d hurt his feelings. When I got home from work that evening, I found twenty or so drawings taped about the house, each of a sad face with a childish scrawl beneath that read, “I am sorry Dad, from Max.” He’d drawn a heart beside his name.
I still have one of those drawings, framed and readily visible in my home, to remind me that love is more important than possessions.
While my boyfriend was fighting in Vietnam, I got pregnant with somebody else’s baby. I was nineteen and living with my mother. This was my second pregnancy out of wedlock; the first time had been with my boyfriend. When he’d left for the war, I’d promised I would wait for him, but I was young and lonely.
I enjoyed the attention the new guy gave me: touching, sitting close, and being held. He didn’t care that I had a daughter and seemed pleased I was pregnant, but I knew my mother would be furious if she found out, and my boyfriend would never forgive me. I panicked.
Unable to hide my expanding belly much longer, I told my best friend, who said not to worry. She knew someone who could help.
We went to a public-housing project on the south side of town and rode a shaky elevator to the ninth floor. The door opened on a trash-strewn hallway. My friend pushed me ahead, and I knocked on a door. A woman welcomed us into her apartment and led me into a bedroom. Tears welled in my eyes when I saw the wrinkled sheets and blankets clumped on the bed, the clothes lying on the floor or draped over a closet door. I followed her instructions to remove my panties and lie on the bed.
I did not see clean towels or hot water. I did not see her wash her hands. Instead I saw her pull a wire hanger from the closet, unwind the top, and straighten the triangle like a skilled craftsman. I wanted to run, but I stayed. From a drawer she pulled a slender rubber tube with a hole at the bottom. She slid the hanger into the tube and told me to open my legs.
The next day I was alone and in painful labor when the tiny fetus slid from my body. I didn’t go to a doctor. Abortion was illegal and out of reach, except for rich girls whose mothers sent them away to have their babies. I was lucky to survive. A month later my friend took me to Planned Parenthood, where I received my first pack of birth-control pills.
My boyfriend came home from Vietnam, happy to be reunited with our daughter and me. We got married, and two years later I had a son. I never told him my secret. I never told my mother either. But whenever I see untwisted wire hangers or slender balloons, like the ones clowns use to make animals, I remember.
In 2014 my family and I moved to the small, dusty town of Kingman, Arizona. Only a few houses had been built on our street; the developer had abandoned the project during the recession.
In one of the houses lived Kimberly, who was pure Navajo, as she explained when we met. We quickly became friends and went jogging together, although I had trouble keeping her slow pace. She sometimes pointed out desert plants and explained their medicinal uses. Tumbleweeds often blew across our path, and I told Kimberly I hadn’t believed they were real.
“Oh, they’re real, all right,” she said, telling me about the hundreds she’d removed from her grandmother’s property.
When the monsoons came, my family and I saw the rain turn our street into a river in minutes. Weeks later we nervously watched an enormous dust storm approach from across town. We lived in a land of extremes, but I slowly got used to the wind and the sun. I even got used to the lack of trees and grass. At least I didn’t have to worry about weeding.
Or so I thought. When spindly green stalks sprouted between the red pebbles that covered our yard, the plants were so tenacious I couldn’t pull them out. They soon grew into small bushes. One afternoon, as I was pouring saltwater on their roots, I heard Kimberly say, “You need a shovel for that.”
I smiled, but I knew a shovel would be no use digging these weeds out of the rock-like dirt. “I’m just trying to trim them back,” I explained.
She raised her eyebrows. “You mean you’re not trying to get rid of them?”
I admitted I was, and she responded with one word: “Shovel.”
Months later, after the weeds had turned brown, I decided to try again, this time with pruning shears. The next thing I knew, Kimberly was at my side, a shovel in her hand. “Watch this,” she said. She held the shovel like a machete and then swung at the bottom of the plant, just above the ground. After another swing she picked up the plant and held it in the air. “See?” she said.
Suddenly I did. The weeds were tumbleweeds. I hadn’t recognized their familiar shape until now. And the shovel wasn’t meant to dig them up but to chop them off.
