For the neighbour, the cats, the daughter, and the project coordinator, the outcome was viewed differently
People who frequently take on do-it-yourself projects start out with the belief that the results will be perfect.
At least that has been my experience when working with cement because the hardened results are basically there to see forever. Any mistakes made serve as a constant reminder that perhaps with a little more planning and care one could have done a better job.
Handyman projects in wood can be altered if one simply cannot live with an obvious mistake, especially if they were put together with modern technologies’ greatest gift to mankind – the cordless drill.
During my farming career, I would often take on small cement projects in my vigilant struggle to constantly improve things in the barn for my dairy goats. If the result increased efficiency and made chores easier for me that was a bonus but the comfort of my demanding goat herd was always the main impetus.
One of the simpler projects involved making a slip-proof exit ramp from the milk parlour to the loose-housing area in the barn so the goats would not have to make a step over a sharp-edged cement curb.
Considerable time was spent giving the cement just the right degree of slope by screeding or combing the semi-dry cement as it hardened. This also roughened the surface so no tiny hooves would slip while propelling the goat forward.
Painstaking measures were applied to cutting pieces of plywood at strange angles to make a cement form with the resultant pieces fitted exactly as required to ensure the final cement product would be pleasing to the eye and the goats as well.
However, my young daughter Emily, aged eight at the time and milk maid in training, insisted on helping.
I was well aware that all the parenting manuals stated it was important to have children help with projects as a learning exercise by making mistakes. This did not correspond with achieving perfection.
I was able to give her inconsequential tasks that would in no way jeopardize the perfect outcome I sought. She happily brushed dirt from the surrounding area to the ramp, carried water to mix the cement, ran to get me a soft drink.
But when the work was finally completed, she insisted that she put her hand print in the corner of the ramp while the cement was still soft to show she had helped. I argued for a while but realized early on it was futile as it would only lead to tears.
One tiny right-hand print was embedded in the lower right corner, defacing what I had considered one of my finest do-it-yourself cement projects.
A year later I took on a slightly larger cement project, installing a concrete floor at a side man door entrance to the barn in an enclosed six-foot-square area that contained an electrical panel box and storage area for pitch forks, etc.
Barn cats had discovered the dirt floor made an excellent litter box during the winter months where there was no need to expose their tender cat behind to the cold outdoor elements. The smell coming forth in the summer months added to the urgency of completing this cement project.
Emily was now nine and more eager to help than ever. I was also assisted by a friend of mine from town, Max, skilled in the ways of commerce and finance but with limited experience working with cement.
After copious instructions I gave him the job of mixing the Portland cement, gravel and water while Emily was to help me level cement over the area to be covered.
I wheel barrowed the cement from one inexperienced helper to the other, giving instructions at both ends to achieve perfection on job completion.
Several times I emphasized to Max how important it was to get just the right combination of ingredients. After a while I found he did better if I just left him alone, although I couldn’t resist adding either a teaspoon full of cement powder or an ounce of water when he wasn’t looking.
Although willing, Emily was not strong enough to pull her end of the screeding plank back and forth so the cement surface at her end became higher and wavier than mine.
While I hurriedly ran back to make sure Max was still making cement to my required standards, Emily tried to smooth her mistakes with the bottom of an aluminum snow shovel.
Just before we finished it poured rain, adding unnecessary drops of water to the cement mixture. I wheeled the final load furiously toward the open man door and dumped it beside the wavy surface Emily was patting down.
Because it was a small, confined area it was necessary to actually stand in the wet cement to complete the final smoothing of the surface. After a brief argument, I convinced Emily there was only working room for one of us. I actually completed leveling off the cement with the very snow shovel she had been using, covering in my foot prints while standing just outside the door, rain beating down on my back.
Perfection was no longer the goal, just completion.
In the years to follow I had to walk over that cement surface every time I entered through the man door. A marble placed in the centre could easily roll 10 different directions. I eventually became comfortable with the rugged, rustic look and took satisfaction in the cats having to look elsewhere for a dumping ground.
I learned to live with Emily’s hand print on the cement surface of my otherwise perfect goat ramp. It stared up at me every day for over a decade, every time I chased the last goat out of the milking parlour morning and night.
This summer, at the age of 28, Emily will be getting married in Kelowna, B.C. where she now lives. In the interim she has graduated from university, established her own business and no doubt found far more appealing feminine pursuits than helping her dad on one of his perfect cement projects.
If she were to return with me to the farm we no longer own, spread her thumb and four fingers apart, they would certainly no longer fit in that tiny imprint left on my goat ramp.
Her handprint made in the cement reminds me of a very precious, fleeting father-daughter time spent together. It was – I now realize – the most perfect part of my project.