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In Association with

My Father’s Toolbox



By Kent Nerburn

A light switch in a closet is broken. The fix does not seem complicated, but I am no lover of electricity.
It feels too potent, too unknown — I have seen too many cartoons of God shooting lightning bolts down on people from his finger.
But this broken light switch seems within my grasp. A screwdriver, a flashlight, something for stripping wires; I think I can handle it.
I make my way to the garage to look for the tools. The place is not in shambles, but it is close. I keep things roughly categorized — wrenches here, odd screws and bolts there, old license-plate brackets and floor mats over in the corner.
Several times a year I order and structure and label and box. But things quickly fall apart. A tool gets piled on a shelf because I need to grab another, some random object that does not fit into one of my predetermined categories gets left on a ledge to be filed away later, and soon the chaos has returned.
My father, unlike me, was an organized man. His garage looked like the back room of an old-time hardware store, with shelves of perfectly labeled boxes arranged in perfectly ordered rows. But when he died and we had to go through those boxes, we found that they contained used hinges, old brown electrical cords, miscellaneous doorknobs, ancient fuses, locks with no keys, keys with no locks, and all manner of strange paraphernalia, well labeled and well categorized, but of no conceivable use to anyone.
I seem to have inherited my father’s tendency to save without the corresponding tendency to organize. So the same mysterious doorknobs and keyless locks can be found in my garage, but they are not in well-labeled boxes. They sit on shelves next to old paint rollers and spray cans and outmoded telephones that seemed too good to throw away. It makes for a frustrating experience when looking for something as simple as a screwdriver or a flashlight.
This is why the green metal toolbox is so important to me.
It came from my father. I can feel his presence, and the presence of his generation, in this toolbox. It is not forest green or some other designer hue meant to catch the eye of a passing shopper. It is a more industrial green — the kind of no-nonsense color that one might expect to see on heavy machinery roaring and rumbling on some factory floor.
It is a shade brighter than the olive drab of the military — in my father’s day that color had a kind of cultural sacredness. You did not use it for any civilian purpose.
But this color was a near sibling to it. It spoke of a brotherhood of purpose — working together to build a better world.
The box has no lock. The two sides of the top simply fold over and lap against each other, forming an angled roof, like a miniature metal house.
It was made in the day when trust was a given and the distinction between mine and yours was not so strong. It always makes me think of another man of my father’s generation — a kind, tough old mailman who lived near me in the woods of Oregon — who, once he trusted me, had said, simply, “If there’s anything you ever need, you just come and take it out of my shed.” No sign-out sheets, no lectures about being sure to return it. That was all presumed.
This box presumes the same.
My father had been proud of this toolbox. It was the best you could get in his day. It was one of those objects that you achieved, working your way up to it from wooden boxes or cloth rolls. Once you obtained it, you did not expect to replace it. It had been made for the ages.
My father had not replaced it. On the contrary, he had claimed it. He had stenciled his name on it, LLOYD NERBURN. Over the years it has become scratched and faded. But it remains today. This is Lloyd Nerburn’s toolbox. Kent Nerburn is only its inheritor, its caretaker.
I sometimes feel like I am violating its trust with my sloppiness, my failure to wipe tools clean when I am finished with them, my disinterest in keeping it organized. But this is just the echo of the sense I have that I am somehow violating his trust with the easy good fortune and more casual attitude I have toward my own life.
I don’t work as hard as he did; I don’t keep things as orderly in the family as he did; I don’t make sure that everything is clean and returned to its proper place. My life is more managed chaos, like my garage, like the contents of the toolbox.
But this toolbox reminds me of where I have come from, and on whose shoulders I stand.
It is strange how this toolbox has become so important to me. It is not something my father would have thought to pass on to me. He was well aware of my sloppiness and lack of interest in home repairs. First would have been the autographed picture of Babe Ruth, signed for my grandmother by the great slugger when she had crossed paths with him in her job as a hotel elevator operator. But that photograph means little to me, because it meant little to my father. He valued it only because it was rare; he was anxious to pass it on only because he knew it had some financial value.
But the toolbox, he loved. It was a metaphor for his dreams of family — an unbreakable little house, solid, ordered, containing the solution to life’s uncertainties and problems, and protecting everything that lay within. Though he would never have thought about it in this way, it was a symbol of the hard-won success he had achieved in his rise from orphaned boy to husband and father and proud head of a family.
I love it now, too, because it meant so much to him. When I touch that toolbox, I can feel my father’s hands.
Strange it is how little attention we pay to things of the heart. We think it is the financial inheritance that matters, or the family heirlooms, so carefully protected and hidden away. But we are known by the things that we love, and remembered for what we held dear. We use my wife’s mother’s silverware on special occasions, making passing mention of its heritage. But the little wooden boat of stuffed animals that caused her to giggle every time she saw it — that we look at almost daily, and always with a fondness that brings us close to tears.
I search around in the toolbox amidst the jostle of wrenches and pliers until I fish out a wire stripper and a screwdriver. They are both slippery with oil from some prior home repair misadventure, but they will do. I wipe them on a rag and head upstairs to do battle with the light switch.
Behind me, the toolbox sits, its lid open and its contents askew. My father would have closed it, wiped its handles clean, and placed it back on the shelf. But I am merely his son, I am not his better.
And as I climb the stairs, I can’t help but wonder what it is my son will cherish when I am gone.
What object that I take for granted will be the memory by which I will be known?
What will he remember that I loved?

Excerpted from The Hidden Beauty of Everyday Life by Kent Nerburn. Copyright © 2006 by Kent Nerburn. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission of New World Library. $16. Available in local bookstores or call 800-972-6657 ext. 52 or click here.

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