I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
My mother is selling the house I grew up in and has told me to take what I want from the basement. In the clutter that remains from forty years of family life, among the boxes of books, childhood games, once-favorite clothes that no longer suit anyone, and unopened gifts from my first wedding, sit shelves of my father’s tools, which have barely been touched in the decade since his death. It’s vexing to sort through all my father has left behind, now appearing out of context. Atop his pale green workbench are scraps of maple-colored crown molding; two ancient electric drills made of yellow plastic; a cobbler’s shoe mount; and a quart-sized container that says “paint stuff,” though nothing’s in it. There’s a vise that’s been clamped to the table for my entire life. Five small storage organizers are marked with red self-stick plastic tape and raised white writing from a classic label-maker, others with white tape and black ink in his handwriting proclaiming molly, pencils, fasteners, small screws, brass screws, pull chains/closet snaps, a vestige of his aspirations toward tidiness. Tools carry potential in a way few other objects do, in that they are implements of improvement. They also require patience, as the work of making anything substantive is exacting and rigorous. Because of this, tools can seem heavy with the weight of expectations, especially when one does not know how to use them.
Ten years ago, we held my father’s funeral outside at the national cemetery during the Thanksgiving holiday, on a day that turned out to be bright with high skies and a sheer, gusty cold. In a pavilion that overlooked a frozen lake, two young Marines shivered in their dress blues. The wind burned our cheeks as they raised their rifles to the sky for the salute. They were firing blanks with weapons no longer intended for hostility, but the little explosions sounded like an ending. I picked up a handful of the casings and put them in my purse.
Sometimes I look at the shells and can’t help but remember the moment I discovered that my father kept a loaded pistol in the house. I was sixteen, and we fought about it because his gun did not accord with my values, and I did not understand why he felt he needed it. At the time, I did not realize my pacifist leanings were an indulgence afforded by my parents’ discipline and vigilance, though quietly practiced. We had not experienced violence in our curvilinear subdivision, but my father could sense the likelihood that it might come better than I could. I knew we lived in a suburban community full of unfriendly people, some of whom could turn shockingly bigoted at an imagined slight, when for years they had passed as placid, nearly neutral neighbors. I had little awareness of the risks that might appear without warning at our doorstep, how quickly those we brushed by in this aspirational town might recoil upon realizing they had not maintained their advantage over my Black family. We were middle class for certain, but we were not their middle class.
My father, a human resources manager in an automobile plant, and my mom, a professor, had chosen this community for its public schools, of which my sister and I made good use. At times racial epithets were hurled at us, but this was when we were young enough to keep from being expelled for fighting. Teachers and peers met our achievements with skepticism, but as we learned to anticipate it, their doubt in our ability was mostly surmountable. I was not welcome in many of my classmates’ homes. I knew their parents would not greet my arrival at their door with anything warmer than confusion, even if they’d put stickers from the local police department on the window to proclaim their house was safe for children in need of help on their way home from school. I instinctively understood that to them we were only fragments of people, metaphors that represented their own anxieties. We did not talk about the kind of risk this amounted to, my father and I, and we had different ways of assessing its possibility.
My father believed the gun was a practicality, while I was certain his pistol was unnecessary and told him so. I had been worried the gun would be used against my potential suitors. This was illogical given what I knew about my father’s gentleness, though I also knew patriarchy could seep into and defile any tender relationship. Despite his efforts to give me space to mature, I knew he could be incensed by my newfound expressiveness—for example, my tendency to leave my nylon stockings stuffed in the couch cushions after a boyfriend’s visit. At that point in our relationship, the gun was just one of the many things we did not agree on.
By the time I was in college, I knew everything. My father also knew everything but in an exasperated sort of way. We argued about ideas and values. Although there was a lot we did not talk about, in particular anything to do with my body, we liked to spend time with each other. I couldn’t always predict when his inflexibility would kick in, and I could be guarded because of that. I was ambitious to exercise my independence, but I wanted my parents’ approval. I knew he had taken my mother to the shooting range, and, deep down, I was annoyed that he hadn’t brought me too.
