History is an old chest of tools

A few weeks ago I visited my childhood home. Some time after dinner, I walked down into the basement with the desire to explore. The house is old and the basement’s walls and floor are surrounded in thick concrete and stone. I can never quite stand up straight for fear of whacking my head or becoming entangled in spider webs. I realize it’s actually an old cellar, but we refer to it as the basement and with good reason. My father, the electrical engineer, wired it up with strategically placed handheld work lights; we store the standard basement fare (furniture, Christmas ornaments, etc.) in a layout that utilizes space with distinct paths around the cold stone floor; hell, the cat loves it enough to spend hours down there hunting, only to appear for meals with her whiskers covered in spider webs… I guess I can stand up straight now with the knowledge she has hunted every spider that used to lay claim to that territory. Essentially, it’s not the terrifying dark cellar you might imagine, where monsters wait to grab at your feet as you descend the old wooden stairs. I probably wouldn’t sleep down there, but it’s fine. Unless, of course, you hate cats.

But the most distinctive feature of the basement to me is my father’s tools. Against the wall two large shelving units hold carefully labelled and organized tool boxes, power tools and their batteries plugged into the strategically wired power bars. We use these tools often for home projects, vehicle maintenance, and any of the hobbies my brother’s and I want to try out.

I do not want to denigrate their use, however. These are not simply tools that we use on the regular and put (or misplace) back into their respective shelves – the hammer is not just the hammer because it must strike a nail. These are living artefacts imbued with meaning that illicit distinct memories. My father’s impact drill, for instance, though it’s motor is now dying, can transport me back to the weekend my brothers and I helped him construct a wooden fence along the driveway; or the set of ratchets and sockets that my father kept in the trunk of our 1994 Aerostar van, explaining them to me as I cranked a socket back and forth because I loved the ratcheting sound; or the handheld blue propane tank my father lit which shot a random spark off, burning my knee for a split second as I jumped.

We use these tools regularly and I have distinct memories of most of them. There are also, however, an old metal toolbox and a wooden chest that sit across from the shelving units. I’ve been through the metal tool box before, and it contains rusted railways spikes, an old tube of white lithium grease, some large sockets, and more. I had no memory of my father using these tools, but I’d snooped around them before. That evening a few weeks ago, though, I dug out that wooden chest.

The chest was filled to the brim with old hand tools. It contained the usual spattering of electrical gear (such as one of probably 100 multimeters my father owned); a half used bottle of chalk placed carefully pack in its packaging; a plumbing snake and other tubing. I placed the remaining contents on the floor: handheld carpentry tools along with other decades old, rusted, and strange looking tools that I toyed with attempting to figure out their purpose.

The bottom of the chest of tools. I did not take any photos of the chest upon opening.

I deeply enjoy going through my father’s tools. By exploring his belongings I have never seen before, I discover more about my father’s past.

Most importantly, I feel connected to my father who I have not seen in many years. He passed in 2014.

One late afternoon in early September 2014, I finished dinner and walked down into the basement. I wandered amongst my father’s tools, picking them up at random just to handle them. I opened and closed a pair of pliers, pinched some sandpaper between my fingers, and repeatedly locked a pair of vice grips. I battled tears as I used these tools in mid air – like a child playing – just to remember my father and feel connected to him. An hour later, we visited the funeral home to see his body.

Discovering my father’s chest of tools, I meditated on that connection they bring me, fusing my life to his with the strike of a hammer. I furiously scribbled notes of my experience after rifling through the old chest – even these tools I had no memory of my father using told me stories about his past.

Now, several weeks later – reading my notes from that evening – I found similarities with the German philosopher Martin Heidegger’s critique of Dasein. (I imagine I have misinterpreted some aspect of Heidegger’s theory. Although my understanding of it has provided me a new way to view my experience, I encourage discussion so I may discover more.) Dasein essentially means being or existence, but Heidegger analyzes it as a responsibility to our awareness of being. That is, Dasein is an awareness that we are beings who are alive and participating in life. Dasein allows us to be conscientious of the world in which we live – that we have been thrown into this world (Heidegger called this throwness) and we will one day meet das nichts (the nothing). For Heidegger, Dasein means we have the freedom to live authentically or inauthentically (and a responsibility to the former).