With the wind so strong, it didn’t matter where we left them; they would move with the breeze. So we threw them into the street and watched them tumble away. This plant, which grew so thorny and thick, had proved to be quite brittle and easily defeated — if you had the right tool and knew how to use it.
My parents separated before I was born. Raised by my mother, I had no insight into my father’s life or my paternal ancestry for twenty-two years. There was just a void. When I finally met my father, he was renovating his house in the country. On one visit I walked into what would eventually be his living room and found him refinishing doors with his shirt off, sanding and sweating, listening to classic rock on the radio. I was impressed by his strong arms and solid chest; his strength somehow felt like my strength.
He sat my girlfriend and me down to look at pictures of the years he’d served as a helicopter mechanic in Vietnam. He’d been about the same age then as I was on that visit. He was now a master carpenter, and also a gardener, a lover of nature, and a keeper of aquariums and small livestock.
Later I joined a seminary and spent years living in my head. After graduation, instead of starting a path toward becoming a preacher or a missionary or a religion professor, I had an impulse to work with my hands. I cold-called a contractor and confessed I didn’t have a lick of experience, but I wanted to learn a trade.
That contractor gave me a chance, and twenty years later I work as a designer, mosaicist, teacher, carpenter, and tile setter. I later learned that I have farmers and master carpenters on both sides of my family.
I was overwhelmed when I began my nursing training, unsure if I had the wit or temperament for the job. For the first couple of weeks I thought our instructor was saying “blood-pressure cup,” not “cuff.” A sneering nurse’s aide corrected me, validating my assumption that I could never become a nurse.
Over time, however, the syringes, catheters, dressings, traction counterweights, sutures, and IV solutions grew familiar, and I became adept at most routine interventions and even highly skilled in a few areas. I was moving into the role.
In a rural hospital in New Mexico, while still a student, I helped with a late-night birth. Secretly I got weepy at deliveries: the miracle of five people entering a room and six coming out. After I got the mom and baby settled, I went and found the nurse in charge. She was in a utility room, up to her elbows in scalding water and caustic soap, scrubbing the instruments we’d just used and seeming to take great delight in the work.
I must have looked surprised because she smiled and launched into a lecture about how we couldn’t just put the instruments in the sterilizing autoclave. They’d become sterile only if they were free of blood and tissue: every surface, every hinge, every handle had to be perfectly scrubbed.
I had spent my childhood putting band-aids on pets and the smaller neighbor children, dreaming that one day I could sail through the halls in white shoes and a perky nurse’s cap, comforting the sick. I had never considered this more subtle form of caring.
My husband and I bought a small house in 2003, a year before our second daughter was born. As the years progressed, we filled two of the kitchen drawers with tools, along with several boxes in the basement, on the top of a table, and areas on the floor. The tools were all my husband’s, but now he is dead, and they’ve sat unused for the past three and a half years. In the months after his death I found even more: a hammer in the bathroom, a drill in my daughter’s room, pliers on the mantel. I gathered them all and dropped them into a big box.
I emptied the tools from the kitchen drawers into that box, too, then filled one drawer with a variety of tea bags. It gives me pleasure to open it and look at this one tidy space in my otherwise messy house. When I proudly showed it off, my friend said, “Imagine feeling that way about your entire house. You can, you know — with a little work.”
That was three years ago. I still have only the one drawer. The tools collect dust. No one’s come along to explain to me what each one is and how to use it. After the city threatened to cite me for an overgrown lawn, I dragged the weed-eater to a hardware store and asked the clerk to show me what line to buy and how to load it.
I’m angry at my husband for leaving. He didn’t drop dead from a heart attack or a stroke. He died by suicide. It’s easy to blame someone who takes their own life, as if they had a choice. But it isn’t true, I remind myself. Depression is a deadly illness, just like a heart attack or a stroke.
Today our — my — house is falling apart. Pieces are coming off the cement porch, the kitchen faucet is broken, and the stove and dishwasher don’t work. Water has rotted the kitchen windowsill. The ceilings are crumbling in some places and stained brown from water in others. I hope one of these days to figure out how to fix it.