My dad did teach me how to use his tools. He did most of the repair work on our house, and because of that and his genuine affection for Sears, he acquired an enormous collection of hardware. I liked to go down into the basement to watch him rewire a lamp or cut corners for molding on his table saw. On Saturday mornings, he would take my sister and me to the local hardware store. While waiting for a custom order, he’d leave us with a list of nuts, bolts, washers, and screws to gather—the precise sizes listed on a scrap of notebook paper. I loved the smell of sawdust and fertilizer, the array of objects that could make things work better: a spool of heavy chain to fortify a tow, clean rubber mallets to lock a joint without leaving a mark, a wall of light switches that could grant access to the celestial by harnessing hundreds of lumens at a time.
With a smile and calm voice, he’d charm the salesmen who were suspicious of him until they couldn’t help but to extend a degree of warmth. He talked so much and with such enthusiasm that no one could doubt they knew what he was thinking. To me he was a considerate man, one who was always slightly guarded, who understood that someone carrying a hatred inspired by some abstracted agony might want to hurt him or his family. My father was prepared to respond to that threat. I now think his cheerfulness and beguiling manner weren’t only a fact of his nature; they were also ways to give himself time to assess the figures in the room, to understand his position in relation to them. I did not understand the reasons behind his booming performance, did not realize what luxury I had been afforded by his display. The privilege to be shy, to pivot inward sullenly with no intention to beguile or beseech, was his gift to me.
There’s a bookshelf with dozens of small plastic containers with lids of green and gold and gray, each one labeled with a piece of tape, the writing in all capital letters: lock washers, small nuts and bolts, drywall nails, 4D nails, 2D nails, three-prong plugs, paper clips. There’s a bag of ¾-inch black rubber washers shrunken and inflexible; an empty blue milk crate sitting on the concrete floor; a ratchet set left open all these years, its interior completely corroded with rust, the handle disintegrating. Knee pads, to mute the abjection of the most punishing tasks, hang above my head.
My father would loan his tools to the same friends who ribbed him about my mother going back to school for her doctorate, and to new neighbors of all backgrounds who noticed how well-equipped he was for all the chores of home maintenance. Perhaps at first they felt reserved about borrowing a plumb bob or drill bit, but in short time their hesitation fell away. Soon they’d be asking him to help them haul firewood or dump old carpets as they customized their house or yard. With very few exceptions (by that I mean the few other Black families who lived in the subdivision), those who borrowed his tools never invited him into their homes for any reason beyond a fix or repair.
My father taught me how to pass a football and how to throw a punch, and he insisted, likewise, that I use his tools correctly. As a young girl, he gave me practice tasks in the garage or basement on weekend afternoons, an invitation to work beside him, while he tended to his projects. I’d hammer a straight nail into the end of a discarded two-by-four or glue wood scraps fastened together with a red C-clamp that he would later check to see if level. If I hit my hand while hammering, he let me nurse the injury for a moment, then encouraged me to keep going. If I put pieces together askew, he made me pull out the nail and start over. Learning to wield tools made me trust my hands, which I now understand was part of the point.
I’m in junior high, then suddenly high school. I cut my hair shorter in the front for casual glamor like Bunny DeBarge’s and slept with it tied up in pink foam rollers, which hold the curl open in wide loops I can feather back with a wire brush. On a typical winter weekend, it was too cold to be outside, so I’d go to the mall with friends to try on clothes and eat snacks from the kiosks. My dad tells me, “When the boys try to rap with you, go easy. Smile. Give them a chance.” This is how he introduces me to the world of courting. Make sure to take care of the boy’s feelings is how I interpreted what he said. Deep down, I think he’s saying it because he does not want me to dismiss boys who are poor, restless, brave, and just a little bit silly like he was as a teen. It’s such a slight remark, probably said without much thought, but I take it in like a vow.
