“Hold on,” she said, “I’ll just run out and get him. The weather here’s so good, he took the chance To do a bit of weeding.”
So I saw him Down on his hands and knees beside the leek rig, Touching, inspecting, separating one Stalk from the other, gently pulling up Everything not tapered, frail and leafless, Pleased to feel each little weed-root break, But rueful also . . .
Then found myself listening to The amplified grave ticking of hall clocks Where the phone lay unattended in a calm Of mirror glass and sunstruck pendulums . . .
And found myself then thinking: if it were nowadays, This is how Death would summon Everyman.
Next thing he spoke and I nearly said I loved him.
Always in acknowledgment of Father’s Day, I pull out a particular photo album that chronicles my father’s 1968 backyard project. This was no ordinary project, but like every other project he took on, it was accomplished during the daylight hours after he got home from his full time desk job. It consumed most of his weekend waking hours. He had been dreaming it up for a number of years, and then one day, grabbed a shovel and simply got started and didn’t quit until it was finished a year later.
My father departed this soil nearly 24 years ago, having completed umpteen “projects” in his spare time. A swimming pool built by hand for his family was undoubtedly the most remarkable. No matter what it was, Hank Polis dove right in to whatever he decided to accomplish.
He was determined to build a full size swimming pool, by himself, with his own two hands. He did use our little Farmall Cub tractor to blade away the first layer of topsoil, but the rest of the digging was by the shovel-full. He wanted a kidney shaped pool rather than a rectangular one, so he soaked the wooden forms in water to form the graceful curves. The cement was poured by a cement truck, but the sidewalks were all self-mixed in our own little cement mixer that ran off a small engine. The tile that lined the top of the pool was all hand grouted and placed, square by square. The pumphouse/changing room was built alongside.
I turned 14 that summer, not truly understanding how extraordinary an effort this was, but simply accepting it as another “dad” project like any other he finished through sheer will, stubbornness and a desire to go on to the next challenge. Now, over 50 years later, as an adult who is plum tired at the end of an office/clinic work day, I marvel at his energy putting in another four or five hours of physical labor when he came home at night. No wonder he never suffered from insomnia.
Once the pool was declared finished, a hose ran water for several days, and it took 2 more days to heat it up to a temperature that was survivable. Then my dad took the first dive in.
Once he had taken that first dive, he was happy. He swam every once in awhile, but was soon onto another project (reconstructing a steel walled gas station that arrived on our farm in piles of panels on the back of a flat bed truck, so that he could have a full size “shop” to work on indoor projects during the winter). It was sufficient for him to just to be able to say he had done it himself.
As I study the look on my father’s face in these photos, I am startled to see my self looking back at me, like a reflection in the water. I now realize determination and utter stubbornness can manifest in DNA in different ways. I have no mechanical skills whatsoever, but like my father, I always have a dream I’m pursuing, and I keep at it until it is accomplished.
Thanks Dad for showing me how to dive right into life. The water’s been fine.
And I did not lift up my wound and cry, Death visited here! I did what a child does when he’s given something to keep. I kissed my father. ~Li-Young Lee from “The Gift”
My father’s treehouse is over twenty years old, lonesome and empty in our front yard, a constant reminder of his abandoned Swiss Family Robinson dreams. Over the years, it has been the setting for a local children’s TV show, laser tag wars, sleep overs and tea parties, even a writer’s retreat with a deck side view of the Cascades to the east, the Canadian Coastal Range to the north and Puget Sound to the west. Now it is a sad shell no longer considered safe, as the support branches in our 100 year old walnut tree are weakening with age and time.
The dream began in February 1995 when our sons were 8 and 6 years old and our daughter just 2. We had plenty of recycled lumber on our old farm and an idea about what to build. My father, retired from his desk job and having recently survived a lymphoma diagnosis and treatment, had many previous daunting building projects to his credit, and a few in his mind that he was yet to get to. He was eager to see what he could construct for his grandkids by spring time. He doodled out some sketches of what might work in the tree, and contemplated the physics of a 73 year old man scaling a tree vs. building on the ground and hoisting it up mostly completed. I got more nervous the more I thought about it and hoped we could consider something a little less risky, and hoping the weather wouldn’t clear enough for construction to start any time soon.
The weather cleared as simultaneously my father’s health faded. His cancer relapsed and he was sidelined with a series of doctor’s appointments, hospitalizations and treatment courses. He hung on to that hope of getting the treehouse going by summer, still thinking it through in his mind, still evaluating what he would need to buy to supplement the materials already gathered and piled beneath the tree. In the mean time he lost physical strength day by day.
His dream needed to proceed as he fought his battle, so I borrowed library books on treehouses, and hired two college age brothers who lived down the road to get things started. I figured if my dad got well enough to build again, at least the risky stuff could be already done by the young guys. These brothers took their job very seriously. They pored over the books, took my dad’s plans, worked through the details and started in. They shinnied up the tree, put up pulleys on the high branches and placed the beams, hoisting them by pulling on the ropes with their car bumper. It was working great until the car bumper came off.
I kept my dad updated long distance with photos and stories. It was a diversion for him, but the far off look in his eye told me he wasn’t going to be building anything in this world ever again. He was gone by July. The treehouse was done a month later. It was everything my dad had dreamed of, and more. It had a deck, a protective railing, a trap door, a staircase. We had a open tree celebration and had 15 neighbors up there at once. I’m sure dad was sipping lemonade with us as well, enjoying the view.
Now all these years later, the treehouse is tilting on its foundation as a main weight bearing branch is weakening. We’ve declared it condemned, not wanting to risk an accident. It remains a daily reminder of past dreams fulfilled and unfulfilled as I look out my window. Much like my father’s body, the old walnut tree is weakening, hanging on by the roots but its muscle failing. It will, sometime, come down in one of our frequent fierce windstorms, just as its nearby partner did a few years ago.
The treehouse dream branched out in another way. One of the construction team brothers decided to try building his own as a place to live in his woods, using a Douglas Fir tree as the center support and creating an octagon, two stories, 30 feet off the ground. He worked on it for two years and moved in, later marrying someone who decided a treehouse was just fine with her, and now they are raising five children there. They are getting old enough to come work for me on our farm, a full circle feeling for me. This next generation is carrying on a Swiss Family Robinson dream that began in my father’s mind and our front yard.
I still have a whole list full of dreams myself, some realized and some deferred by time, resources and the limits of my imagination. I feel the clock ticking too, knowing that time slips by me faster and faster. It would be a blessing to see others live out the dreams I have held so close.
Like my father, I will teeter in the wind like our old tree, barely hanging on. When ready to fall to the ground, I’ll reach out with my branches and hand off my dreams too. The time will have come to let them go.