A bit of a fixer-upper

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I saw it more often than not: children enjoying their breakfast around a round table, one parent sipping away at hot coffee and trying their best to solve the daily paper’s crossword puzzle. Though I only saw it through a screen.

Movies and TV shows sure paint the wrong picture sometimes. I definitely didn’t wake up to find buffets of breakfast foods ranging from french toast and waffles to yogurt and diced fruit. And if I had, I surely wouldn’t have rushed out of the house after biting into a piece of bacon yelling, “Gotta run!” But most importantly, my dad would never sit at our table trying to solve the newspaper’s crossword puzzle. He wasn’t a traditional puzzles type of dad — we didn’t even have a subscription to the Los Angeles Times.

What we did have, though, was a subscription to a fixer-upper home. And with my dad being the I can do it myself type of person, that fixer-upper home was just his type of puzzle. Luckily for us, he had a toolbox — and he’d get to use it on many, many occasions. 

When the door to my room would come off of its hinges, he’d have it closing within the day. When our family car would break down, he’d have at the engine for days. When our freezer would thaw our food, he’d find the owner’s manual from at least six years prior and study it inside out. When my mom wanted to start a garden in the corner of our small patch of lawn, he’d drive out to the hiking trails of the San Gabriel Valley, hand-pick stones from near the rivers and build my mom flower pots from scratch.

These were the minor things. When I’d ask him why he wouldn’t call a plumber or a carpenter or a mechanic, he’d say he could do it just fine himself. But I knew the true reasoning behind his fixer-upper attitude. We simply didn’t have the money. But we still needed the car to run and to see my mom happy, and luckily, we had him to give us that. 

The bigger puzzles weren’t done in a day’s work. Figuring out finances was a puzzle in itself, especially when the COVID-19 pandemic first began. Immunocompromised, he knew better than to continue delivering flowers between the beaches of Orange County and the open fields of Fresno, constantly interacting in person with strangers. But we still needed money coming in. So he did what he knew best: He started to renovate. He began buying run-down products where he could and fixing them up to resell — treadmills, small appliances, refurbished furniture and more. Up on sites such as Facebook Marketplace and OfferUp they went, a puzzle in each project as he solved the bigger puzzle of keeping us afloat and safe. That’s something you don’t get delivered at your doorstep before breakfast for $3.99 a week.

And though I write it with such ease, the things my dad did weren’t done in the same way. I’d watch him scratch his head when the engine still wouldn’t run after hours of elbow grease. I’d watch him read both the Spanish and English directions on the manual as if there was a step in one that the other didn’t list. I’d watch him weigh different rocks in his hands, unsure of which would fit best in the flower pot he still didn’t know how to make. I’d watch him struggle with every puzzle he took on. And each time, I’d watch him figure out a way to solve it. 

There were times when one of his puzzles took strangely longer than others and he’d hit a stump on the road. I’d ask if he’d figured it out yet, only for him to reply with the words I’ll carry with me always: Las cosas no se encuentran cuando se buscan. Things aren’t found when they’re being looked for, he’d say. 

I stopped seeing everyday puzzles as discouraging or insolvable. I’m not so handy with building Ikea furniture for a friend’s apartment, but that doesn’t stop me from reading both the English and Spanish sides of the manual. Despite not knowing much about graduate school or summer internships, I agree to help friends with their applications — the least I can do is lend a helping hand, because that’s what my dad would do. Rather than becoming overwhelmed when these everyday puzzles turn out to be more complex than expected, I remember that things are found when they’re not being looked for.

Looking back, I realize I’ve inherited his fixer-upper attitude.

Although my dad tried to play off his home renovation projects as mere ego-boosts, his money-saving strategy taught me something money could never buy. I found life lessons in the puzzles he’d solve, so I suppose he was right all along.

I still can’t finish the entire crossword puzzle of a newspaper. But I can say I know how to solve a puzzle or two, courtesy of the best puzzle solver out there. Thanks for that, dad.

Bryan Hernandez-Benitez is a deputy night editor. Contact him at [email protected].