Doug looked like an independent, typically flinty New Englander–tall and lean, hard-working and as ambitious for all of his kids as he was for himself. When I first met him, years ago, he sized me up as a potential wife for his son, and I got the feeling he found me wanting. I couldn’t build anything. I had no idea how to winterize the camp on Lake Winnipesaukee.
“You’ve never poured plumber’s antifreeze into a toilet?” he asked, incredulous.
I had not. How could I be successful without this basic life skill?
But I had graduated from college. Even better, I’d earned a graduate degree. He respected education and hard work. I’d been working my entire adult life. That was good, too. Most of all, though, he approved of me because I loved his oldest son.
Over the years, he was puzzled at some of my career decisions. Writing was a good, practical skill–but he was puzzled that I wrote things that didn’t have my name on them–ads, brochures, commercials, articles and speeches that others
took credit for. That baffled him. “Don’t you mind that your name isn’t on it?” he’d ask. “People wouldn’t care if I said it,” I explained. “But when the CEO says it, it makes people listen and act. That’s fine with me.”
It was difficult for him to grasp my love of art. Early on, when I was a paper maker, he could not fathom why I would grow plants, beat them into fiber by hand, and make paper without using electricity. “That’s just going backwards,” said the man who lived in the area of New England re-shaped by the machines of the Industrial Revolution. “I could build you a real pulp beater,” he said eagerly. When I refused, he settled for building bookcases into the dining room of the house, adding a closet and building a kitchen island for his son, the chef. The shelves in the island could hold 150 pounds each, because “you never know what kind of equipment you’ll be using in the kitchen”.
When his car pulled up for a visit, the trunk would pop open and instead of suitcases, he would unload tools, sawhorses, and power equipment. As his daughter in law, and until I moved to Phoenix, I had never lived in a house that did not have a closet, countertops, refinished cabinets, chair rails, a bookcase, or a kitchen island that he built and installed.
If he didn’t understand my papermaking, he understood raw art journaling even less. Why anyone would write and draw and keep it private was amazing to him. Private didn’t make money. And meaning-making, well that was all well and good, but you couldn’t cut into it at dinner.
He’d look at drawings or journals of mine and say, “You know, you could sell this. And with a good marketing plan, you could get to the point where you’d need an 18-wheeler. Now that’s a sign of success.” He fixated on the 18-wheeler idea for years, bringing it up in random phone calls, at holidays, asking me if I’d done well enough to need an 18-wheeler yet. As he grew older and frailer, I grew more tolerant of the 18-wheeler conversation.
Last December, Doug was diagnosed with stage-four lung cancer. He took it as a challenge as complicated as the corner closet he built in the tiny bathroom in one of our houses. He wasn’t ready just yet. But at 85, those are not decisions we get to choose.
He asked about my book–was it selling well? I’d just gotten the royalty statement, so I could figure out that I’d sold enough not only to fill one 18-wheeler, but it would have to make more than one trip. I had arrived just as he was leaving.
Doug died early this morning; some of the family was with him, and some on the way. He had a busy, work-filled life. His retirement years were filled with building, and the senior living place added a large workshop building that he managed and stocked with tools and equipment for all the woodworkers in the facility. His last piece of work was a gift for us—a wood turning of a bird house, with a tiny light inside that welcomes admiring glances with warmth and light. It will hang in our ficus-tree/ Christmas tree as a reminder of his own big heart. As big as an 18-wheeler.
–-Quinn McDonald is grateful for the opportunity she could be Doug’s daughter-in-law. And proud that she could finally fill up that 18-wheeler.