Talk to a realtor, a housing inspector, or a basement contractor in this city and they’ll tell you they’ve seen a lot of work benches. They are typically in a basement, they are typically homemade, and they are common in pre-garage housing stock. If you happened to grow up in a house with a basement work bench, chances are your Dad (or maybe your Grandpa) spent a lot of time down there, especially during the long Wisconsin winter. It was the Dad equivalent of the kitchen — where he could order his tools and master his tasks.
There was no homemade work bench the houses where I grew up. My Dad had a homemade desk instead. In place of nails organized by size, there was an orderly array of typewriter ribbon, paper, envelopes, stamps, staples, and writing utensils. There was a manual pencil sharpener. An old Underwood typewriter. A soft pink eraser.
In the two homes my parents have occupied since that one, there have been different iterations of Dad’s work space. In our second home, a door propped on, I think, sawhorses created an enviably spacious work surface. He’d spend hours down there. About 10 years ago mom and dad moved to a condo in an over-50 community and found themselves without a basement. Dad upgraded to an upstairs office. I took this as a major event and kept wondering how it might change the dynamics in the household.
Dad took typing classes in high school (apparently he had enlightened teachers), and once remarked he was sorry he owned up to this when, as a G.I. in the Army Air Force, they stuck him with office tasks now and then. He learned the insurance business on the G.I. bill, and I still have memories of him walking out of the house with a hat and a briefcase; office work seemed to require a nice wardrobe — another plus. Sometimes, I’d be caught short on a homework project or a gift-wrap task, and Dad could always produce two-sided tape or a ruler sharp enough to rip paper with a clean edge or some clever problem-solving device. At Christmas, my siblings and I would find rolls of Scotch tape in our stockings along with, say, socks and candy bars.
Why do I bring all this up?
It seems right to acknowledge on Father’s Day the role Dad’s basement office played for me. At an early age, I romanticized the trappings of office life. This seems to go hand in hand with the way I idolized Marlo Thomas as a zesty single career girl in “That Girl”. The times were right for this, I suppose — it being the early days of feminism . The kitchen held less appeal for me than a shiny desk top (analog). Success, to me, was having my own typewriter like Dad’s, and my own apartment like Marlo’s. I believed the two were inextricably connected.
Many — many — years later, I haven’t shaken it. The trappings have changed (no more manual Underwoods) but I still feel most at home at a desk. It’s where thoughts take form, boxes get checked, a certain amount of progress can be achieved in a way not so true anywhere else. I can feel capable at my desk. Or at least capable of getting there.
My Dad retired just two years ago. He’s spending even more time in his cushy upstairs office now. He uses a PC. The most dramatic difference I’ve noticed is that it is more cluttered (in an orderly way) with mementoes. Mugs, photos, cards. About when he acquired his 25th mug Mom negotiated a deal: He’d do all the dusting.
Thanks, Dad. You and Mom were a great team. She didn’t force me into the kitchen, you didn’t force me into the office. I came to it naturally — I think a love of freshly sharpened pencils is in my DNA, inherited from you. Happy Father’s Day. Next time we visit, let’s go to Office Depot. My treat.