He said little about how I should expect boys to behave. His message, a tangle of tenderness and concern, made me think I needed to be more responsible to others than they needed to be to me. I realize now that when he told me to smile more, to put people at ease, he was also explaining how to get by without giving much away. It’s true I was often scowling, but this was because I recognized how often I was subject to scrutiny. That fact filled me with anxiety and dread. My friends, especially the white girls, compared themselves to others with a vicious intensity, and I was not interested in that kind of contest. I found it exhausting to track the shifting allegiances within my small social circle, and I grew distrustful of anyone who wanted to secretly confess to me who they no longer admired.
The boys, even the ones I felt safe with, made it clear that their bodies dominated mine. They pressed me into the cinder block walls of the school and pressed me into the industrial carpets during after-school theater workshops and pressed me into the dirt at the park. Their play was rough, but I was eager to participate in it. To be offended by their behavior was to choose exile from the game. I was interested in the boys, my body was interested in the boys, so I perceived this kind of physical control as affection. Because I was not strong enough to push them around if I wanted to, I grew embarrassed by my discomfort, which I also assumed was my own fault. The boys’ culpability in my distress grew more abstract, sometimes fading away altogether. I told my father none of this.
“Go easy. Smile. Give them a chance.” I spent much of the next twenty-four years going easy on all of the boys, giving them grace when it was not earned, including to that one who knocked on my dorm room periodically in the middle of the night to see if I was sleeping alone and then raged if I wasn’t, and to the one who blocked me from exiting the door at work because he wanted to watch me file his papers, and to another one who climbed up my fire escape and into my bedroom in the middle of the night because we had dated once.
Whenever anyone asked me to smile, I got angry. I resented other people’s expectations of my behavior, the ways they wanted me to make them feel. I worried no one actually listened to what I said. Already, older men I did not know chided me to smile—in the grocery store, at the gas station, at the hair salon where I worked—with unctuous self-satisfaction. Each time they told me to smile I felt at risk for oblivion, as if it wasn’t me that they were looking at but, rather, some bright reflection of themselves, some aspiration gnarled against their own self-perception.
I finished high school with just a few items in my own toolbox: a slender-handled hammer, a monkey wrench, a small level, a screwdriver/ratchet with a red and black spherical handle, which I did little more with than put together bookshelves from Kmart. My tools were inexpensive and not designed to last, but this didn’t matter as much to me as the fact that they were mine alone.
I’m in college then suddenly I’m in my early thirties, newly divorced and living in New England. On nights and weekends in the small bungalow I had purchased in the last hopeful days of matrimony, I pulled up the carpets, tore wood paneling down, smashed and bagged horsehair plaster with all my remaining hurt and fury. I carried a bad mood through lingering storms, the nor’easters that would throw rain or snow for days on end. A crack developed in the foundation, and so between the weather and me there was a lot of water in that house. One long night in the middle of a three-day storm, I shuttled ten buckets of water from the basement floor to the yard. Because I was alone and could not afford to hire help, I had to figure out the fix myself. The next day, I grabbed a hammer and chisel to open up the fissure in the basement wall. I patched it with cement before attaching a new downspout to the gutter in order to drain the runoff into the yard. By then I had an impressive set of tools, acquired over many years of living on my own, and the sense of satisfaction I got from constant repairs like this helped to buffer my loneliness.
Money continued to be very tight, and I lived for years with much of the house uninsulated, the freshly plastered walls unpainted. When my father came to visit, I asked him to help me cut the moldings for the doors and windows. To my surprise, he suggested that I sell the house instead, accept its loss as one more compounded with the others. I felt deeply sad about his lack of encouragement and told him so. I thought his unwillingness to work on it was only a reflection of his disappointment in me, in my inability to make my marriage work. Months later I would learn that he was gravely ill.
If I’d had more confidence in that moment, I might have also told him I was finally starting to realize what a travesty it is to be made into an object in someone else’s imagination, even if it’s impossible to know precisely what function you serve for them in their mind, and how it can feel like too much light has been thrown over you—at once a blinding and a dissolution—to be stripped of all associations and complements for the sake of their own comfort.