I had two fervent desires when I was young: to be a trapeze artist, and to be a teacher. I acted out my fantasies in my bedroom either in the sparkly tutu I wore to ballet class or with a handheld chalkboard and a box of worn chalk.
I bombed out of ballet by the age of seven, but my fascination with the chalkboard held steady, and I became a high-school history teacher.
In the beginning I was terrified by all the lesson planning, grading, and classroom management. There was no Internet, no photocopying, no canned curriculum — just me and the students. Everything that happened had to be created by me, and the chalkboard was where I tried to make it all make sense. If I was the person writing on the board, I had to know what I was doing, right?
The chalk gave me authority — and the ability to share that authority. Kids loved to write on the board, to contribute and take charge. I learned that if I started to erase something, it made them pay attention and ask for a delay so they could finish writing everything down.
As computers became widespread, I resisted adapting. I used my chalkboard instead of the electronic “smartboard.” Every morning I checked the tray to make sure I had chalk ready. I felt the powdery residue on my hands. I wore stripes across my backside from leaning against the board.
I retired after thirty-two years. I still miss the world where such a humble tool could change lives.
Irvington, New York
Unlike my father, my husband could repair anything, so when we visited my parents, my mom had an extensive “honey do” list at the ready.
Though not known for his handyman skills, my father was eager to help. When asked for a Phillips screwdriver, he dashed out to the garage and returned carrying two, saying, “I only have a Craftsman and a Stanley.”
Sunset Beach, North Carolina
When the COVID pandemic hit, I felt I had failed at life. My kids were all living far away and in various states of uncertainty. One was on another coast; one had stopped all communication; and my daughter, the eldest at thirty, was living alone in a cabin in the woods. I had been so busy trying to keep things afloat while they were growing up that I’d forgotten to teach them the skills they’d need to function in the world.
I hadn’t created family traditions. I hadn’t known how to give them a happy childhood. I felt thoroughly alone with my husband, as if we didn’t even know each other. My job in pediatrics had been my refuge, but now my office was the loneliest place on the planet. I thought a lot about dying.
Then one day my husband found my mother’s old meat grinder in the basement. Its heft and rusty steel blades brought back happy childhood memories of Thanksgiving: my mother pushing cooked chicken livers and hard-boiled eggs through the chute and telling me how strong I was as I turned the crank. I could smell the fragrant onions and see the liver wriggling out of the grating. My mother would put on her lipstick and her best outfit and serve the chopped liver in a delicate china bowl with fancy crackers. For that one evening we were a happy family.
I had no idea if the meat grinder still worked, or if anyone would be coming home for the holidays ever again, but giving it a space on the shelf helped me feel better.
A few months later, at Thanksgiving, my daughter brought home a new girlfriend. She was beautiful and smart — and excited to try chopped liver. We clamped the grinder to the countertop, and she worked the crank while I added the liver, eggs, and onions. When the mush came wriggling through, we gave a little cheer. She suggested we do this every Thanksgiving, and I felt something in my throat: I wasn’t too late. This was how family traditions were made. I could feel my mother close. I hadn’t failed after all.
I ended up with three things that had belonged to my father, Max: his harmonica, his prayer shawl, and his makeshift hammer. I got the tallis and the harmonica from my mother after his death, but my father had given me the hammer himself when I’d left home at seventeen. I’ve carried that hammer through college, marriage, and divorce; through four apartments, three houses, and six jobs. I call it “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” after the Beatles song.
As a tool it’s useless. The head is taped to the handle, the tape brittle and falling off. It’s not heavy enough to drive even the smallest nail, and the head wiggles at the slightest movement. “It’s not a hammer. It’s ridiculous,” says my partner, who does beautiful carpentry in his workshop with real tools. He can’t believe I regard it as an actual implement. “It’s not to be used,” he says.
He’s right. This not-hammer is less effective than the heel of a shoe. But I can’t throw it away.
Beneath his smiling exterior, my father was meek, frustrated, and unable to make things happen. He never managed to vacation in Florida or buy a home on Long Island, like so many of the other families in our Queens neighborhood. He didn’t own a sleek Thunderbird or a fancy Manhattan apartment, like his older brother. And he was never able to get help for my sister, whose mental disabilities remained undiagnosed his entire life.
