Rain Man

And the stuff that deferred dreams are made of

By Nancy Oakley


The handle of the snow shovel had rubbed blisters on my thumbs as I stood in ankle-deep water, bailing gallons from spring’s continuous déluge swirling in my father’s basement workshop. It is part of an addition to the house that he and my mother have inhabited since they were young marrieds 60-odd years ago.

It’s not large but the basement’s porous cinder block walls and unsealed floor collect moisture. Complicating my task is the sheer amount of stuff filling every nook and cranny, some of it methodically arranged, some of it cast any ole’ where, reflections of my 92-year-old Dad’s personality.

“We hit the trifecta,” says my elder sister, who frequently relieved me from bailing the excess water from the spring monsoons. “Think about it: Frugal Yankee. Depression-era baby. Accountant.” Which is how, in this unusually wet season as we were sheltering in place with our parents, we began referring to our father as “Rain Man.”

Normally the snow shovel leans casually against the wall by the door. Just above hang pruning shears that date back to my grandfather’s day, jagged handsaws and lawn accouterments. The cord to a fluorescent light, cleverly configured so that its pull string is within reach of the door, stretches to a power strip mounted on pegboard opposite; this, filled with hammers arranged by size. Nearby a workbench is littered with sandpaper, balls of twine, paper towels, old terry-cloth hand towels, various tubes of epoxies, an empty bottle of Goo Gone, and an avocado-green plastic tray that once held dinner utensils. To Dad’s way of thinking, you never know when these things might come in handy.

I’d look at this veritable museum of artifacts: the radio console from the 1950s atop of which stands a dust-covered dual cassette tape player from the ’80s. Half-used cans of paint, pieces of 2x4s and tarps are totally inaccessible because of the lawnmower, shop vac, hand truck and raccoon trap shoved in front of them.

The centerpiece of the workshop is my dad’s prized DeWalt power saw, another relic of the postwar era. Somewhere nearby are the original instructions with an illustration of a Brylcreemed man in plaid shirt and high-waisted, pleated slacks, smiling as he glides a piece of wood through the circular jagged blades. A far cry from Dad’s muttering and cursing, like the time he installed the blade backwards. Still, I’ve got to give my old man credit for cranking out some impressive items: bookshelves; toy boxes, birdhouses, a dollhouse; a puppet theater; and rocking horses for all three of my sisters and me, one painted red, the other two blue and yellow. (My mom still laughs at my sisters’ re-enactment of the Holy Family’s flight from Bethlehem on those horses, wherein my eldest sister commanded out to her younger sister — the one helping me shovel water — who was cast in the role of the Christ child:  “Jesus! Get back in that cradle!”)

Originally, Dad had wanted to make toys for a living, perhaps an ancestral calling of his Yankee cabinetmaker forebears, but my grandparents steered him toward a profession — considered more respectable at the time. So he deferred his dream, making stuff on weekends when he wasn’t obsessed with his sliced golf swing. Now frail and bent, he does neither . . . but still curses and mutters on occasion.

My eye next fell on a black painted cupboard, and I decided to take a peek inside, nearly tripping over a broken director’s chair (because, you never know when the wood might come in handy) and an old metal chair with a vinyl sit-upon that my sister made when she was a Brownie back in 1960-whatever.

The cupboard contained a couple of heavy metal hand drills (which frightened me as a child because their thin whine was so similar to the dentist’s drill). I was actually hoping to find a white jewelry box my father had repurposed. I’d shed it during prepubescence because it suddenly wasn’t cool anymore. It featured a loopy illustration of a girly-girl and the case’s delicate pink velvet lining cradled a stack of my dad’s finishing nails — presided over by a tiny ballerina in a white tulle tutu, who once had spun around to a tinny rendition of the theme from Love Story.

But it wasn’t there. Perhaps, in an uncharacteristic moment of purging, Dad had tossed it. Or it lay hidden somewhere under layers of sawdust amid the detritus of our lives — rocking horses, dollhouses and a puppet theater — props from a love story, told by the roar of a saw blade against wood, the whine of a drill and the whack of a hammer.

“Damn!” I muttered, as I closed the cupboard door, wincing as my sore thumbs gripped the snow shovel once more, while torrents of water gathered at my feet.  h

When she isn’t bailing water from her dad’s basement, Nancy Oakley is filling buckets of it from her apartment’s leaky ceiling.

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