Dad’s Tape Measure
By Brigid O’Kane
Organizing and reorganizing areas of my studio spaces are essential parts of managing creative environments. This time, I was looking for space to put my graphite lead. In one corner of my studio is a cabinet with three sections. The top two units are arranged with two columns of thin drawers, 12 in each section. I opened the drawer marked ‘#2 Pencils.’ There is nothing special about these pencils, except I would use them on a rare occasion when giving my students an exam. Here in this wooden cabinet, they were taking up prime real estate.
I started removing these pencils by the fist full, putting them in a box to shelve them. When I removed them all, I noticed a lonely stainless steel measuring tape near the front of the drawer. It once belonged to my Dad. I pulled it out of the drawer and gazed at it lying in the palm of my hand. Simple in design and easy to look at, flat on three sides, with one side shaped into a rounded arch. I assumed he would have carried it in his pocket since it was a nice-sized tool at 2 inches square with rounded corners. It looked worn, well-used, and well-loved, with one screw in the center to hold it together. He used it for many years while he worked at General Motors Design Center. Then I noticed Dad had scribed something into the side of it. I needed more light so I could see it.
As I made my way from my studio into my office, where it was brighter, I thought about my Dad and his measuring tapes. A memory lurched in my mind that stopped me in my tracks. Years ago, I was living in an apartment in Cincinnati, Ohio, and Mom and Dad were passing through, returning to Michigan from a trip to North Carolina. We had a pleasant day together, and as the evening settled, we retired to our beds.
In the middle of the night, I woke up to the sound of my parents moving about. They had packed their bags and were ready to leave. I remember being confused because they had just arrived, and it was the middle of the night. “Why are you leaving?” I asked. “Can’t you wait until morning? Weren't we going to have breakfast together?” My Dad then attempted to explain, but words failed him. That's when he grabbed a tape measure sitting on the table. He pulled it out to 90 or so inches. The tape measure flopped in the air and made rustling sounds as it dragged and scrapped across the floor. He put his finger on 78 inches and said, “This is how old I am. This is the life I have lived,” he gestured towards the beginning of the tape measure. “I only have this many more years of my life to live,” he said as he gestured towards the large number of inches.
Explaining the timeline of his life on a tape measure seemed fitting for my dad. At that moment, he was filled with intentions, driven by some invisible force that involved abruptly ending a visit with his daughter to continue their journey back to Michigan. What was he attempting to say to me? He wasn’t trying to explain something to me for my sake; his mind and emotions were behind the wheel, and they were leaving what I thought was supposed to be a meaningful visit. After they left the apartment, the door creaked and latched closed. I stood in the darkness of the hallway, feeling like a roadside casualty. The less important one, a less than significant daughter, the one that holds no meaning.
As I age, I sense the journey that I've traveled. I am very much aware of the finite time I have left. I don't want to waste my time doing things I don’t want to do. I focus on meaningful things. Meaningful in a way that places something left behind that I can feel good about when leaving. Or that might mean something to my daughter. I spend time with my loved ones and people who are medicine instead of the toxic kind. But these were my parents, visiting their daughter. Wasn’t that quality time? Wasn’t that supposed to be meaningful?
I turned my attention back to the plain little measuring tape that was once something meaningful to my Dad. First, I read his name, “Jim O'Kane.” It was written in cursive, a bit bumpy as one can imagine scribing letters into such a hard surface. Then, I saw letters circling the edge. I read the word ‘whee’ followed by a rough sketch of a three-leaf clover and “Erin go bragh honest.” What could that possibly mean? After a quick search on the internet, I discovered that ‘whee’ is used to express delight, excitement, or exhilaration. Erin go bragh means “…Ireland forever. The original Irish phrase was Erin go brách (or go bráth), which translates literally as “Ireland till doomsday.” It's an expression of loyalty and devotion.” And we all know what ‘honest’ means. I wondered why and how these words were meaningful to my Dad.
I flipped the tape measure in my hand, and at a half-inch deep, it rolled easily. There, his name was scribed again: “Jim O’Kane.” Close to the top of the arched edge, he had scribed “2+2=5.” I googled this, and Russia used it to describe the moral decline of society at the turn of the century. As I examined the bottom flat side of the measuring tape, I saw his name again, “O’Kane,” with a bit of sculpting clay smudged over the top. He wrote his name so many times that I’m sure he wanted others to know it was his property. It would surely come back to him if he ever left it behind.
I returned to my task of filling the drawer with my graphite lead. I have many little tubes of graphite of different sizes and varying degrees of softness and hardness for my mechanical pencils. These were all grouped and organized to fit perfectly into this little flat drawer. Then, I noticed one last item in the drawer. I reached in and pulled out my Dad’s old digital wristwatch, looking like a little robot fastidiously donned with tiny type and little fussy buttons on the front face and both sides. It had a blank expression. Of course, the display was empty since the battery died years ago. How fitting is it that the tape measure and wristwatch linger together in my possession long after Dad is gone? What are they saying to me now?