At times, my mother hated it, perhaps even cursed it. But it was the place where my father found solace and connected with his roots. Cleaning it out—and realizing it will soon be gone—is a pain that I can no longer avoid.
My father was a highly educated man, perhaps educated beyond original expectations in life. This is largely because my grandmother insisted that her nine children go far beyond the eighth-grade education that she received. And WAY beyond the fifth-grade education that my Granddaddy LeGrand earned.
While Granddaddy did not have much formal education, he knew much beyond textbooks. He was a carpenter beyond compare, building houses and fixing things that PhDs like me could never imagine. His knowledge and impeccable work ethic never translated to financial success, but they still filtered down to my father.
Spencer LeGrand Sr. loved to work with wood; and, when he had the time, he was brilliant with it. Last Saturday, I spent the better part of my day trying to decide what to keep and what to sell from my father’s astonishing collection of tools and devices. He accumulated a stockpile of tools and devices that we could never hope to comprehend. More than once, I looked and thought, “That is AMAZING! If I knew what to do with it, I might keep it!”
Need a drill? Nuts and bolts? Sandpaper? A lathe? Some lumber? Woodcarving tools? 406 Great Glen Road is the place to be. Five drills, 11 different kinds of power saws, more nails than an Ace Hardware, and an old dresser slam full of sandpaper…he had it all. He knew what to do with it—if he could find it.
Seriously, talk about a disorganized mess. The Building had stuff (and junk) scattered from one end to another and at all points in between. But somehow, some way, it was organized for him. Could any other human on the planet figure out this “system?” Not a chance! Yet he managed to put his hands on just about any tool he needed at any given time.
Sadly, Dad never had the patience or the time to teach either of his children how to do the carpentry that was second nature to him. No one ever taught him. He had to learn it because my granddaddy needed him to help. So you better watch and learn and get it right—the first time—which is what my Dad did. We never had that opportunity.
Since his passing in 2018, I avoided going through his stockpile of tools in his storage building/woodshop. With mom’s passing in June 2022, I could no longer avoid this task. You would think that a place where I rarely spent any time would hold little sentimental value. But last Saturday was one of the hardest days of my life, certainly one of the hardest since losing my parents.
Even after losing Dad, I loved the ability to find anything I needed in The Building. I shunned the hardware store for four years because I could get pretty much anything from that shed.
Every time I walked through the back yard to open the door, a piece of my father went with me. I can still remember the smell of sawdust he brought into the house, the aroma of “burning” of freshly cut, sanded, or drilled lumber.
It called me back to a “My dad can beat up your dad!” mentality. The man did not know defeat. He had a determination to figure out a way even when no way presented itself. While it did not quite “take” in the same format, he imparted that mentality to his children as best he could. (By the way, picture below may be the remnants of Dad’s final project).
My mom sometimes complained about the time dad spent in The Building. One time, he embarked on a project to make wooden candleholders, stained to match the pews at East Park Baptist Church, with a stand that attached to the end of each pew. If you know woodwork, you can imagine the time and precision such a project would take.
Dad told me on the phone one day, “I think I messed up with your mama.” He had an intercom installed so she could get him without having to walk out to The Building.
Mom took a phone call for him, around 8 p.m. at night. She punched the intercom button and he answered, but she hit it a little too quickly. He heard her say, “Let me get him. He’s out in that damn building again!”
Okay, the “damn” is unclear. Did she say it? I cannot remember, although it was about the only curse word my mother ever uttered. She might not have let that fly depending on who was on the phone. (But if you know my mom, it makes the story a little funnier).
Over the last few years, “that building” took on a new meaning for her as well. She kind of loved that if she ever needed something, I would tell her to let me check the building and could often find the necessary supplies. She loved that I borrowed my Dad’s tools and knew that I could give his stuff a shot before buying anything.
Most of all, she laughed and loved when I would pick some random tool to perform a task for which it likely was not intended. These occasions were just too on point for Spencer Sr. I think it lifted her heart that I inherited a little of that figure it out attitude. Was I as good at it as my father? Not even close. But I did learn to make a few unexpected items work.
My parents lived at 406 for 46 years. They added, renovated, altered, and improved that house half a dozen times over the years. Maybe that is why I feel a little less sentimental towards it now than I might have if it had stayed basically the same. And perhaps that is why I feel more attachment to a part of it where I spent almost no time over the years.
In fact, it is not even the same building. The first one was an aluminum shed that served as the backstop for backyard whiffle ball games. But the tools, the smells, the sawdust, and general mess remain the same.
It is funny and often surprising what we remember when we lose those we loved the most. My mother rarely—or perhaps never—went into The Building. But she did not really want it cleaned out and understood why I never wanted to touch it. It was a part of who my Dad was, and he was eternally a part of her. That took many forms, but that workshop was one unchangeable, inextricable part of their life.
This weekend will likely be the last time I walk into that building where it bears the marks of my father, the craftsman. Next week we have an estate sale; and after that, the house goes on the market. My sister and I now acknowledge that we do not love that house. We love the memories and the people who occupied it for more than 90% of our lives.
No matter what happens next, that sawdust smell in my nose and that view of my Dad with a sander are etched in me for the rest of my life. I can remember the clothes he wore when it was cold and the drone of the window fan when it was hot. It was his place to escape the cares of the world and just let his hands do the work. Which, thankfully, left us some of the products of his handiwork to keep forever.
I will also remember my mom griping, complaining, fussing about all the time he spent in “that building” while thoroughly enjoying the finished products that he made, sometimes as surprises for her. And I will recall that she wanted to me to live his legacy—not of woodwork, but of perseverance and determination and figuring out how to do what needs to be done.
What could be more appropriate than to offer a Requiem for The Building, a small recognition of the giant impact of my parents’ 57-year relationship and the impact they had on the people around them? As much as it was my Dad’s space, it was also emblematic of who he was, who they were, and why their marriage created a model to be followed. It reminds me of all the things that were great and funny and at times a bit annoying about who they were.
After all, those are the memories that make life great.
As I recall the images of my father working in that space and making it his own, I pray that I am reminded of all that my mom and dad were. I also pray that this spurs me to try to be who they taught me to be—and perhaps a little bit better.
And if my wife is lucky, perhaps a little bit cleaner.