(Originally Published – March 14, 2013)
25 years after my dad and I built a tree house, we built a bookcase. Each structure was profoundly simple in its inception, construction, and function. Each project was purposefully justified in its time, defended vehemently by its creators, and marveled at by all who gazed upon it. Each project was understood, I thought, by both builders upon completion…I could not have been more wrong.
Every 8 year old boy, if he’s lucky, will have witnessed several miracles in his short lifetime. In no particular order, they include the following. Finding, losing, and rediscovering a turtle. Surviving a jump from the high dive at the community pool. A stick of gum from a pack of Topps baseball cards. A real boob. Knocking your older brother down and making him cry…celebrating inappropriately. And lastly, watching a pile of lumber and nails rise into a tree and turn into a tree house.
I don’t remember any of the Graves children specifically requesting the tree house as much as I remember the idea of a tree house being planted inexplicably into our young minds. Before that moment I’d never thought about how wonderful a hot dog must taste when raised skyward in a basket and eaten high above the lawn. I’d never been worried about the very real danger of being ambushed by roaming bands of warring neighborhood tribes, and I certainly had not deemed it necessary to have a strategic vantage point from which to defend myself, nor had I ever, before that moment, realized that I needed a place that was completely and utterly off limits to girls. These realizations, which would one day prove to be our unalienable rights as tree house owners, were brought to our attention rather casually one day by a very unlikely source… our father. There was no dramatic speech; just a few simple stories about growing up as a boy in Michigan, a quick sketch conjured on a napkin (was this drawn ahead of time?), and the reiterated assurance that no girls would be admitted. When he finished, we found ourselves wondering, not so much why we needed a tree house, but how we’d somehow managed to live for so long without one.
As he described our new citadel in deep, excited tones, we watched our backyard skyline transform. Transfixed, our eyes locked onto his broad, sweeping hands directed at prospective oaks and maples. We asked about everything in our tiny tree house vocabularies; trap doors, rope ladders, fireman poles, secret storage compartments filled with stockpiles of provisions like canned beef stew, gummi bears, licorice, and Big League Chew (apparently survival would not necessitate any nutrition whatsoever), and we found with each request that any and all of these were possible. We already had the tools, the materials could be purchased right down the road, and the plans were already taking shape on the biggest sheet of paper we could find, but even the greatest architects must sit before a board to see his vision actualized. We knew that all of our newly conceived hopes and dreams rested on the only member of the household noticeably absent from our first official planning meeting. But dad would take care of that.
The negotiations took place behind closed doors over the next few days. From what we could tell, our representative was expertly making our case, but he faced a tough adversary…one who asked questions and who wanted details, costs, deadlines, lines of sight, reciprocal agreements toward future projects of actual value, planned obsolescence. She probably had ideas of her own for the structure (I know that she had ideas of her own) and much of his time was probably spent defending the safety of trap doors and rope ladders and the fact that we wouldn’t actually be living off of gummi bears. He is still the bravest man I know.
On the following Friday, it was announced that all parties had arrived at mutually agreeable terms and that we would break ground that very weekend. Not a soul slept that night…each for different reasons.
We all realize, at one point or another, that our childhood tree house was much more than lumber and nails, and that it was as much for our fathers as it was for us. It doesn’t take a philosopher to see such things. While we were holding (but mostly just standing next to) ladders and holding (but mostly dropping) nails…or throwing them at birds, he was teaching and testing, passing on information, instilling pride in family history. Life lessons…granted…but he also probably wanted to get out of the house for a weekend or two and hang out his own “no girls allowed” sign. He wanted to spend time with his sons, because lately he realized that he didn’t really know them and they were slipping away too quickly. He wanted to build something with his hands and leave a lasting impression on them. Every father should want that.
It took me years to truly understand why a floor must be level and what steps must be taken to assure such things, why walls must be framed plumb, why wood must be treated, why the order in which you build a structure will ultimately define the quality of that structure…why everything must be planned in advance but that you must also plan on improvisation. It took decades, but eventually those lessons sunk in.
Somewhere in that project, he must have also known that my life in that tree house would continue to teach me other lessons…that by giving me a place to sit quietly and be alone, I would have a chance to think independently…away from the noise a child growing up would face…and to simply think. To test my boundaries and my values, to learn how to fight the temptations that naturally come from a place of independence and privacy. What do you do when nobody else is watching? He wanted me to find out for myself. Who I was in those moments is what shaped me into who I am today. I think he knew that.
