A long time ago, when my kids were very young, my parents visited for an early December weekend, a rare occasion since I’d moved north with my family. I had already committed to hanging the Christmas lights before the weather turned bitterly cold—which is when I normally seemed to put up my Christmas lights.
My father asked if he could help and my own son couldn’t, so we gathered our tools and went outside to work. Almost before the ladder was unfolded, Dad clambered up a few steps and inspected the roof line.
“Let me go up, Dad,” I insisted.
He looked hurt. His eagerness turned to disappointment. But now his place was on the ground and mine was on the ladder. How many times had I wandered around behind my father with his magnificently tangled wad of Christmas lights, my coat pockets stuffed full of spare bulbs, weighted down with tools he’d never use?
How tempted I was to turn the tables. Oh, how I wanted to send him off to the garage to retrieve a pop-rivet gun or an orbital sander or maybe a spark-plug remover!
“You think we could use the staple gun on this stretch of lights, Dad?” I asked him.
“Just don’t staple ‘em where you can see,” he advised. He shuffled anxiously around at the bottom of the ladder, ready to climb up. “Under there. Watch it that you don’t shoot it into the wire. No, no, no, up under there. Stick it on the one-by. There you go. That’s it.”
Hey, wait a minute! I was on the ladder and the Ladder Guy gets to be the boss. He got to be the boss when he was the Ladder Guy, but now I was the Ladder Guy.
“That’ll work OK, won’t it, Dad?” I asked.
“But you gotta make it tight,” he said.
His foot rose for a split second, brushing the bottom rung, but it didn’t light. He wanted so badly to be up there … up where he’d once stood over me, barking orders and cursing the knotted wires that he zipped across the eaves of our house so quickly that I couldn’t keep up.
Now he was a grandfather. Another father had taken his place on the ladder.
The Ladder Guy.
“Just pull on it,” he grumbled impatiently. “It’s all rubber these days, so it stretches real good. Pull on those lights to stretch ‘em out, then shoot a staple in there.”
I hung a run of lights, then moved the ladder.
“You want me to do this one?” Dad asked me.
“The ladder’s kinda wobbly, Dad,” I told him. “I’d feel better if I went up.”
“I could go up on the roof and hand stuff to you,” he offered.
“That gutter’s kinda sagging down there,” he observed. “Why don’t you go get me a drill and some gutter nails? I’ll fix her up for you in a jiffy.”
“It’s OK, Dad. The lights aren’t that heavy.”
“You need to cut your shrubs back,” he said. “You could put the ladder closer.”
“I just cut them last spring, Dad. We can get close enough.”
“Did you plug those in? Don’t want to hang ‘em and find out they don’t work,” he said.
He got me.
He knew he got me, too, from the look on my face. The Old Pro beats the Ladder Guy every time. A smile flashed across his face and was gone in a twinkle.
“Where’s your plug-in? They’re probably just fine. I’ll just make sure, he said as he hustled my pitiful wad of Christmas lights off to the garage for a pre-flight check while the Ladder Guy just stood there.
Dad didn’t need to go up the ladder after that. He was satisfied to stay on the ground, carrying lights as I strung them, foot by foot, until we were finished. Without saying a word, he picked up all the tools off the lawn and hung them over my workbench.
Later I plugged in the lights and found they didn’t really stretch. The Ladder Guy had tugged a little too hard, but he’d done it under the supervision of the Old Pro. And that was the way it should be. I guess we’d done it together, the good and the not-so-good. Together.
I fixed the lights one night after my Dad went home. I worked all alone in the dark, finally surrounded by twinkling lights at the top of the ladder. Stuck between earth and sky, I was both a father and a son. Up there, I began to see some things better than I ever had before. He’d handed it all to me, not just Christmas lights but … all of it.
These days, I’m lucky my dad is still here to offer advice, but Parkinson’s Disease has dimmed his light. My own son is a man now and doesn’t like me to up on ladders anymore. How many times had he wandered around behind me with my magnificently tangled wad of Christmas lights, his coat pockets stuffed full of spare bulbs, weighted down with tools I’d never use? Maybe now it’s time for him to get … all of it.
The Ladder Guy.
Cover photo by Armand Khoury