You can tell I am the carpenter’s daughter because I have nails tucked between my lips and saw dust sprinkled in my long coarse hair. My hands are shaped by the tools I use, my fingertips bruised and nicked, my palms padded by calluses years old by now. I gaze fondly at wood I fashion by purpose or caprice; I know the ringing tunes of every nail I drive, of every screw that hums as it fills the space it sinks its heart into. The world, for me, just as it was for my father, is a world of constant creation, resolute innovation, a world of need and fulfillment in turn. I am the carpenter’s daughter, an initiate in a vocation I would quickly embrace even if I had the choice to make. My father used to say, learn how to do this. You might marry a stupid man who doesn’t know how to swing a hammer.
My playground was my father’s garage, a wonderland of exotic objects with mystical names and resounding ingenuity: a square that is shaped like an L, a block plane that looks like a steel sled, a spoke shaver that looks like a propeller, a crow bar that doesn’t look anything like a bird. My first encounter with a hammer was at the receiving end of a blow to my forehead, a curious anointing at the hands of my baby sister who, motioning as though she had a great secret to impart, urged me to bend my head closer to her as she swung the hammer with her tiny hands. I often think it marked the moment of my calling by targeting a cell in my brain, setting into motion a steady division of more cells that would reinforce my destiny.
My father used to marvel at my sheer preoccupation with pounding nails into his wooden saw horses, a wonder which manifested in various displays of frustration when his circular saw blade would ping and spark every time it hit one of my embedded nails. The saw horse, you understand, is a particular creature in the world of the carpenter. It has slightly splayed legs, vertical and four in number, and a flat spine, horizontal in disposition and fastened at the withers by joints held together with glue and nails. There are many varieties of saw horses—some are bulky, but most, symmetrical; some are thick because they are built of the standard two-inch by four-inch lumber. Nowadays they are chic plastique—sissy horses, I call them. My father’s horses were organic and svelte. The legs were one-by-five and three-eighths boards, and the spine was two inch by six inch. This gave them a lithe quality, combined with remarkable strength, so that when he wasn’t using them to hold other boards or sheets of lumber, I would throw a scatter rug across their backs and ride wherever my imagination wanted to go. I drove two nails into their ends for bridles: beige-colored mason’s lines. This amused my father because he was an immigrant, and cowboys were something of a novelty to him. He used to draw pictures of Gene Autry with a rectangular pencil that could be sharpened only with a pocket knife, the same pocket knife that he used to remove splinters from my fingers. Yes, with remarkable precision.
The spines of the saw horses had, as part of their function, many cross-cuts that resulted from the circular saw cutting into them, usually unintentionally. This explained why the horses looked scored from as far back as I can remember, as though lashed by whips. I have known other carpenters whose blond saw horses of pale wood bore not so much as a blemish on account of their owners’ meticulous cutting. I do not trust carpenters who have immaculate horses, because it means that they are more concerned with the appearance of being a craftsman than with the craft itself. My father’s saw horses signified honesty. Years after the saw horses should have been put down, when they were grey and porous, wobbly and no longer able to hold the nails in place, so that they began to loosen from their joints, I cut the spines out and made a fire out of the rest. A section of a saw horse with cross-cuts and empty nail holes sits on the window sill by my desk. On top of it are free arrangements of the stones I gather from different places for different reasons (but this is another story); it is one of my most treasured possessions. One thousand years from now, someone will conjecture that it must be a pagan shrine. This makes me smile, because I am also the deacon’s daughter, and stones too are holy.
My father was born in a region of Romania called Bucovina, in the village of Stanesti de Jos. He was one of five children, and he used to say they were so poor that they had but one soup dish, that the youngest brother, Vasile, who died before I was born, would blow his nose into the soup so that no one would eat after him. This offends many people, but if you’ve ever known hunger, it makes perfect sense. Their father had left them years before for Canada, eventually sending for them when my own father was sixteen. The voyage by boat took six months, and they eventually settled in Windsor. My father’s father, whom we called moşu Pete, was a rough character who abandoned his family twice—once in Bucovina and again in Windsor. Nobody liked him; he was a chronic smoker, so he had a gurgly breath and wheezed instead of laughed. Every time we got together he would provoke an argument. My father’s mother, whom we called Bunsa, was a small woman whose strange vocabulary included odd sounds, perhaps specific to her region and dialect, that made my sisters and brother and I shun her company. She would growl and clasp her hands together when she saw us. The unfortunate effect was that we were terrified of that noise. She made scatter rugs out of old nylon stockings on a loom that looked like an instrument of torture. One time she asked my baby brother if he wanted some toast, and when he said yes, she opened a drawer and handed him a dried piece of toast. But my father always reminded us that she was his mother, and, therefore, we must respect her. So we did.
