My father owned a paint and hardware store. More than a vendor, he was someone who worked with his hands, hands unsteadied by coffee, hands with long, dirty fingernails. He fixed broken things, patched them back together to make them work again. And if he couldn’t make them work, he stored them for their parts.
My father was a man of routine. Over the years he accommodated himself to the changes life brought him by finding a routine that fit the circumstances. With a routine, one can adapt.
For many years my family lived in the apartment above the store. Six days a week my father would go downstairs at 7 a.m., walk the two watchdogs around the block, and, once back in the store, put on a pot of coffee in the richly stained vacuum pot. He’d chain the rolls of wire out in front of the store, set up his cash register, and then spend the day selling his wares and giving advice. During quiet times, he’d repair windows, set locks, and cut and thread pipes. At 6:30 p.m., he would roll in the wire, take most of the cash out of the register, and walk the dogs. He’d be up for dinner by 7 p.m., walk the dogs again at 10:30, and then watch the 11:00 news. On Sundays we went to visit his parents. Once a year we went camping for a week. We had a camping routine too.
When I was twelve, my family moved to a house that was a forty-or-so-minute drive from the store. The change was easy to accommodate. My father left for the store earlier, returned home later, and would often bring home one of the dogs for a visit with the family. There were more things to fix now that he owned a big, old house, but he could go fishing on summer evenings in the bay across the street. We continued to visit his parents on Sunday and went camping for a week during the summer.
Then changes began to come quickly. My mother took a part-time job. My father’s mother was losing her long battle with cancer. My mother began to lose weight. She bleached her hair. Both my father’s parents died of cancer within a month of one another. My mother began to come home late at night. My mother had a boyfriend. My mother moved out.
My father’s life—my family’s life—broke in a way that could not be fixed. The remaining parts regrouped and reassigned responsibilities. We found new routines to accommodate us to the changes; yet now I know these accommodations did not suffice.
For my father, routines were like rituals—rituals that, if followed consistently and faithfully, would lead one to prescribed outcomes. He had worked steadily, provided for his family, maintained his home, remained faithful to both his wife and his parents—yet the outcome was wrong.
For some years there was no true routine. Like usable, stored parts, remnants of rituals held my father together. He continued to work and provide for his children, but he was lost.
Then my father salvaged himself. He met Dorothy, and over the years they developed a new routine. At first it was the Saturday night dance together, then the Sunday afternoon fishing, and then the midweek bowling date. Eventually there were the two-family holiday dinners. By the time his children were all out of the house, my father and Dorothy spent most of their evenings and weekends together. When he became disabled, Dorothy moved in, and a new routine ensued. As my father aged and his limitations grew, his routine had less and less variety.
My father used to drink a cup of coffee every night as he watched the 11:00 news. Shortly before it started, he’d rise and say in his Brooklynese, “I’m puttin’ on the water. Anybody want anything?” And then we’d all drink coffee together. It wasn’t until I went out into the world that I realized, unlike my family, drinking coffee at night caused me insomnia. It wasn’t until I went out into the world on my own did I realize the rituals of my youth were largely the idiosyncrasies of a small, fragile clan.