HO scale locomotives have tiny screws requiring equally minuscule screwdrivers. When you’re at the age when you can’t see things close up, fastening is maddening. More than half the time a screw will fall inside the engine, adhering to the motor, a very large magnet seeking to devour anything made of metal. The other half of the time a screw will drop on the floor or fly through the air to land below me, six feet or a mile away; it doesn’t matter, I’ll never find it. It will hide away, waiting to mock me in the mangled suction of the vacuum.
It is a complete mystery to me that my father was able to assemble an entire set of valve gear with his thick fingers, his hands shaking from what was diagnosed in his early 40s as “essential tremor”. Since his death I’ve realized the tremor may have been a side effect of his service as a Naval Salvage Diver. Despite this surprising dexterity, my father was completely chaotic when it came to organizing his hand tools. “Yes, I know I have a 3/8” socket, it might be upstairs or in the basement…or maybe in the garage,” he’d wonder out loud. Hours later, he’d fish out two of them, slightly rusted, from under the kitchen sink. He was considerably worse when it came to hardware, especially screws. Little, tiny screws..
Now that I’ve spent a year and a half of selling his collection, I’m at the point of trying to decide whether to fix/assemble certain items or sell them as is. “Hey,” I think, “How difficult can it be to attach a truck to a tender?” It would be easy—if the screws for attaching trucks were in a little plastic container marked “Tender Truck Screws”—but they’re not; they are all over the place in small boxes and bags, mixed in with larger and smaller screws, wheels, couplers, and assorted detailing parts. It’s as if he threw every spare part smaller than a half inch into a stand mixer, poured the “batter” into little cupcake tins, and left them for me.
Sometimes I find myself cursing him, angry at the mess he left behind. I’ll say out loud to him, “Why were you so meticulous with certain things, and absolutely careless with others?” “Why didn’t you teach me how to attach these stupid little screws?” But then I’ll open a box to find a locomotive and tender carefully nestled in foam, with all the detailing parts in small, sealed bags, and a note—written in his block drafting letters—listing everything that is missing or needing to be done.
What really gets me is that there is no empty space on the paper, as if he’d cut it after he wrote the note so that it would be precise, taking up no more space than necessary.
A good friend of mine who recently lost her spouse—and mother just 2 months later—laments, “Why!? Why didn’t I ask/say/do this or that when I had the chance?” Sometimes I think the same thing about my Dad. Why wasn’t I interested in his trains? Why didn’t I ask him more about his time in the Navy? Why was I so mad at him? In his book, A River Runs Through It, Norman MacLean answers, “It is those we live with and love and should know who elude us.” This is one of grief’s hard lessons; even harder may be the realization that we are strangers to ourselves. We exist in relationship to others; when they’re gone, who are we, really? Who were they?
After my father died, I put my own hands into the gloves of his hobby—his life, really—and in return I have learned more about him than I’d otherwise have known. It doesn’t matter why he didn’t do or I didn’t say, because I know now that I really loved him, perhaps more than when he was alive. Part of that love means recognizing that he was a complex and remarkable man whose love for his family—and me—ran quiet and deep. Another part is accepting his flaws without understanding them and realizing that it’s okay to feel angry with him at times. And I suppose the hardest thing of all is to accept who I am right now, right here, because I’ll never completely understand myself either.
As another screw snickers through the air, pinging to the floor behind a shelf on the other side of the room, I smirk, “Oh screw you Dad!” I can almost hear him laughing.