Heidegger used the example of a hammer to explain Dasein as a recognition that we are part of a totality. He states that the hammer is an object that we only recognize as a hammer through its use (i.e. when it strikes the nail).

The less we just stare at the hammer-thing, and the more we seize hold of it and use it, the more primordial does our relationship to it become, and the more unveiledly is it encountered as that which it is—as equipment. The hammering itself uncovers the specific ‘manipulability’ of the hammer. The kind of Being which equipment possesses—in which it manifests itself in its own right—we call ‘readiness-to-hand’.

 

An old hammer, possibly from my father’s childhood. Perhaps Dasein is such a salient explanation here because the tools are not just a metaphor – they are the reason for this story.

The hammer is involved in the totality of a task, such as building a fence. But when something breaks the totality of involvement, we become aware of it. When the carpenter strikes the hammer and it snaps in two, he becomes aware of the hammer’s involvement in the network of construction.

Likewise, grief broke the nature and purpose of those tools for me. The drill was not just the drill but an artefact imbued with memory. My father’s tools transcended themselves as ordinary creative objects – they are time machines. Unlike the drill, however, which causes memories of building the fence with my father, I have no memories of my father using any of the tools within the chest. And obviously I did not need to, since each tool told me a story of his past.

As I unraveled a red blanket, I found a collection of partially broken wood chisels. I saw my father as a young man, perhaps in his mid twenties hammering the reinforced end of a chisel into a section of wood, the tool snapping as the chisel dug into the lumber and the handle remained in my father’s hand – a surprised look on his face.

I came across two wood planers. One still had a shaving stuck to the edge of the blade. At some point, my father slid the planer across a slab of wood and set it down, not even aware that he would never use it again.

Handheld planer with wood shaving.

The old tools create stories I can never verify, bring back memories of my father I never had, and allow me to develop his history as I use them. Just looking at them does only so much. I must use these tools. Every time I create, fix, etc., I do it in memorium for my father. I think of how proud he would be of me, but mostly proud of myself for creating, continuing his life and lesson through meaningful work and important tasks. It does not become about duty, but I work out of desire and a recognition of my place in this world. By doing his tasks around the house I carry his memory. I have no immediate use for some of these tools, but I will one day create use for them. In this case, then, using a tool isn’t solely an organically utilized artefact but a conscious act to invoke memory. I create my father’s history to try to experience the unknown life he lived.

The point is either way the organic or contrived use of the tools melds together with each hammer blow of my consciousness. The tools I purchased on my own throughout my life, especially since my father’s death, also become artefacts that carry on his memory. Whereas before every act of maintenance and work I did I had him in mind to varying degrees, now I consciously acknowledge my father as the axiom of my work ethic. His old tools gave me meaning as they spurred the conscious push to act out his memory: the tool as an artefact imbued with meaning flowed through my hands into the new tools I had purchased myself. The meaning was in his tools and found their way to everything else like a creeping moss.

My father’s memory became forged in those newer tools through his work ethic. Throughout my life, I observed the way he worked and thus need not ever observe him use his older tools. In the work I’d seen, such as the construction of the fence, was his entire life – the entire story of his work ethic which I moulded into my own existed in each screw drilled into a fence, each hammer blow on a nail. Every time I use any tools, I am simultaneously living out his past, my memory of him, and my work ethic moulded by him.

Grief broke my existence within the totality, the Dasein. Grief does not force me to do anything, but reveals my freedom as I age, edging closer to das nichts. In tragedy, life continues uninterupted and I am given the choice. Life is best pursued in meaning and hope, one hammer blow at a time.

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