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© Copyright 2003 Kenneth Mulholland  


Straightening Nails

Kenneth Mulholland


Have you ever had cause to halt in your daily progression; the flurry of chores and pressures that assail us all, to reflect for a few moments on things of the past? Sentimental things: be they only photographs flipped through in careworn albums or old, treasured trinkets and everyday items such as the object resting here on my desk. It is an open, rectangular wooden box, not much larger than the palm of my hand. It contains a single bulldog clip, a pencil sharpener, an eraser, a box of postage stamps and some ball-point refills. And a needle and cotton-reel of twine which, to me, represents a thread leading back to my father.
Because this crude wooden box was the last thing my father ever made. It and the belt I often wear are almost all that remain of the man who was my dad. Yes, there are still photos, but now after more than a quarter of a century since his death, there is little else. Nothing written. Nothing personal, with the exception of his silver and gold wrist watches which I still wear on special occasions, and yet the wooden box has much more significance. It was fashioned by my father in the last months of his short sixty-five year life, when he was groping for meaning, for reason, for some justification to continue after forced retirement, against the mounting pressure of ill-health.
I'm holding it up right now and turning it round so that I can see how he used a rough, metal file to work off the sharp edges, and how the flat-headed nails were driven in between twin layers of three-ply and Masonite to hold it together.
When I was a four year old kid I had a little hammer that was a replica of dad's big one and I used to gather up all the bent nails he discarded and carefully straighten them for my own use. I too fashioned similar objects as this in much the same way.
Back then, dad used to read to me long before I could understand anything more than the pictures of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck. He had a certain way of enlivening the comics, giving the Big Bad Wolf and Little Bad Wolf their own personalities through his voice and turning Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd into even funnier characters than Mel Blank had made them. Hopalong Cassidy and The Lone Ranger all got dad's special treatment too as we sat together beside the wood-fire in winter.
Of course then I grew up.
Teachers taught me how to read and I discovered the mobile school library and the joy of it all. I was first on board and last to leave with a pile of books that were mine for two weeks.
And I suppose that was somewhere about the time that child and adult separated.
I do have another memory of dad though, or perhaps it could be called an echo of memory. It is of him looking down at me. He is smiling. I am lying on my back, uncovered and naked. To this day I retain feelings of vulnerability, helplessness and even embarrassment. Probably just an illusion, a trick of the mind. Probably.
In any event, my adopted sister Janis came along when I was eight and quite mature and later I had her as a foil to work off my energies. She was always Sergeant Garcia and I was of course Zorro, leaving my chalked Z everywhere, including her back. By then dad's reading had long faded into the past. After all, in the mid fifties we had radio in its greatest days of serials: Tarzan, Superman, The Sea-hound, Biggles, The Argonauts on the A.B.C.
I had passed over and forgotten what dad and I had once had together as parent and child.
In his last year, I read to him.
I think, from memory, it was Dennis Wheatley's, 'The Devil Rides Out.' Much of that time he was in bed. That is where I found him on the morning of my mother's phone call. I had never seen a dead person before and although I was in my late thirties it was still an experience that I have never forgotten. Mum was sitting at the kitchen table when I arrived and, realising that she was in shock, I made her as comfortable as I could before going into their bedroom.
Dad was sitting upright, slumped, his hands were in his lap. It was like he was just asleep, eyes closed, mouth slightly open. I stood there for a while looking down at him. I didn't cry. I had already prepared myself for this eventuality. On the bed-side table, his silver Seamaster wrist-watch faintly ticked away the seconds. It was dad who had stopped.
I stayed at his side for some time, reflecting on my faint glimmer of real or imagined memory when he, almost forty years before had looked down upon me.
And that was it. We couldn't read to each other ever again.

What then was in his mind when he spent almost a whole day sawing and tacking and filing away at this final, humble creation? He was still a rational human being, he hadn't lost his mind. It was his health that was failing. And yet, and yet... something had compelled him to produce this childish, almost useless item.
And maybe that is why I have kept it and associate with it.
It is the child that he and I have in common. He at the beginning and end of his life. Me at the beginning and who knows? Right now I'm only a year younger than my father when he died. Of course I'm not ready to start straightening nails again yet.
But when I am, I'll have the perfect container.



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