Erin Zammett Ruddy - Author. Writer. Blogger. Survivor.
  • An Ode to DIY Dads

    June 14th, 2013

    With my dad circa 1982. Notice the construction supplies in the background–our house was in a constant state of improvement and all that hard work definitely paid off.


    In honor of father’s day, I’m posting this essay about my dear old dad and my husband—and how my allegiance to both is sometimes tested when it comes to matters of the home (improvement). 


    I’m hiding in my master bathroom, whispering into the phone while my husband, Nick, stands on our bed, tools in hand, light fixture dangling from the ceiling. “I think he shut off the electricity but I’m not sure,” I say. “Oh my God, Dad, what if he didn’t?!” This is not an uncommon scene. You see my father is an expert handyman and my husband, while increasingly handy, is still new to the whole DIY, home-ownership thing. The problem: I’m a 35-year-old mother of two who’s been married for nearly eight years. My loyalty should lie with my husband…and yet I still find myself dialing my dad behind Nick’s back when I hear the toolbox open. It’s just hard to have complete faith in him when what hangs in the balance is a home I love—one we’ll be living in until the end of time since we bought it about a week before the housing bubble burst. And when it comes to home improvement (and not getting yourself electrocuted), my father really does know best.

    The smell of sawdust and spackle were as much a part of my childhood as Barbie, Ken and the Keatons. I don’t think a day went by without seeing a screwdriver in my father’s hand. His basement workshop overflowed with fascinating things like plumb lines and levels and nuts and washers in every size you could imagine. I remember going down there in my nightgown after dinner and watching him work, hands pressed over my ears to dull the piercing whir of the buzz saw. I always hoped he’d ask me to pass him something and hoped even harder that I could remember the difference between, say, a Phillips head and a flathead. Little girls are supposed to think their dads can do anything, but mine really could. He’d make us wooden airplanes we’d spray paint gold and stools with our names carved into them so we could reach the sink to brush our teeth. When my parents bought our house in the 70s it was a one-bedroom ranch. Today it’s got two stories, five bedrooms and  lots of cool personal touches (like a living room made completely out of wood reclaimed from a Pennsylvania barn). And my dad was there for every floorboard, every shingle, every nail. It went through so many transformations that I don’t even recognize the house in that photo above. I think my mother loved the fact that there was nothing my father couldn’t do himself, but I know she not-so-secretly loathed it, too (a repairman, while costly, usually finishes a job swiftly and completely, doesn’t leave his tools strewn all over the kitchen and rarely drops a %*&! or a $#!@ in front of the children).

    It’s no surprise that when my husband, Nick, and I bought our first house, my dad was involved from the moment before we signed the contract (“you don’t need to hire an inspector, I can do the inspecting” he insisted). Obviously, we leaned on him and, often, like when our kitchen sink was mysteriously and ever…so…slowly…leaking, he saves the day. And he loves it. I know because any time my sisters call him to save their day (we all now live within a six-minute radius of my parents), he will casually work it into conversation: “So, did you hear we finally got the toilet fixed at Melissa’s?” or “You gotta go by Meghan’s and see the shoe molding we put it.” He lives for this stuff. And he’s really good at it. He is one of those renaissance men who has literally worn every hat there is—from cabinet maker to air traffic controller to techie business owner. And many, many things in between.

    But of course any good story needs conflict and there is some of that, too. (Cue the whispered phone conversations whenever Nick tackles a job without consulting my dad.) Nick is smart and self made and not keen on asking others for help, something I clearly don’t suffer from. Especially since, deep down, I still believe my dad knows pretty much everything (poor Nick). But, my father believes that his way is the right way and never approves of calling a real expert (he didn’t speak to me for a few days after I had actual fence people put in our fence.) And he often leaves his jobs only 90 percent complete mumbling, “you can touch up around the molding” or “just put a little phenoseal on it” as he walks out the door. And he brings a work ethic and level of intensity that is not for the faint of heart. There may be cursing. There may be yelling. There won’t be breaks. And he expects an assistant (this used to be one of his daughters, now it’s a son in law) to stand next to him at all times. All of this forces a delicate balancing act for his three daughters, who adore our father but also our husbands—and our autonomy.

    Still, in the six years we’ve been in our house, Nick has developed a real passion for home improvement, which my dad respects beyond words. Nick recently refinished our kitchen table and every time my dad is over, he marvels at what a good job Nick did (he also marvels to me at what a mediocre job Nick did patching the hole in our ceiling so it’s not like he’s losing his edge or anything). I’m often caught in the middle of the two men in my life, defending Nick to my dad “Eh, it doesn’t have to be perfect!” and my dad to Nick, “Babe, he just wants to help.” But the truth is, Nick has learned a lot from my dad. And I know he appreciates the guidance (and the tools and nifty gadgets he gets for every holiday) and, when needed, the helping hand. There’s been a slow passing of the blowtorch and it’s awesome to see. Some dads connect over baseball or golf or Cuban cigars. While my father loves all of those things too, it’s when he’s working with his hands, fixing, improving, doing that he’s at his best. The fact that he’s willing to share that with the next generation truly is a gift. And we need to soak it up. As hard as it is to think about, my dad won’t always be around to run over and tighten a faucet or put up some drywall. Any time I think about cutting him out of a project we’re doing, I think of this. Sure, my dad is always going to think he can do it better—and maybe he always will—but I know it gives him great peace of mind and pride to know he’s teaching the next generation the joy (and the responsibility) of DIYing.

    For my part, I’ve learned to let Nick do things his way before reaching for the phone. At first it was about keeping the peace with my husband, who I adore, but now it’s because I just don’t have to. All the years watching my dad in action have paid off. Nick has become really good at plowing through the never-ending, to-do/fix/upgrade list that comes with home ownership. Or maybe it’s that he’s so hell bent on not having his father-in-law up in his grill that he’s willed himself to succeed. Either way, I’m not complaining. Especially since, so far, no one’s been electrocuted.

    Happy Father’s Day to all the DIY dads out there (and the ones who call for professional help!). Bottom line: I’m a very lucky girl to have two super handy men in my life. Guess I better make a nice dinner for them on Sunday! Also, a bit of exciting news: On Monday I will be starting as the parenting blogger for Yahoo Shine. Stay tuned for links and more!



5 responses to “An Ode to DIY Dads” RSS icon

  • You were the CUTEST kid ever! Congrats on Yahoo Shine.

  • I would be the same way if my dad lived closer. My hubby isn’t that handy, but he’s learning…and we have no shame calling a plumber, electrician, etc. Just would be nice not to have to pay them. ;-)

  • This is the longest I think you’ve gone without posting anything, so I wanted to check to make sure everything was okay. I have been following you since before your son was born, and I look forward to reading you at least every other day. So, you have been truly missed. I hope and pray that you and your family are enjoying your summer.

  • The Yahoo Shine content is great – I just am confused why I can’t comment – even if you press “Facebook” or “Google”, it forces you to get a Yahoo account. I have no need for a Yahoo account. You can live without my thoughts, I’m sure, but just thought I’d say something.

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