When Getting Your Hands Dirty Is More Than Just a Mess

warpaint

I was digging a ditch behind my house when my son came home from preschool and started making faces at me in the kitchen window. They were unusual faces. The shovel was in my hands. He looked at it. I was standing over the ditch — a narrow slit on the ground that had already filled with brown, muddy water. I waved at him and smiled.

But it was a slightly dishonest smile. I knew he would want to come back and dig the ditch, pile mud, help me make the berm by the side of the house that I am building to protect it from all the runoff rainwater that has been sliding under the house. But it’s a nasty, tight little spot. Lots of old construction debris.  No place for a two-year-old. The neighbor’s house sits right beside us, the space bisected by a flimsy wire fence whose purpose is to divide the space along the property line so the neighbor’s dog can blow off steam, so to speak.

My boy looked at me with an expression that was slightly unfamiliar — the jaw jutted forth a bit, his teeth clenched. He showed me his hands some more. Green smudges on the fingers, the palms covered in a muddy green color. Finger paint? I thought.

“War paint!” he said.

“What’s war paint?” I said

“It’s for when you put the paint brush all over the paper.”

“And what’s war?” I asked. He thought about this for a moment.

“It’s for when the tiger!” he said.

He seemed satisfied with this. His face was in its normal mode. Then he flashed his hand at me again, open palm.  He jutted out his jaw. I saw what was new in his expression: it was his look of determination that was now colored by the thought of some kind of conflict, as though eager, even gleeful for battle.

I let him come with me into the little alley — his mom abided by it so long as I promised to be brief — and soon he was standing with me beside the ditch. I gave him the crow bar I had been using as a hoe. He held it in his little soft hand with its tender, pale skin, and I could feel him gauging the hard black steel, weighing it. I showed him how to work it into the mud, to loosen the soil.

Listen to me, writing like I am passing on a generation of wisdom accumulated on a farm. I have no idea what I am doing. If there were some sort of organization that did interventions for fathers who, in some misguided, Ahab-like celebration of their own self-reliance, were taking on too much manual work on the house — they should be called. For my own good and that of the house, the New Orleans chapter should be summoned — I picture them as a cross between the fire department and the Dog Catcher — and they should rush out here with a net (for me), and a contractor (for the house), and a loudspeaker which they could use to address the out of control, renovating dad, the same way the police used to speak to people out on a ledge, trying to talk them down. A fuzzy, amplified voice would fill the air: “Sir, please put the shovel down and step away from the ditch.”

(I saw this once on 81st street and West End Avenue around 1980 or so. It was night. A guy was up sitting on a ledge at the top of a church threatening to jump. We all assumed he was threatening to take his own life, but in hindsight I suppose it’s possible he was trying to save the church. There is a high rise there now, directly across from the Calhoun School.)

It’s bad enough that I have undertaken the task of painting the exterior of my house. Not the whole thing top to bottom — just spot painting. But it’s a lot of spots. I went from doing it standing on my own two feet, to getting on a ladder. Then I borrowed my neighbor’s ladder, which goes higher — high enough so that a fall would be a major problem.

But I need an even bigger ladder. One that goes the full thirty or so feet in the air. Who knows where this is going. The fire department comes out to get cats down from trees. Do they come out to get dads down from ladders?

My son and I worked together for a little while. It had been a drizzly morning and he was, fortunately, wearing rain boots. A short while later a fairly un-muddy kid was delivered back to his mother to have his nap.

I went back to the ditch. Of course I have other things to do. Pressing obligations. But I have got it into my head that this ditch, and the miniature levee it is creating, is an important part of the house’s well being. Which is to say the family’s well being.

So I dug. And dug. A kind of entranced focus came over me. Similar to exercise or sports, but touched with the nobility of protecting your family, a somewhat self-congratulatory mood that I suspect many fathers retreat to when doing handy-work. I also suspect that the less capable the father is of actually doing this work, the more noble they feel themselves to be.

Inevitably, I started to reach into the muddy water — a very lovely experience, not dirty feeling, but rather a feeling of contact with the rich soil of the Mississippi Delta, which was peppered with oyster shells and sea shells — and scoop out the mud with my hands. I got lower. I scooped and scooped. Bits of mud got on my sneakers, my knees.

I wished my son was out here with me. He would make a mess, but it would be fun. It occurs to me now that shortly before I stopped I was so focused that I was scooping muddy earth like a mad man. My jaw, no doubt, was jutting forth as though eager, even gleeful for battle, my hands stained with evidence of my intent.

It’s always a mystery, in a family, as to who is influencing whom.

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