I might have shared how finally I understood my habit of giving too many men access to me they didn’t deserve. Of the unpleasant moments with men that left me diminished—I’m not talking about the heavy stuff: the nonconsensual sexual displays or sustained assaults—most of these offenses appeared first in awkward conversations, little frictions I thought I could dissolve if I behaved properly, if I could figure out what “properly” meant in time. One night late at the office, a security guard who was around the age of my father and with whom I had been friendly asked if I had more than one child. When I responded no, he said “If you were with me, you’d have three.” Apparently, I looked shocked enough to offend him, so he took to calling me “Queen” for the next few weeks, as if I crowned myself in my own mind, was mistaken about my own proportions. I began entering the building by another door, walking an extra block to take the skybridge in order to avoid another interaction. When I did run into him months later, I waved, walked quickly away, and smiled.
There was that time on the train in a neighborhood deep in Brooklyn when a man was loudly describing the physical attributes of all the women on the train car. He shouted across the aisle to my son: “Take your mother’s sunglasses off.” I shook my head and mouthed the word no to my son who, with worry behind his eyes, stopped reaching for my face. I smiled at the man. At the next stop, we hurried out of the car to wait for the next train.
Or there was that time on my way back from the gym on 125th Street a man said to me, “Ooh, I want to fuck you, umgh, umgh, umgh,” and followed me as I kept walking, walking. Or the one time a man attempted to pull me out of my car when I parked it just after midnight or that time a man crossing Broadway opposite me whispered “Mami” while he gripped my right breast or that time a fellow graduate student threw me across the seminar table in front of the class over a disagreement about the window or that time a man pinned me against the fence of an abandoned house as I crested the hill on an early morning run.
I know these encounters don’t add up to any physical marks to satisfy those who doubt the injuries were visceral and lasting, but they made me conscious of my body in a way I did not like and cannot forget. Perhaps, most importantly, they activated in me a hesitation and distrust that impacted my most intimate relationships for years. I did not share these stories with my father, and, like most men in my life, he was oblivious to how vulnerable the women they care for could be to hostile persons while having done nothing to provoke them. Like him, I knew trouble has the potential to manifest at any time, whenever someone wants to put your body in a place and position that suits them. It’s that turn that still concerns me as I think about it, not the violence that comes from institutions or directly in open conflict, but the kind of cruelty that mounts following a display of rapport for the sake of gaining access, proximity, or other advantage.
In 1967, the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders formed to investigate the factors that contributed to the deadly clashes between citizens, police, and the national guard in cities all over the country; US forces were in the early stages of expanding the war in Vietnam; and a white man had a heart attack on the floor of the metal fabrication plant where my father worked. My lean and handsome pop, who had been a college football player and drill instructor in the Corps, rushed to help. When he pressed his hands on the chest of the man who had fallen and blew into his lungs, he did so out of a sense of service and respect for the lives of others. Though I was still a child when he first shared this story, I recall how his voice grew thin with disappointment when he told me that the man, after he learned who had saved his life, confessed to coworkers: “I wish he had let me die.”
My father was a supervisor; the man he saved worked on the assembly line. Despite the fact that it was the heyday of the auto industry and everyone was making money, it was still the late 1960s, which meant a white blue-collar worker’s public declaration of dislike for a Black white-collar manager might be received as enough of a legitimate grievance. To be pulled back from the edge of death was not enough to make the man reject his seething bias, just as to see a bigot on the verge of death was not enough to make my father reject his own principles. For both of them, this self-possession may have seemed like a kind of power.
My father’s generosity was tested again in the late 1970s, several years after he had returned to work in his hometown of Hamtramck, a city surrounded by the city of Detroit. When another white man collapsed on the sidewalk outside the Gear and Axle, once again my father took measures to save a life, but this time, my father knew not to expect thanks from the second man or his family after restoring his breath.
It was my mother who told me that the second man spit in my father’s face after his resuscitation. My father’s integrity was never showy, so it is no surprise that he did not mention this, but for me, hearing these stories, his dismissal did feel notably sharp, perhaps unforgivable. As he cared for those bigots on the verge of death, I wonder if my father suspected that no shared feelings between them would be possible. I’ve tried to imagine if any white person among his fellow workers would have put their hands on my father’s body, their mouth on his mouth to give him air to breathe if the situation had been reversed. For the twenty-five years he spent at the plant, was my father always aware of how many people might choose to let him die rather than initiate this life-saving intimacy with him?
