When I was a kid, I was like any other: I liked to take a ride in the car—go do errands, whatever needed getting—but my mom never drove. She never got past the parallel parking jitters & besides, there were costs involved that made it not seem worth it. It was always my dad. It was always a bit of an adventure; sitting behind him where I could see the scenery whiz by, watch him light a cigarette, stick his arm out the window to signal, fiddle with the radio dial, argue with mom.
Problem was, they seemed always to need the hardware store for something.
I hated the hardware store.
I was bored out of my skull; it smelled dry & greasy. The aisles were stacked with stuff I had absolutely no interest in whatsoever—not even to pick up & examine, or read the boxes & check out the features—nope. All I wanted was to get the hell out of there. I probably was a pain in the butt—wanting ice cream or some such treat. Probably whined a good deal, although I was not prone to tantrums; sulking was my game.
There were a considerable number of things that needed attention at 'home', once my parents actually owned a house, & my dad was a one-man show. Coming from a father who had built everything—houses, barns, chicken coops, furniture, wagons, fencing—from scratch without using so much as a whiff of electricity, there were serious skills involved. Men required tools, material, plans & enough follow-through to keep the wife from nagging. Dad had these skills & more. He had the ability to create something striking, something original; often not practical—our backyard picnic table & benches were a wonderful sight, but they stayed right where they were, beautiful to behold & so heavy he could barely move them himself.
He did not skimp on quality; the patio was a lovely herringbone pattern of bricks & mortar, with cutouts near the house so mom could plant dichondra next to the kitchen & hollyhocks around the back. He terraced the yard so that below there was nice expanse of lawn, surrounded by a redwood fence; this all was accomplished from nothing. The houses in our little California tract were built on orchards bulldozed & gouged out, just in time for the returning soldiers from WWII to establish their families.
So here was this guy, stuck out in the middle of a suburb, with a fairly boring job, a wife & a couple of kids—& even if I was pretty young, I could tell that going to the hardware store was a thing this man enjoyed. Something he looked forward to, though he couldn't afford fancy expensive tools—they were going to be decent, but affordable. Yet his final product was going to say something about his innate abilities, his focus on the aesthetic. In this, he was going to agree with his wife: certain aspects of their lives were shaped by their surroundings, & even though ultimately the goal of a bourgeois existence was not something they shared—my dad wanted to be Robert Preston & my mom wanted to know the butcher & the baker by name—they did have an appreciation of beauty & art.
For example: if we were on the road somewhere farflung, why did he stop the car when she called out 'O, look! An interesting shop!' She didn't have any money. He would sigh heavily & pull out his billfold & we'd end up taking home whatever treasure she had uncovered with that unerring nose for gems amidst the junk—a genuine Navaho rug, a beat-up old trunk dating from an impossible 3 centuries ago, a set of obscure lithographs, some hand-painted plates—all for next to nothing because she never let on what she was interested in & she learned the rhythm of the establishment as soon as she entered it: if it didn't feel right, it probably wasn't. This is not including the items found by the side of the road, hoisted into our vehicle & rehabilitated in the workshop at home.
Loaded down bit by bit, our house took on the creative aspect of interior decoration meaning my mother could do something besides try to fit in with her American neighbors at the kaffeeklatches. She specialized in stuff that withstood the test of time—no gilt in our parlor. A couple of French friends came by occasionally & her domicile was as close as she could get to the real thing without being there. I remember being distinctly shocked by my buddy's house—two doors down—and wondering why it looked so different. I didn't identify antiques as such; I just lived with them.
My father was a dreamer; he parked himself on the settee with his Horner accordion, lugged over from Paris when they moved back in '48, noodling in a sort of soft unfocused revisiting of old tunes, getting bored before they were finished, or maybe just drifting with thought & changing songs absent-mindedly. Since he always loved music, it's always been a mystery to me why he boasted of his perfect pitch, yet held it so lightly, as though if he were to lift an instrument—his violin or guitar or that damned accordion—too expertly, too passionately, it would break his heart.
The last house my family lived in together was a flat, spread-out ranch-style & it was the last place I saw my grandfather. Somehow the urge to rip the place apart & re-do some aspects of this dwelling seized my mom with a frenzy; both my grandparents came out from Missouri to stay for several months. Lumber was purchased, & nails & flooring & paint & roofing. My dad helped on weekends; managed to open a vein with a staple gun—maybe it was a sign of being out of practice—& there were some loud disagreements, but mostly Grandpa just plugged away in his methodical, no-nonsense fashion: no finesse, certainly, which came to be a problem for the lady-of-the-house. She was diplomatic, though, & mostly got her way, but at the end of the day, it was a disappointment; still the anti-France, where you can't get good peaches & there's no fresh fish.
My dad finally left it all anyway; if he couldn't be who he wanted to be, at least he'd be away from all that history.
And I have come to love hardware stores.