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first person

Illustration by Chelsea O'Byrne

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My father was born into tragedy and a world that no longer exists, a two-room Irish cottage with thatched roof, stone floor, no electricity or plumbing. His own father had been born in an Irish workhouse. His mother died five days after giving birth to him in the spring of 1931. My father’s schooling ended in the seventh grade. There was no money. There was not much of anything, save the scraping of subsistence from the bogs and stony hills.

At 14, my father went to work in a limestone quarry. At 17, he left for better prospects on the building sites of Scotland. Four years later, he sailed from Southampton for Halifax and the promise of Canada, my mother soon to follow. He arrived in this country with three pals, little education, little money and a cardboard suitcase. He had worked up until three days before leaving Scotland. He had a job in a Toronto lumberyard three days after he arrived in March, 1953.

He never really looked back. This was his country now. In Canada, he built a life and a family, had a chance to drink from the Stanley Cup, carried the Canadian flag for the legion he belonged to in a Remembrance Day parade.

He never had much money, and during leaner years, didn’t have enough. What needed repairing, he fixed. Much of what he dreamed of, he built. He had an aptitude for figuring out how things worked. He had the stubbornness of a team of mules. He took pride in self-sufficiency. He rebuilt much of the house his family grew up in, finished the cottage he retired to, bought only one new car in his life. For most of his life, he tended toward battered old heaps he purchased on their last legs and from which he squeezed a few more years.

In my childhood memories, in the hours he wasn’t on the job, he was at home, carrying tools, returning from the hardware store, climbing a ladder, on his back beneath a car. He threw virtually nothing away, kept most spare screws or bolts, convinced, in an uncertain world, that any piece would be urgently needed the day after it was discarded. I think he may have been happiest when working. He sang Irish ballads, muttered his plans and challenges aloud, recited poems remembered from his boyhood in that one-room school, cursed any part that failed in its function or resisted his will.

Six months after my father died, on Jan. 15 this year, in his 88th year, after a long, full life, my mother received notice that the storage units in her building were to be cleaned out in advance of fumigation for a plague of moths. She summoned me to help shift some things, and there, on the ground in her unit, was my father’s toolbox.

It is a homemade thing, open-topped, resembling an old-fashioned shoeshine box. It’s made of plywood and waferboard, screwed together and carried by what looked like a sawed-off broomstick turned into a handle. It spilled over with tools, worn, scuffed, stained – implements worked hard by a hard-working man. There were screwdrivers galore, arrays of wrenches, scissors and shears, drill bits and putty knives, gear clamps, hammers, a jab saw, jigsaw blades, soldering iron, wire-cutters, drywall anchors. There was sealing tape, electrical tape, measuring tapes, levels in several sizes. There were bits of pencils, bits of chalk, bits of string and shoelace, the gauges with which he marked and measured.

His toolbox was as much an autobiography as my shelves of books. In it, was the story of his life, in bits and pieces, a chronicle of the things he’d built, a reflection of his character, of the talents he’d accumulated. In it, I saw with surprise, he had kept two branded pencils, decades old but unsharpened, from my first employer in journalism. He had kept a plastic shoehorn from Chateau Lake Louise, where one of my brothers worked long years ago.

There were hints of his pastimes, golf tees, a fishing bobber, one lone survivor of a set of dice, score kept for a game of darts on the outside of a box of screws. In it, there were three wine corks, although he seldom drank wine. There was also a Labatt’s Blue bottle opener, which more than earned its keep.

All of these things my father had chosen, purchased, sweat over, bled over, solved problems with, improved our family’s lot in this new country bit by bit, wall by wall, room by room, year by year.

Men like my father are often said to be “good with their hands.” The expression sells them short, failing to acknowledge how good they are, too, with their resourcefulness, their sinew, their problem solving. My father learned by trial and error and from other men like him. Through his life, he steadily gained knowledge, skills and with them confidence. He framed additions, plumbed, wired, shingled, lay brick. With a friend, he once underpinned our kitchen and excavated what would become a family room with a spade. There was almost no challenge he wouldn’t take on, little he couldn’t repair.

Where did he get that toolbox? I asked my mother.

“Oh, he’s had it for donkey’s years,” she said, on her own now after 64 years of marriage, but still speaking as if my father was around.

“He lugged it around for all the time we’ve been married.”

I wondered if it was from that first job in the lumberyard that he got the scrap wood to make it. Almost 70 years on, past the stage of really needing it, he regularly asked my mother where his toolbox was, just to be sure.

My mother asked if I would like to have it. I said I very much would, though I hadn’t a fraction of my father’s skills or aptitudes.

It is the greatest of heirlooms, tools from my father’s own hands, the hands I held as he lay dying and as his worldly labours ended.

Jim Coyle lives in Toronto.