Dear eeaders: My father died last week. Though heart-breaking, this wasn’t unexpected. Dad was 90. In his memory, I’m re-running a column I wrote about him, which ran in 2005. It’s a tribute to great dads and to the American garage.
My dad was a garage kind of guy. As a girl, I remember him there more than anywhere else around the house. He’d spend hours in his workshop/man cave tinkering, working on the family cars and giving quiet advice. I’d settle in next to him, because here in the garage, in his masculine domain, he talked.
To hear a complete sentence from Dad was as rare as hearing the call of an endangered bird in the rainforest. For every 10 words my parents spoke, Mom said nine. But in the garage, I could hear first hand where Dad stood on matters large and small.
And I tuned in. If it weren’t for our garage conversations, I wouldn’t have heard some of the best life advice I ever got. Though always car related, the messages, we both knew, had broader applications:
Turn off your radio once in a while and listen.
Always keep your eye on your pressures and your treads.
Watch the car two cars ahead.
Drive in the center lane so you have two ways out.
Steer clear of cars with dents and out-of-state plates.
Don’t run the air when you can put the windows down.
Buy American, buy miles.
Axle grease is like sex, great in the right place, say on a differential or in a marriage, but in the wrong place it’s just dirt and smut.
Axle grease. Sex. Got it.
I was glad he was under the car hood when he said this, because I felt the blush in my cheeks rise to the tips of my ears.
Like most attached garages built in the 1960s and since, ours dominated the front of my childhood home like a nose, and served as a bridge between street and nest. The two-car structure smelled like wet rope and sawdust, kind of like Dad. Cement floors, raw wood rafters and a wood plank set the color scheme – dirt brown and gunmetal gray.
Cat litter coated the oil spots. Old coffee cans and jars filled with nails, bolts, screws and Tums lined the workbench.
Because like most California homes, our house had neither a basement nor an attic, the garage had junk sprouting from its walls and rafters: a sawed-off leg cast (mine), a church friend’s awful oil painting, a punched-out tennis racquet, an old slide projector with the Grand Canyon slides still in, a paper maché bust of John Lennon (my rocker brother’s) and errant strands of Christmas lights falling from the rafters like ivy.
“Hurry!” Mom would yell. “Shut the garage door before the company comes!”
True, the place was pretty unseemly, and the door — to Mom’s humiliation — was usually wide open. Any kid who needed his bike repaired could pull up to our garage for a fix. Grown-up neighbors, too, would come by, ostensibly to borrow a tool, but really to talk about stuff like liver tumors and drinking problems.
It was that kind of neighborhood. That kind of garage. That kind of dad.
For Dad, the room between his house and the world was a buffer zone, a place he worked out the stresses from his engineering job or an argument with Mom, though I never heard one. It was a port for me, too. When the heat in the house got too hot, and the world outside seemed too cold, I’d hang here with Dad. I’d sit on a high metal stool and listen, back in the days before ear buds and smart phones.
Garage design has come a long way since then. Today’s garages are buff. Some sport industrial carpet or painted floors. They have spiffy pegboard walls displaying tools men own but don’t use. They have sound systems, televisions and sleek laminate cabinets to hold designer sports equipment.
Many look immaculate, but are finally just fancy car barns. To many homeowners, garages are just a place for parking and storage. And that’s too bad.
The men I know today are not garage kind of guys. I don’t know many men this side of 60 who can weld or change spark plugs or reassemble a garbage disposal. That’s not a criticism. It’s simply a fact of the times. Likewise, I don’t sew my own curtains or make pie crust from scratch.
Still, I believe garages in many homes today are a missed opportunity.
Sure many look good, but so what if they’re not lived in? Ideally, I’d like to see garages borrow from past and present, from the garage culture of yesterday and the garage aesthetics of today.
Here’s how I envision that blend, and how I believe today’s homes can house spaces where men can be men, and also be good neighbors and great dads:
A place for the man of the house to pursue his hobbies, whether cars, model planes or moonshine.
A place his wife can send him when he gets on her nerves, and where he can go when she gets on his.
A place with an open-door attitude that says, “Come on in” to neighbors and kids.
A place where kids and dads can talk or just be quiet for hours, while someone fixes the lawn mower.
A place that looks good with the door open.
A place where men can be men, only neater.
And a place where dads can build things like carburetors and children.
Neal Ellis Jameson: June 2, 1922 – April 24, 2013. Miss you, Dad.
Syndicated columnist and speaker Marni Jameson is the author of “House of Havoc” and “The House Always Wins” (Da Capo Press). Contact her through marnijameson.com.