Papà finally agrees to look at the backyard shed from a distance, from above, from the attic window. And only then does he finally see that it’s no longer square but leans to the right, as if it’s about to fall over. He also sees, finally, the weathered silver-grey shingles on the roof and the bare patches where shingles have fallen off. He stands at the window for a long time, holding his chin in his hand, slowly rubbing his lips with his thumb. Then he turns away from the window, nods, and says we should go down to the dining room. Later, after everyone has arrived for our weekly family lunch (Ma, my brothers Silvio and Luca, my sister Anna, me, our spouses, and our children), after we are all seated at the long table, he says to Ma, “Time for a new shed.” She nods and hands him his pasta.
The summer I was eight years old, I helped Papà build his shed. I’d wait all day for him to come home from the factory. Then, I’d pester him while he tried to watch his shows and eat his dinner. Finally, in the evening’s softer light and cooler heat, we’d build. He measured, sawed, hammered. I stood by, ready to hand him nails, screwdrivers, pliers just like the nurses handed tools to the surgeons on MASH. Papà taught me how to use a measuring tape and level, and he let me climb up the kitchen stepstool next to his tall ladder. From the stepstool, I watched him balance in a crouch on the roof, take nails from his mouth, hammer them into the shingles. I asked and asked but was never allowed to climb up there with him.
The shed looked like a one-room house with a gabled, high-peeked roof. It did not have electricity, but plenty of light came through the window and the screen door. There was overhead loft storage that held Papà’s lumber: plywood, planks, posts, and joists, some new and some leftover from finished projects, saved for when they’d be needed. Below the loft, there was space for his power tools, gardening supplies, and wine-making equipment, along with our assorted bric-à-brac—bicycles and toys, tennis racquets, soccer and basket balls, and boxes whose contents were long forgotten. Cupboards repurposed from a kitchen renovation held his hand tools, and glass baby food jars filled with nails, screws, washers, and bolts. The shed had a manly scent, wood, soil, and motor oil.
When Papà wasn’t in the shed, it doubled as my pioneer playhouse. I pretended to be Laura Ingalls, hauling water from the garden hose, re-enacting favorite scenes with my dolls as the Ingalls clan, or I was Mrs Oleson’s shopgirl selling Papà’s things to my Walnut Grove neighbours. But most often, I was Miss Beadle standing at the front of her one-room schoolhouse teaching dolls perched on every flat surface.
Anna and I are in the dining room setting the table for Sunday lunch as my brothers arrive with their families. “Ask your father what happened to the shed.”
Luca chuckles. “What happened to the shed?”
“He tore it down.” I slam a fork onto a napkin. A muffled clunk. Not at all satisfying. “Eighty years old and he’s tearing down sheds.” I shake my head at Papà. “By himself.” I move to the next setting.
“Why didn’t you wait?” Silvio asks.
“Why should I wait when I can do it myself?” Papà shrugs.
“We could have hired someone, a handy man,” Luca continues.
“For what? It’s a nothing job.”
“On a ladder.” I’ve stopped setting the table and clutch the remaining cutlery in one hand.
“I’ve been on that ladder a thousand times.”
“In the heat.” I point at the dining room window with my free hand.
“It wasn’t so hot.”
“Your mother was in the house.”
Anna brings Parmigiano and pepperoncini from the kitchen. “You could’ve gotten hurt,” she says.
“I didn’t, did I?”
Sheds of various shapes and sizes line one end of the Lowe’s parking lot. Papà inspects each one while Anna, Ma, and I wait. First, he circles the exterior, then he opens the door, noting the hinges, steps inside, stands in the middle, looks up and around, shakes his head, moves on to the next one. After the third, he tells us the new shed must be made of wood, not resin or metal. He wants large double doors with full-length hinges to make it easier to move things in and out. We are doubtful when he says he doesn’t need windows.
“I can build more shelves that way,” he explains. “And with both doors open, a voglia, lots of light.”
The shed he chooses is about as big as the old one, maybe a little taller. No windows. Slate grey shingles. We also buy, despite Papà’s protests, two camping lanterns, battery operated, just in case. We ignore him when he says we don’t need the assembly service, that he’ll do it himself.
On the day of the installation, Papà stays in the backyard, watching the men work. Ma reminds him, over and over, to give them space, to stay out of the way. But he can’t help himself. He makes suggestions, asks questions, tells them about building the old shed. He also goes into the house at regular intervals to update Ma. She makes espresso for the men’s break, serves it with biscotti.
The men finish the shed in one day, instead of the planned two. “It was quick because the ground didn’t need levelling,” the supervisor explains.
“Of course not,” Papà says, “I levelled it myself years ago.”
During the next few days, Papà adds an overhead storage loft for his lumber, a wall of shelves, and a workbench. Then he paints the exterior tan with blue trim. After the paint dries, he carries his tools, his gardening supplies, Ma’s bundle buggy, and my niece Bella’s tricycle into his new shed. He leaves one large pile out in the backyard under a blue tarp.
The next Sunday afternoon, once everyone has arrived, but before we sit down to lunch, Papà calls us out to the backyard. We stand in front of the new shed as he points out its original features and the additions he’s made.
“It’s a big improvement,” Luca says.
“Non c’è male, but it won’t last forty years like the one I built myself.”
“Pretty blue,” Bella says, “Like the sky.”
“He wasn’t supposed to climb the ladder alone.” I frown at Papà.
He frowns back.
“We were going to paint it together on Tuesday,” Phil, my husband, says, “but when I got here, even earlier than the time we agreed on, he was already finished.”
“I was ready to start at six.” Papà shakes his head. “Was I just supposed to wait for you to wake up?”
Papà walks over to the last bundle and pulls off the tarp. A jumble of our things. “It’s mostly junk.” He urges us to get rid of it all, or at least, to take anything we want to keep to our own homes.
When Ma reluctantly agrees to donate the pram she once walked us in, Papà says, “Un miracolo.”
“Don’t forget,” she chuckles, “the last time I gave away baby things, the very next month, I got pregnant with Anna.” Ma and Papà look at each other and laugh.
Anna’s rusted red tricycle goes into the trash. Luca claims his green toboggan for his children. And I grab hold of Susie, the baby doll I thought I’d lost when I was a girl. Papà asks Phil if he wants his winemaking equipment. “It’s easier to buy bottles, now. They sell wine from home, Puglia. Not my village, no vineyards there, but still Puglia.”
We put the rest of the things back in the shed. “They’re all useless.” Papà shakes his head. “Just take up space.”
“You never know,” Ma replies as we go back into the house. “Potremmo averne bisogno un giorno.”
“We might need them one day,” I translate for Phil.
After we say our goodbyes, Phil and I head to the backyard for the grape crusher, wine presser, and demijohns. While he carries them to the truck, I duck into the shed and pull the doors shut behind me. In the dark, I breathe in the fresh, woody scent of the new shed and a whisper of the deeper, earthier scent of the old one. I click on the camping lantern. In the dim light, I pull my doll out of my bag and tuck her away in the furthest corner behind the old hockey sticks and goalie pads.
Lucia Gagliese is a writer, clinical psychologist and professor in the School of Kinesiology and Health Science at York University in Toronto. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous publications including Best Canadian Stories, The New Quarterly, The Healing Muse, and Accenti.