The hammer, like the man, is ineffectual. And yet I loved my father intensely. So I keep this silly, useless, makeshift tool.
Loudonville, New York
Nipple clamps. Check. Handcuffs. Check. Anal beads. Studded dog collars. Zippered face masks. Dildos. Catholic-schoolgirl uniform. Liability waivers. NDAs. Emergency-contact forms. Check, check, check.
For six years I worked as a dominatrix. My tools went into one small trunk, and the clothing went into another. A car would pick me up and take me to a remote mansion, a suburban neighborhood, a yacht, a warehouse. Most of my clients were men, but sometimes I worked with couples, even groups. I had my regulars.
I had a few nonnegotiable rules: Fill out all forms, which had to be witnessed and notarized. Cash up front. Safety first. And, most important, don’t ever touch me — although, if they were well behaved, I might let them lick the sole of my boot.
I work as a cashier at a hardware store on an island of just a few thousand people — mostly wealthy retirees — off the southern coast of New Jersey. I’m trained to be pleasantly curious: I ask scripted questions with the goal of upselling safety equipment or signing customers up for credit lines.
But no, this customer doesn’t need to upgrade to a business account; he owned the bakery across the street for twenty-five years, and now his skin is too sensitive to bear the heat of industrial ovens. And though another customer doesn’t need safety goggles or a work lamp, she’ll show you a picture of her granddaughter who’s graduating with honors from the local high school.
When I first started cashiering, I wasn’t always sure what to do with this information. When I have no product to recommend, what am I providing?
The answer came in a rainstorm. My slow day was interrupted when one of my regulars swaggered in, graying hair plastered to his cheeks. He was on his way home from work, he explained, and had suddenly remembered the name of his first dog: Molly.
Two shifts prior I had asked him about a project he was working on: a doghouse for his sweet but stupid hunting hound that was nothing like his first. “You never forget a good dog,” he said, then seemed embarrassed that he couldn’t remember her name.
You can’t sell intimacy as part of a forty-five-piece tool set, but it can arise from scripted questions if that’s what you truly need. Hardware isn’t always what my customers are seeking.
As a child I didn’t know my dad very well. He worked long hours in the Air Force and traveled for months at a time. Whenever we moved — and we moved a lot — he would hang shelves and pictures in the new space to make it home. I avoided being his “get,” who stood by the ladder and needed to know the difference between a Phillips and a flathead. It bored me, and I had books to read.
Those homes were places I occupied, not places I lived. Why did Dad get to put up pictures, and I didn’t? Probably because he wanted to know every nail hole so he could fill them when we left. (With rented walls you needed to leave everything spotless.) Or maybe he didn’t trust his teenage daughter with a hammer.
Dad spent his free time on building projects. He installed floor-to-ceiling shelves in a bathroom in a single day: there was nothing there when I left for junior high that morning, and they were wholly finished when I returned. When my younger sister entered high school, he constructed a bed, bookshelf, and desk for her, working from a picture she’d seen in a magazine. He made it seem easy.
I married young and moved away. I didn’t live close to my parents again until Dad was in his seventies and I was in my late forties. I bought a house and learned that fix-it projects quickly defeated me. I didn’t have the tools or the skills. But Dad did.
Soon I was gratefully handing him a keyhole saw and learning how to use it. He started buying me tools for Christmas and birthdays. Small victories gave me the courage to tackle renovating my kitchen. Dad brought his jigsaw, and together we installed the engineered hardwood. As we worked, Dad told me about his travels with the Air Force, his time at Camp Letts as a Boy Scout and later as a counselor, hearing tigers roar in the jungle at night in Thailand, and traveling around Spain with his single Spanish phrase: “Una cerveza, por favor” — One beer, please. Our work wasn’t always professional grade, but it repaired our relationship.
My dad is in his eighties and has cancer. He still helps me with home repairs, only now I’m on the ladder, and he’s handing me the screwdriver.
Glen Burnie, Maryland