Opals and Leather

Since childhood—and I’m talking under five—I’ve wanted exactly two family heirlooms. No one else wanted them so I’m not sure we can even call them that. The first was my maternal grandmother’s opal ring. She promised it to me from birth because I was the only granddaughter and it was my birthstone. The boys (who, again, were not remotely interested) didn’t stand a chance.

The second item was my father’s tool belt. When I was a kid, Pete could build anything, fix anything. He built tables and repaired drywall and drew beautiful plans on scraps of envelopes. I don’t remember a single finished project. I don’t know if that’s because of the impermanence of memory caused by my ADHD or because he didn’t finish shit because of his ADHD. It doesn’t matter though. My dad will always exist in my memory with perfect clarity. He’s so tall and always shirtless. His graying chest hair has a little paint in it. The same paint creasing his knuckles. There’s a worn pencil and a highlighter and three more pencils scattered across his workspace that he uses to draw. He’s skinny like me, but I can see the muscle in his arms, which is confusing because his brothers call him Musc for lack thereof. But that’s probably why I never liked my uncles. I wonder if I’ll get tan like that when I’m older, but I know somehow that I won’t. He’s wearing old khaki shorts and white sweat socks and sneakers. And the tool belt. Always the tool belt.

It’s not uncommon for our base understanding of masculinity to come from our fathers. There are plenty of exceptions to that rule, but as a broad statement, it stands.

Pete cries more than I do. It’s something I need to work on. I don’t cry when I’m sad or happy. Just angry. But my old man cries when he’s overwhelmed. When he spends more than five minutes with my wife, he cries because he’s so happy we found each other. When he met my students, he would cry at how neat they all were. When someone tells him a truth he needs to hear, he cries at the honesty and trust. It’s probably his butchest trait. The man is so comfortable in his skin, in his masculinity, in his fatherhood, in his sexuality, his knowledge and his shortcomings, that he cries whenever he damn well feels like it. What must that freedom feel like?

I knew as a kid I was different, but I didn’t know why. I knew I wanted to be like my dad. He was so effortless and he did cool stuff like chop wood. After the divorce, he let me chop wood too. Don’t worry. I was seven or eight, but he told me a lot of terrifying stories about people losing fingers before giving me the axe. I knew he was handsome because he was my dad, but also because I saw how women responded to him. I knew he was charming for the same reasons. I could see my mom was smart and pretty and powerful, but I saw the work that went into it. Feeding that kind of power is exhausting. My step-mom is the same. Respected, good-looking, overly educated, and always working. Never stopping. But not Pete. Pete has time.

He taught me all the lessons parents are supposed to teach their kids. “It’s a nice day, go outside.” And “never turn your back on the ocean.” But also, “there’s nothing worse than being a bully.” He revels in natural beauty. He’s never lost even when he has no damn clue where he is. He’s curious. He’s irresponsible and impulsive in the most wonderful ways.

And this is why I’m a misandrist. This is my bar for all masculine people. Powerful, confident, soft, silly, genuine. No wonder I surround myself with queer people. Cis straight dudes just disappoint me.

Pete gave me the tool belt a few months back (and was entirely surprised I wanted it). Turns out, it’s not a magical tool belt that imbues me with his power when I wear it. Which is a bummer because the man is a good carpenter. But I think the magic might be in the person I’ve become. I’m masc in the way he showed me—with a vein of kindness and humility and an absolute refusal to accept fuckery. Plus, I’ve always got time.


  1. Love that image of masculinity. It’s so similar to my own. My dad always smoked a pipe, which smelled like cherry wood. He played a fiddle (not a violin). I always make that comment “not a violin” because my dad made the music dance. He recorded himself braying like a donkey on his fiddle. To this day it makes me smile. He was not educated but was a highly skilled musician and a day job carpenter. He used his hands and his eyes. His hands created cabinetry with wood and his eyes were piercing when they looked at a person as if he could see more possibilities than you actually felt inside. He wore wife-beaters that remind me of Marlon Brando’s look in “A Streetcar Named Desire”. And although I was a survivor of a fairly awful divorce, I never took sides. Nor held myself or them to blame. My dad passed when I was 14. He will probably always remind me of how men should look and act. Not perfect but perfect. My brother got his fiddles and I was so upset about that. I bet he doesn’t have them anymore.


  2. I really enjoyed reading this post. Actually, I’ve really enjoyed reading all of your posts. Your writing conveys a sense of being present even when the topic is about the past. Now I’m going to spend time thinking about my dad’s qualities and how they affected the person I am.


  3. Thank you for sharing this wonderful story Ashley. I also cry only when I’m very angry. I’ve never been able to break that habit I learned as a child.

    I mainly want to say I’ve really enjoyed all of your posts here at Women and Words and to thank you for your many thought-provoking words.


Comments are closed.