In Which My Dominant Genes Assert Themselves

When I was about eight Dad helped me build a chair for my doll. We sketched, measured (and measured again), sawed, glued, clamped, and nailed. At that point it looked pretty done to me. Dad disagreed and gave me a piece of sandpaper. I sanded for a minute or two, dropped the paper, and sighed with satisfaction. Finished! Dad ran a finger over the chair and put the sandpaper back in my hand. I sanded again. Unsatisfactory, again.  This process repeated itself about half a dozen times. My father increased his maddening zen-like calm with every repeat, and I increased my Third Grade wails of frustration. In the end the chair was silky to the touch. Every rough edge was smoothed away, no corner or crevice was ignored, and I was royally cranky.

Mom, meanwhile, is a true German housekeeper. A German housekeeper with severe dust allergies, which is really not fair. She didn’t have to do the white glove test to check if your room was clean. She just walked in and sneezed. We vacuumed and dusted twice a week, swept the kitchen daily, washed walls, scrubbed corners with bleach on a Q-tip, attacked the hidden places on top of door jambs and under coffee-table books, dusted the blinds, made beds square and tight, washed sheets weekly, opened windows in the middle of winter to air the house, scrubbed cabinets and wiped baseboards to her heart’s content and our whiney disgust.

I thought this obsessive work ethic was a little crazy. Vacuuming every two weeks was good enough for our neighbors. Who would notice if that woodworking project was a little rough? Still, I did my chores, and as the indoctrination seeped into my pliable growing brain, occasionally got an inexplicable joy from rearranging the kitchen cupboards. My siblings and I had our own lawn-mowing business by the time I was eight. We also cared for traveling neighbors’ pets, and by eleven I had several regular babysitting gigs and was earning money hand-over-fist by Sixth Grade standards. We helped our parents in our fixer-upper, and worked at friends’ houses with the dads installing new roofing, painting, or putting down floors.

At seventeen, I joined my church youth group on a service trip to Ecuador. Along with visiting orphanages and running a VBS program we spent long hours on the mountainside digging and pouring the foundation for a new building. I loved every minute of it (except my systemic reaction to bacteria in the local water – ugh). Loved the adventure and exploration, loved the independence…and loved the work and knowing how to do it. I went from being the least-experienced and youngest member on the family work crew, often kicked off the fun jobs on the ladder and relegated to carrying boards for an older sibling, to being one of the best trained on the team. I could hammer, I knew basic carpentry. I didn’t mind hard work, and usually ended up working on the more difficult tasks on the wood-working crew.

I tanned deeply. My biceps exploded with the hard labor. My lungs expanded in the mountainous altitude. Most days I climbed the hill to the site first, worked hard, knew what I was doing, stayed on for work site cleanup, and went back to my bunk room at the end of the day aching, dizzy from the high altitude, and completely satisfied. I watched popular kids in the youth group slack off after half an hour and shirk work to throw dirt clods, and felt tough and adult as I built the next section of forms for the concrete and worked independently. I thrived on the challenge and new-earned respect as I shot up the ladder from most-junior at home to one of the most experienced on the work site. Not because I was special, but because my parents taught me that good work is honorable, and that any job worth doing is worth doing well. It paid off.

Fast-forward through another seven years of fluctuating industry and slacking, varying failures and successes in college, jobs, and caring for dorm room and apartments. We’re two months into our first home. The house is pretty much unpacked. The previous owners couldn’t have been nicer people, and left the house in good shape. But I’m my parents’ child. The walls have been washed. Drawers pulled out and bleached. Grout cleaned and sealed. Steps overhauled. And the list of projects I still want to do keeps getting longer: Caulk around that molding. Replace those 1980s fans. Rip down the wallpaper. Spackle. Sand. Paint cupboards and walls. Install crown molding. Refinish the banisters. A smidgen of bead-board?

Gosh-darn those genetics.


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