25 years later I don’t recall specifically requesting built-in bookshelves as much as I remember the idea of built in bookshelves being inexplicably implanted in my head by my wife of 4 short months. Before that moment, I’d never wondered where I could store cat figurines, wooden fish, jars full of seashells, lanterns, maracas, and also books…but I found myself wondering, not so much why we needed built-in bookshelves, but how we’d somehow managed to live for so long without them. Plans were sketched on napkins, walls were picked for demolition, and carpenter options were weighed….to my surprise my dad and I had already been selected.
“It will cost half as much, there’s a Home Depot right down the street, you’re really handy (and handsome), we have all the tools, you say all the time that your dad used to love woodworking, and I think it will be a fun project for the two of you.” The challenge was laid out before me. Who was I to tell her how difficult it actually would be, to explain the difference between myself and an experienced contractor when it came to a finished product, and that it would take at least four times as long? Actually…I told her all of those things… but she didn’t care. She’s little, but she’s tough and far smarter than me. Eventually, I caved.
You realize that you don’t talk to your dad enough when you go to dial the phone and he’s not a recent contact. I found his number, we caught up a bit, and I hesitantly asked what he thought about built-ins…specifically, he and I building them. He thought a minute, and asked what kind of wood I was thinking about using. I told him repurposed barn wood. He laughed a little bit, suggested 3/4 birch plywood, but agreed that barn wood might be a nice, albeit expensive touch. There was a brief pause, and the conversation took off. How many shelves? What were the rough dimensions? Were there going to be cabinets? Paint or no paint? What type of trim was I thinking? I walked into the room as we spoke and I could see the shelves coming together against a once barren wall as he described them in deep, excited tones. The details could be sorted out, but we needed to get plans on paper…needed to schedule a weekend to get started…what tools needed to be loaned or purchased? It was around that time that I started to figure out that only half of what my wife wanted was built-in book shelves. Only half of what my dad wanted to do was to build bookshelves.
As Graves men, we’re inclined to attack a project, to dive in…to walk up to it in a bar and punch it in the face. There is planning, to be sure, but we’ve learned over the years that our plans often find themselves abandoned like a sympathy prom date once we’ve realized that we’ve either screwed it all up or how much better we can make it. We need to see the thing in front of us, rather than on paper, to ultimately understand what it can be…what we can make of it. And so we dove in, we improvised, we adjusted, and our plans ended up crumpled in the corner as our project rose from the floor.
This strategy, or lack thereof, naturally lends itself to discussion and to discovery. While we could have divided up the process and finished in half the time, we were forced to work together to make sure our visions were aligned. In each measurement and each cut was the opening to a story. Every board needed to be stabilized and leveled by a father so his son could drive the nail. Each mistake and each success was a shared. We had to talk because we didn’t have a choice.
Because of us, and, at points, in spite of us, those shelves rose from a nondescript pile of lumber into a geometrically perfect (or damn close to it) 10’ by 8‘ tower of paint, clear coat, and determination atop which only God knew what would be placed. Some of the finishing touches were based on good old fashioned “it’s fine since you’re going to paint it” logic as well as “there will be books all over this thing, you’ll never see that” reasoning, but it was impossible to not stand back and stare in amazement at the finished product.
By Sunday, our house ended up with some incredibly adequate bookshelves. I’m no realtor, but I believe that when we leave this house, they will add value and the next young couple who steps in will quickly find that the first room they pass is their favorite because of these bookshelves, as will the next, and the next. Future tenants will surely appreciate them, but cannot possibly grasp their true value. Unless, of course, they’ve ever built a tree house with their dad, or built bookshelves with their dad, or married a woman who knows how hard it is for sons and fathers to really communicate.
As you grow older, it becomes increasingly difficult to fight the inevitable urge to gather information that has escaped you in childhood, adolescence, and into adulthood. Information that lies in stories, reflections, that will help you piece together who you are, why you are who you are, what hangs in that tree of which you’re a small branch, what you’ll pass on.
Sons and fathers don’t talk enough, or perhaps rather…they talk, but they don’t ask enough questions. Beneath the surface lies volumes that will help fill gaps, quell doubts, instill pride. All we need to do is ask, all they need to do is tell. Sometimes it’s just easier to build a tree house…to build a bookshelf.