I cannot make sense of those disconnections, which are absurd and hideous. Instead, I prefer to think about my and my father’s stories and how they are linked together.
There’s a girl’s green and white bicycle basket with a plastic daisy—mine—with an assortment of C-clamps hanging off of it. There’s appliance epoxy to stop rust; a white can of gloss protective enamel; a spray can of latex concrete crack filler; four cans of different wood stains; a ridiculously puffy pink paint roller still in its packaging; a brand-new pair of black cloth gloves, almost stylish; a tangle of wire in black, blue, and red; and a nest of extra-long, brown extension cords.
Gone are my father’s deep brown eyes surrounded with the round shadowy pigment of overwork or allergy; his slim muscular build maintained to nearly the proportions of his university days, fit-tested by the occasional return to his high school varsity jacket; his soft hands which never seemed to callous or harden no matter how much he used them.
I think about other moments we did not talk about, losses that could not be measured. Like that time when burglars broke into our house, a little white bungalow in Flint, and shot our beloved German shepherd, Roger. “Roger” means “message received” in radiotelephone procedure. The cowards escaped without taking anything from the house, and my dad arrived in time to hold his beloved companion as he died. Message received. In that moment, the gun my father kept in a box in the closet carried the false promise of protection or usefulness as it served as a locus for one’s greatest fears. A blank.
That horror occurred not long before we moved into this house, the one my mother is planning to sell, and I know the incident forever impacted the way my father thought about home. He never wanted another dog after Roger was killed, not in the old house nor in this one, with its thick green lawn that serves to attest to its borders, the precise distance others should keep from us.
Naming violences helps me to make sense of the way my father and I have lived in the world both together and apart. No symmetry exists when we stand in our individual experience, and yet the stories of our lives overlap when we bring them home.
One night when I was maybe five or six years old, my father arrived home late after working the second shift or negotiating a contract with the unions. Either way, it was long after dark. We had finished eating dinner, but my mother had set a plate of pork chops and vegetables aside for him, arranged it with an eye for presentation. Obviously in a foul mood, my father picked up a pork chop with his hands and pushed the meat off the bone. Then he covered it in hot sauce, smashing it between two slices of soft white bread. “Get me a glass of water,” he demanded without a trace of appreciation for the dinner my mother had made. She went to the cupboard and filled a glass from the faucet. She walked over to him, but instead of setting the glass down, she held it up over his head and then poured it. I remember the water trailing through his magnificent Afro, through his mustache, and onto his shirt and tie. My father sat stunned and then he started to laugh. “Get me a glass of water,” mimicked my mother. Then she started to laugh too.
Down in the basement I’m still trying to decide what to keep. There’s a patch of drywall repair mesh; a twelve-inch blue plastic paint guide; a six-outlet two-prong power strip; a radial arm saw positioned regally above the table, a homemade cardboard shelter behind it to catch wood shavings as they leapt in the air; two three-inch paint brushes, unopened; a box of sharpening stones; a hand-drill; a folding ruler; a free-standing thirty-drawer storage organizer. There’s a try square made of tempered steel by Powr-Kraft in Saginaw, Michigan, which I grab because I like how it feels in my hand. I take it along with a butter-yellow, machine-cut wooden sign that had hung over my father’s workbench. It says, “Smile.”
Wendy S. Walters is working on a book about white paint, forthcoming from Scribner. She is a 2020 Creative Capital awardee in literary nonfiction and the director of the nonfiction concentration in the Writing Program at Columbia University.
Originally published in
Our spring issue features interviews with Tiffiney Davis, Alex Dimitrov, Melissa Febos, Valerie June, Tarik Kiswanson, Ajay Kurian, and Karyn Olivier; fiction by Jonathan Lee, Ananda Naima González, and Tara Ison; poetry by Jo Stewart, Farid Matuk, and Joyelle McSweeney; a comic by Somnath Bhatt; an essay by Wendy S. Walters; an archival interview between Barbara Kruger and Richard Prince; and more.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee