The last inches of cigar clung to the corner of my father-in-law’s mouth as he gnawed on our predicament. A newly delivered refrigerator obstinately filled the center floor of our u-shaped kitchen. He stretched a tape measure across the appliance, then stepped into the intended alcove measuring in several places. “Nope. Doesn’t fit.”
Nearly to term in my first pregnancy, I desperately wanted extra space for our growing family, even if it was only in the refrigerator. But, as new homeowners, we had yet to learn that walls were not always straight.
My father-in-law looked at the refrigerator, the walls, his son. A smoky trail wafted from his stogie, almost hiding his grin, as he directed the solution at me. "Don’t buy appliances unless I measure first." Turning to pull out supplies already stashed in his car, he led his engineer-degreed son, with whom he spent childhood weekends rebuilding barns and fences, through the process of removing drywall and sawing inches off wooden studs to make space.
Three years and second child later, we’d done it again. We measured in many places, but didn’t account for venting depth. My father-in-law studied the new appliances that refused to fit, then lobbied for their return. Still seeking space for my growing family, I pleaded the case for my super-sized washer and dryer. Glancing at the machines, their intended closet, and his son, my father-in-law turned to me, locking on my eyes. A smile peeked above the stogie he chewed, but no longer smoked in our home. "Don’t buy appliances unless I measure first." As he worked side-by-side with my husband creating space, he shared stories from weekends on the farm.
Decades later, when my oldest child was expecting our first grandchild, I sat with my father-in-law. Dementia gripped his memory like a vise. Giving him space and control of his surroundings, I waited patiently while he determined which rectangle on his end table muted the TV sound. He grabbed the flashlight: shine on, shine off. He picked up the phone, aimed and pushed, then turned it around and tried again. Those hands that once guided my husband’s, moved slowly and deliberately until landing on the remote. The TV fell silent so we could talk.
As I spoke, he gazed downward, eyes narrow slits. He nodded, almost imperceptibly, while I chatted about my grown children, reminding him of their names, ages, spouses, and growing families. Talking about the challenges his grandchildren faced as new homeowners, my father-in-law’s face lit up. He raised his head and said “Remodeling?” Turning to look directly in my eyes, his lips stretched into a smile. “Let me measure first."