Labor Day, 2017, I found myself in the attic of my home in Chicago. This summer we decided to turn the attic into an office. The last time it had been “rehabbed” and I’m used that word lightly, was in the 80s and the brown carpet and buckling ceiling needed to go. Someone had done a really good job of laying a subfloor for the carpet though, and there were probably 100 nails per 3x3’ piece of particle board, and on the day of my dad's death, I continued the task of sliding a crowbar under each of those nails, popping them up and tearing that board up, bit by bit, to reveal the original fir underneath.
This is not unfamiliar to me; my brother and I grew up with constant projects on Flora Vista. Our dad had quite a workshop in our garage, and if you wanted to find him, it was the first place you would look, the smell of sawdust lingering in the air, the musty yellow stacks of National Geographics lining the walls. There was always a project going on at FV, and Dad was the contractor; from building us our own mini dollhouse and barn, to replacing the kitchen counters with a matte french blue tile, to extending the family room into the back yard. He also played assistant designer to our projects, allowing us to remodel our rooms, choosing the color palette and materials, and hand painted the charcoal, black and burgundy diagonol stripes that I insisted must wrap my walls, and applied Josh’s plaid wall paper in his favorite blue and red.
But working on his own home wasn’t enough. The summer of 1986, my parents bought an old Victorian on State street with two other couples, to restore and flip. This home was a labor of love, my parents taking great care to restore what was already there, from the old oak floors, to each and every original light fixture. This home was grand: the front door opening to a foyer with a wide center staircase, rooms off both sides. To the right was the dining room, a place where we had our pizzas and sodas many days for lunch that summer, our chairs, paint cans and ladder rungs, the floor: our table. Beyond the dining room, through a small door was the kitchen, the window opening to the backyard, and the driveway leading to the wooden garage, off to the side of the home. Josh and I had the extreme displeasure of hauling that driveway, piece by piece into a dumpster that summer, and I must have burnt my hands and wrists a dozen times striping peeling blue paint off the garage door. This was our summer: Camp state street. I'm sure we both certainly complained; giving up our summer to this home, but I grew to love the charm of that home, the secret room under the staircase, the second story bedroom flooded with light and and the outdoor room we created under the old tree in the backyard. We were given a lot of gifts that summer: the appreciation of a well-crafted home, working with a team, attention to detail, and learning how to identify what is worth saving.
My father taught me how to hammer a nail (look at the head of the nail and you’ll hit it every time), paint a wall, strip old paint off stuff. Make things out of old, like the frame I made him from old flooring at our first apartment in Chicago. Tasks and skills, yes. But even though he never spoke about what he was doing, his constant rebuilding was a message to us. That there is worth in saving what is broken. With each project accomplished, we got to experience this value; considering it’s process, the order of things, the materials needed, the time spent; restoring.
We continue this value with our children, appreciating it in our partners; it’s why we mow our own lawns, paint our own walls. So when your family gathers on the deck you built, or your feet fall on the 100 year old pine floors you uncovered in your attic, you can find comfort in what you’ve created, because you know where it comes from. And that’s how we connect to those we've lost, to our homes, and our families, by rebuilding what is worth holding on to.