Building a home, building a life

This house we call a home nestles between towering pines and fir. It’s 25 years old now, built by the knowing hand of a 72-year-old bachelor…

This house we call a home nestles between towering pines and fir.

It’s 25 years old now, built by the knowing hand of a 72-year-old bachelor Swede who made it utilitarian and sturdy.

Sure, there are creaks to it and it’s drafty in winter but the view from the front window is exhilarating and we love it here.

There are mountains to the front and back. Just beneath it is the lake and in the summer we sit in the symphony of bird call, ducks, geese, loons, grebes and the occasional skreel of eagles and ospreys.

There are coyotes here, bears, deer and now and then a wandering moose.

We put latticework around the edges of the deck two summers back and a new set of stairs. The living room boasts a new laminate floor and we tore out shelving, repainted and put in a new wood stove.

Just lately we tackled the kitchen. There are no creaks to the floor now, it’s brighter and the appliances are new.

Slowly, one step at a time, we’ve made it ours. There’s something to the process of claiming a thing and refitting it to your personal specs that expands you.

Within the wood and tile and paint we’ve applied there’s a part of us and we feel it like arms around us. Home, in the end, is a construct and building this one has been both an inside and an outside job.

It’s all been a terrific challenge. See, I’ve never been a tool guy. In the home where I grew up I was never taught to use them. Instead, I was labelled careless and inefficient and left to lug and carry and trundle tools, supplies and garbage.

They claimed my manual dexterity was limited and never allowed me to try. The men, they said, would do the real work.

A bull in a china shop, they’d say. Or they’d call me a basher and a crasher, leaving everything in a state of dilapidation. It was all meant as a joke of course, but even as a kid I understood how easily judgment sits beneath the veil of humour.

It hurt every time. The male in me wanted to express himself in a masculine way but I was never allowed.

When I failed shop in Grade 8 I was belittled and laughed at. Then I was punished. I made an ashtray that was supposed to have been a bowl. I built a bird house that was crooked and uneven at the edges.

Everything I tried to do was made more difficult by the judgment I knew was to follow.

My adopted family came from farmer stock and using tools came as easily as walking. To them I was an oddity, a deprived sort, sad and unproductive.

When I left them the work I turned to was manual. I lifted things. I carried things. Because I had only ever finished Grade 9 there weren’t a lot of choices for me and if I thought of training for a trade, it was quickly dismissed by the echo of the judgment I’d grown up with.

Instead, I learned to labour for a living. I learned to grunt and strain and bend my back to unchallenging work that seldom offered any hope of taking me anywhere.

But I always admired the hardy look of workmen. I wondered about the heft of a tool belt around the waist and the feel of watching something you’d constructed reaching upward for the sky.

A part of me wanted that. But I had learned that tools confound me and that I did not possess the requisite skill to even try.

I went to work for a demolition company when I was in my late teens. It was tearing down an old brick factory and then reusing the stone to build apartments in a retro look that was considered new in 1975.

The work was hard and heavy. I slung a sledge hammer eight hours a day taking down walls and foundations. Then I sorted and toted bricks in a wheelbarrow.

Later I worked for a forestry company cutting deadfall. We’d buck up the trees the winds had blown over into 2.4-metre lengths with a chain saw.

Then we’d hoist the logs to our shoulders and walk them uphill to a spot where the skidders could get to them to cart them off. It was winter and I carried those tree lengths through thigh deep snow 10 hours a day.

In each of those jobs and the others like them, there was anger in me, bitter and hard and inescapable. I was able to do that work because the echo of those voices from my childhood drove me.

Every time I lifted an impossible load or swung a sledge or axe or iron bar I was striking back, using the masculine energy they’d denied me the opportunity to use.

It took a lot of years before I came to realize how fruitless it all was.

It took coming here and working side by side with my woman. It took learning to silence those old voices and approach a job and a tool with a desire to build something worthy.

It took bending to work knowing that I am not confounded by tools, only unfamiliar with them. It took someone loving me as a man and allowing me to be all of that rampant, inconsistent energy, to learn how to build something.

See, we don’t teach anybody anything by saying no. We don’t allow anybody to become all that they might possibly become by not allowing them to try.

We don’t nurture through judgment and we don’t love through denunciation. Instead, the tools we use to help build a life are gentle in the hands and easy on the soul. She knows that, my Debra.

So this house we build is solid. It stands on a staunch foundation. It contains within it the kitsch and curios of our journeys, the heart and soul of us.

We build it, day by day, piece by piece and I watch it reaching upward for the sky. 

Richard Wagamese is Ojibway and the author of Keeper’n Me. He recently won the Canadian Author’s Award for Dream Wheels.