I was in the yard building garden boxes for my wife. Tristan, my 8-year-old, was helping. Or at least I wanted him to be helping. Moments earlier he was in the house playing Minecraft on his tablet, and I had to, more or less, drag him outside. It was a Sunday, and the sun had been shining all weekend. It wasn’t too hot, or too cold. It was an amazing day to be outside, and yet my son wanted to be inside, playing video games and eating cheese puffs.
Now that he was out, and handing me nails, and helping me hold boards, all he did was bitch. Each sentence had a refrain: Are we done yet?
“No,” I said. “We need to build four boxes. This is the first box.”
Long agonizing exhale.
Tristan was in a red polo shirt that he usually wore to school, and a pair of gym shorts. He’d been dressing himself for some time, and although I often make fashion suggestions, little of them take. He tends to dress in contradictions, mismatches of formal clothing with workout clothing, ultimately making him look like an engineer on the way to the gym.
“Hand me a nail,” I said. “Then hold this board in place.
He sagged his shoulders, and then sulked across the patio to the box of nails.
“You know, Dad,” he said. “You could do this yourself.”
He looked me in the eyes when he said this. His face seemed to say, “You are wasting my time.”
I thought about how much quicker I could get this done with out his “help.” I thought about how working on a project like this would go much easier if I were alone, and didn’t have to constantly drag my son along. I told myself that I was teaching him how to work with his hands. This is a rare opportunity living in the suburbs. We don’t have a farm or anything. We don’t have fences to mend, so teaching my son how to work with his hands tends to manifest itself in projects like the one we were working on.
And I suppose I was teaching him how to work with his hands. But honestly, the reason I had him out there helping me, the reason I wanted him at my side when I built those boxes was because I wanted to have the father-son interactions that I never got with my own father.
My dad left when I was 9 and died when I was 19 from drug addiction. I never got to work on many projects with him. And thinking back, if he did want me to work on a project with him, something similar to building garden boxes, I would have done just what Tristan was doing. I would’ve bitched. I would have asked to go inside and watch The Price is Right or Home Improvement. But now that I am older, I hear friends talk about moments like the one Tristan and I were having. About how their fathers made them help with this project or that project, and although they hated it, they really enjoyed working with their fathers. I want to give that to my son. But I also want it for myself. I want to know what it feels like to work as a father and a son, even if I am now older and on the other end of the equation. And when I think about it in those terms, I feel like I’m reaching for something that is lost. I feel like I’m trying to get back something that I never could possibly get back, but will try for it all the same. I will never have the opportunity to work next to my father. But working next to my son seems close enough.
As we worked, I wanted to tell my son all of this. I wanted him to know what working with him means to me. I wanted to explain to him that he was helping me get something back that I long ago lost. But I wasn’t sure how to say it, and I don’t know if he is old enough to get it, so I just kept working with him, hoping that somehow, in some way, this would become enjoyable for him and he’d be willing to stay without me forcing him.
“I’m going to pound this nail in half way,” I said. “Then I want you to pound it in the rest of the way.”
Tristan raised his eyebrows.
“You want me to use the hammer?” he said.
“Yup. Just don’t bend the nail,” I said.
He smiled. Then he went on about something from Minecraft. Some hammer or pick ax or something that this opportunity reminded him of.
“Yeah,” I said. “It’s just like that. Just like Minecraft.”
He took the hammer with both hands, and began beating the nail in short, fast, aggressive strikes. He smiled, having fun with it, and although he wasn’t doing much outside of chipping up the wood, he was having a good time. Then he got frustrated because the nail wasn’t moving, so I showed him how to swing a hammer. I told him how to make sure to let the hammer do most of the work. Thinking back, I’m not sure where I learned how to swing a hammer. Maybe from my older brother. Perhaps I learned it from my father, back when he was still around. I don’t know. But what I do know is that by the time Tristan got that nail in place, he was smiling with satisfaction. And so was I. And right there, we had a moment. It wasn’t hugely monumental or life changing, but it felt right. It felt like something that I will tell others years from now, I feel confident that Tristan will, too. It was the kind of moment I’d always wanted with my father, but never had.
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Clint Edwards was blessed with a charming and spitfire wife, a video game obsessed little boy, a snarky little girl in a Cinderella play dress, and an angry baby girl. When Clint was 9-years-old his father left. With no example of fatherhood, he had to learn how to be a father and husband through trial and error. His work has been featured in Good Morning America, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, Scary Mommy, The Good Men Project, Fast Company, and elsewhere. He lives in Oregon. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.