Until my baby brother was born I was the middle child, with all the particular attributes of the second born. My older sister by two years, Mary Ann, was named after one of my father’s favorite Romanian songs. He and my mother would sing it together in harmony: o Mariana, micǎ dulce Mariana…te-aştept ne-seara la rendevu. When I came along he decided to name me after Doris Day because she was one of the first American celebrities he admired; she had a beautiful singing voice, he would say. My older sister was accorded a violin because my father always dreamed of playing one himself. In fact, he used to admire violins in shop windows and eventually bought one when he had saved enough money. He went on to collect a number of violins after that, though we used to giggle when he played them. Still, he played them with such love and passion that it was clear he had a natural talent for the instrument. When my sister resisted taking any more lessons, she took up the piano like my mother. My mother was also the child of immigrants and could not afford a piano when she was young, but she took lessons anyway and used to practice on a sheet of paper with the keys drawn in pencil. She, too, had a natural proclivity for music and could play beautifully. I used to envy my sister when she practiced and wished I could study piano, as well, but my father had other ideas: He had seen Connie Francis playing the accordion on the Lawrence Welk Show after which she was discovered. I remember strapping on that weird contraption for the first time and thinking that it, like the loom, was an instrument of torture. I attribute my strength and survival skills to the years I spent playing the accordion. For one thing, it’s heavy. You have to hold it, carry it on your chest, pump the bellows to make it say something, move your right hand vertically on the side with the keys like a sideways piano, and feel for the buttons on the left side like those candy sugar dots on adding machine tape. I think it’s the only instrument whose whole self you never get to see when you play it. Just describing the way it works sounds insane. But as a middle child I was hungry for approval and praise, so when I saw my father’s eyes light up each time I took the accordion in my awkward arms, I was determined to make it mine. It must have done the trick, because my younger sister by two years was allowed to follow piano studies. She’s the one who hit me with the hammer.
It soon fell to me to become my father’s apprentice in the trade. He took me along to jobs, where I would bring him tools, hold the end of a board while he cut, sweep up the sawdust and shake out the giant canvas drop cloth, and pull nails out of lumber. I learned how to build cabinets, lay block, rip sheets of plywood and birch with a table saw and a circular saw, snap a chalk line and shingle roofs. I was able to anticipate which tool he would need next and never once demurred when he told me to nail this thing, or cut that thing. He would say, with pride and delight, “atta girl.” It was all the affirmation I needed.
One day we went off to work at a fish market. He had a blue Chevy truck with an aluminum box he had built to cover the bed. On the sides he had painted his name in white letters, and underneath his name he had written “remodeling and modernization.” This was the plan for the fish market—to remodel and modernize. I helped him unload the materials, which included sheets of plywood, two-by-fours, molding, and the nails we bought from a hardware store. I liked digging my hand in the metal bin of loose nails, piling them onto a metal scale, and watching the needle move. I carried the heavy brown paper bag that seemed to defy the sharp nails and put it behind his toolbox. The nails always went behind the toolbox, next to the plastic mustard bottle he filled with glue. One time he shook the mustard bottle of glue, and when nothing came out, he held it to his ear to listen for air. Instead, he filled his ear with glue.
After we spread a giant canvas drop cloth over the work site, we began the job. I had noticed, out of the corner of my eye, that behind the sheets of plywood leaning against the fish market wall, a tiny mouse had stuck his head out. I soon became obsessed with capturing the little creature at all costs, without attracting my father’s attention. We lived in Detroit, and while the neighborhood was immaculate, including the alleys where we burned trash in big wire baskets, mice and even rats were common. Mice were cute, rats were ugly. We called them sewer rats because they were always wet and greasy. Hours passed as I studied the mouse popping out his head, withdrawing behind the leaning plywood, and emerging nervously anew. When it came time to break for lunch and my father left to buy corned beef sandwiches from a nearby deli, I devised my plan. I found a piece of cotton mason’s line and made a slip knot. Confidant I would be victorious, I emptied a small baby food jar in which my father kept some small finish nails, poked some holes in the metal top, and then quietly meandered over to the plywood. I dangled the string with the noose from the top of the sheets to the dusty floor and waited.
When my father returned and called me to sit on the tailgate so we could eat our sandwiches, he noticed I was distracted. The rest of the afternoon I left his side at every chance to check my prey, and when my father at last realized what I was up to, he got a kick out of it. I don’t think he ever thought I could catch the rodent, so he let me hunt it. That was something I always loved about him—he got such a kick out of the sheer act of trying something. He’d see something on TV that was really remarkable, or remarkably stupid, and he would say, look at that guy, look at him, look. Or watch that guy, watch him. If he caught a mouse in a trap, he would start heaving just carrying it out to the garbage can. One time he had the idea to flush out mice from under the garage by jamming a hose connected to hot water. It seemed like a plan, with my mother and grandma at the ready with rakes and shovels, when all of a sudden the mice came streaking out. One of them crossed right over my father’s shoe, and my grandma hit him in the foot with the rake. Meanwhile, at the fish market, with minutes to spare before it was time to clean up and head home, I saw the mouse poke his head exactly through the clumsy noose I had fashioned. Instinctively I jerked the other end of the string. To my surprise, I had snagged the mouse.
Surreptitiously I fumbled to open the baby food jar and dropped the dangling little mouse into it, then capped the jar. I hid it behind the toolbox. I could hardly contain myself the whole ride home, though my father wouldn’t find out until later that night precisely what I had accomplished with a simple piece of string. When he did, he chuckled when he didn’t think I was looking at him. To me it sounded like “atta girl.”