I learned a lot about my Dad's work whenever we went to the hardware store, which was just about every Saturday. Once we found the wood glue or box wrench Dad needed to complete that weekend's project, he'd wander over to the parts aisle, take a package of carriage bolts off the rack -- and the lesson was in session.
"See this?" he would say, showing me the edge of the package where the cardboard backing met the front plastic covering.
"Ye-Yeah" I responded, thinking this was some kind of vision test.
"This is awful. That seal is too weak. If somebody pulls that package off the rack too quickly, the bolts will scatter across the hardware store.
"And look at this!" he'd add, putting the fragile card back on the rack and walking towards a warped package that was once blue and white, now very yellow with a stream of green. "Where's my pen? I'm calling this company on Monday."
That was my dad -- the one man missionary who made Aisle 6 more beautiful, one well-packaged drain trap at a time.
I ran into a trap of my own in high school, when my girlfriend's father asked what my dad did for a living. My long-term memory of the weekly adventures in Aisle 6 was clouded by the stronger memories of the trips to McDonalds that came after we were done at the hardware store. Still, my girlfriend was there, so it was time for a noble guess.
"You know those packages you buy at the store where the product is held inside plastic -- nuts, bolts, batteries? My dad designs the plastic."
Based on the look on his face, my girlfriend's father was either disappointed in what my father did, or in my ability to explain it -- but that was nothing compared to the disappointment in my own father's face when I relayed the story to him that night.
"No, son" he said, with a sigh that echoed forever, "I design the cardboard, not the plastic."
That sigh came back to me a few weeks after my dad died, along with the memories of how much he loved us, how hard he worked to provide for us, and how he thought the sun rose and set on my mother. I'd gone on to make my dad proud in many ways, but since he rarely expressed disappointment with me, that moment lingered, and I thought part of me would be 16 forever.
Two months went by, and I was unloading groceries. Companies had just started putting food in plastic packages with cardboard tops; I pulled their latest effort out of a grocery bag, and cheese crumbles nearly flew across the kitchen.
"This is awful" I said to my wife, and I disappeared into the study.
"The seal to the cardboard is weak" I wrote in my letter to the cheese makers. "You should try a thinner cardboard, or one that's better aerated -- or maybe try a thinner plastic, applied at a higher temperature. You're almost there, but this could be better."
The package was vastly improved when I used one of the coupons the manufacturer had sent to thank me for the suggestion. But the tightest seal was on the envelope of the letter I'd sent to the cheese company months earlier, as I packaged up the memory of a father's brief disappointment in the boy I had been, and did my part to make a different Aisle 6 more beautiful as the man I had become.
It turns out I was right. It was a vision test after all.