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Family & Relationships

From Paul's Perspective: A Father's Legacy

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Our families have a formative effect on so many aspects of our lives – beliefs, values, even success.

Often, it can be hard to see these effects in the moment, as the bustle of daily life consumes us. Yet, sometimes when we least expect it, a memory hits that brings it all into focus. 

Recently, my wife Patty and I decided to renovate three closets in our home and – in an uncharacteristic burst of frugality – I insisted that I could personally install the new carpeting she wanted inside each. This didn’t seem such a stretch – growing up as a teen in Omaha, I had worked four or five summers as an assistant to my father, who was a professional carpet-layer his entire life. I know the difference between a tack hammer and a wall trimmer.

Except now at 72, I’d grown accustomed to hiring contractors to handle such tasks.   

I felt excited to tackle a do-it-yourself project but also intimidated. I’m in good physical shape overall, but, in the past year, I’d taken a fall while changing a light fixture, almost stepped absent-mindedly into oncoming traffic, and experienced other small signs of fragility. Now, I had to go into those closets, rip out the old rugs, and measure for the new. Go to a carpet store and order the right remnant pieces. Then, on my hands and knees and working in tight confines, cut, place, and adhere the carpeting. 

“What have I gotten myself into?” I wondered as I started. “Is it too late to throw in the towel and get a professional to finish this?”

Patty encouraged me to see it through. And so I did. I was surprised by how quickly the techniques I’d learned from working with my father came back. An angular slice here, a seaming together of two pieces, trimming and tucking against the walls. Once finished, I vacuumed up, surveyed the outcome, and pronounced myself – out loud – “pleased.”   

A great feeling. Even greater: the memories it brought back of Jack Critchlow. 

A bomber pilot during World War II, he’d all but entered his profession by accident, like many men of his generation who were eager to assume normal lives. A quiet man, he’d confess that he didn’t particularly like the job – he made sure to encourage me to get a college education – but it was clear he took deep pride in his technical mastery of it. Customers loved him. I watched him handle difficult people with diplomacy. He never took short-cuts and, even if his clients, as happened several times, decided they didn’t like the color after all, he’d take the carpet back up at his own expense and return later to make sure they were satisfied.  

Dad’s physicality amazed me. With expert use of leverage learned over the years, he would   single-handedly hoist 1,000-pound carpet rolls onto his shoulder. He made working around heavy pieces of furniture look effortless. He kept his tools and his truck meticulously clean and  orderly. And on those occasions when I made a mistake – say, slicing off the wrong end of a piece – he’d set quietly about repairing the damage. 

“Well, now you know not to hurry it,” he’d say.

After completing the installation, my shoulders, knees, and hips ached.  A soreness infused, nonetheless, with a sense of pride. My hands felt raw. And I suddenly recalled the sight of my father’s hands – gnarled and thick with callouses, scarred by an infinite number of cuts, rug-burns, and pure manual labor. 

My father was always a hardworking, self-sufficient man. In his later years, he resisted my entreaties that he retire. “I don’t know what I’d do,” he said. He was, literally, still on the job when, at age 69, he died of a heart attack.   

“Aren’t you glad you didn’t have to do what your dad did for a living?” Patty asked. 

“Yes,” I said. “But he was a master at it – and I can’t tell you how proud I was of him.”

To this day, when asked where I’m from, I like to describe myself as “the son of a carpet-layer from Omaha.” I feel so much love, respect, and gratitude for the sacrifices my father made, the values he instilled, and the lessons I learned at his side.

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