I first held a hammer when I was three years old.

It was my dad’s idea. He decided that the best way to volunteer at my pre–kindergarten, teaching a classroom of toddlers about his work life, was to hand them a block of wood and some nails. He tossed in some colorful rubber bands to make the project more kid–friendly. 

Looking back on how all of us giddily swung those adult tools of destruction, I wonder how someone didn’t lose a finger. Even my dad, the expert carpenter, sawed his own thumb off at the ripe age of twenty–nine. A surgeon reattached that thumb, but it doesn’t bend anymore. My dad insists that it’s functional: he can still hold a hammer, and that’s all that matters. 

The point is that a bunch of children wielding hammers could get dangerous fast. But this was my dad’s dream: he wanted to raise a daughter that understood the value of a toolbox. 

As a toddler, my dad probably introduced me to more tools than people. He worked the night shift as a cabinet maker and spent the days driving me to preschool and bringing me along on odd jobs. He plopped me in a corner with coloring books while he repaired houses. I got excited whenever we pulled up to Ace Hardware because he always bought me a box of Raisinets at the register. Back at home, he’d grab a napkin and write out angular formulas for me to solve, turning dinnertime into a lesson on how to build a staircase. I grew up around the world of construction, my dad’s world, and I think it was the only way to really get to know him.

My dad is a manly man. He’s driven the same white Chevy van everywhere since 2008 because he can’t leave his tools behind and we can’t afford a new one. He built our house from scratch. He works on Sundays because if my father’s hands aren’t building or holding a cold beer, what are they for? He likes to hold them out for people to feel how thick the skin has become after decades of manual labor. I doubt he’d ever admit it, but there’s a softness there, at the centers of his palms, too. 

My father’s love speaks in two tongues: construction and the news. Most of our formative bonding moments have involved a newspaper article or a drive to the Home Depot. His favorite thing to say to me is:

“So I heard on NPR today…”

Or, the more frustrated:

“You’re an engineer. You can figure it out.”

His expectations are steadfast and uncompromising: I must work, I must learn, and I must think. He wants me to be a self–sufficient survivor, someone who doesn’t have to call a plumber when the toilet is leaking. But I didn’t bring a toolset with me to college. I’d hate to admit it to him, but my eyes glaze over when my boyfriend starts talking about carpentry. I still ask my dad to patch holes in my wall. 

I’d like to think my dad is still proud of me. He’s slapped at least four Penn stickers on the back of his van since I started here, and he never shows up in Philadelphia without a “Penn Dad” shirt tucked into his jeans. He doesn’t call much, though. He sees things practically. Time I spend talking to him is time I could be studying, and if my father holds anything sacred, it’s the value of work. So he forwards me newsletters and article links he’s deemed worthy of my time. Sometimes he calls to ask my opinion of them. Sometimes he doesn’t. But he’s been handing me newspapers since I was a child and telling me to think for myself. These copied and pasted links are his gifts. 

I feel my father’s love when I find a copy of the Pittsburgh Post Gazette clipped to pieces after he’s left for work, his favorite articles spread out on my placemat. I know it when he brings me down to his musty garage–turned–woodshop, sweeps away the dead mice and sawdust, and teaches me how to use a router. 

My father is not a soft man. He has callouses and a gruff voice and doesn’t care that he sawed off his own thumb once. He is as much a builder as he is a father. But that doesn’t mean he is any less of a loving one.