If I Had A Hammer . . .


“Let me do it.” Or at least I think that’s what I said. It didn’t matter if a grownup couldn’t understand me; I knew my brother would. And did.

I was maybe between one and two years old, and I was sitting outside in the back yard facing the house and my brother. I can still see the narrow run of brick steps – there are three or four – leading up to the stoop outside the back door. My brother, his face intent, is busily twisting and turning a wood slat in his hand, trying to see how it fits together with the small birdhouse he is building. Thus far it is a roofless box that sits between his outstretched legs. We are both sitting in the sand and dirt; the grass, I reckon, is sparse.

“No,” he says crossly, placing the wood on the top of the birdhouse. It must be a kit birdhouse – all the pieces are precut and sanded as smooth as my skin, powdery and thin. There are some little brass nails laying around. He is having trouble holding the thin slat of wood on the top because it is one of those peaked ones that have two sloped sides.

“Let me try,” I say, reaching out towards the hammer.

“No!” he says, glancing at me furiously as he snatches the hammer, pulling it away from me and closer to him. I want to scoot forward a little bit on my butt, but don’t. “You’re too little!”

“No I’m not!” I sputter in protest, badly wanting to hammer a nail. I really don’t care about assembling a birdhouse – I don’t even know what one is. But I know what I want to do. I want to hammer. Starting with one nail. “Let me – .”

“No!” He cuts me off, picking up the hammer and driving a single nail through the middle edge of the board. I had wanted to drive that one. And he didn’t let me. I can feel anger simmering way down low. I am not too little, I know I am perfectly able to drive a nail. And that’s what I want to do. Drive one nail. Maybe even two. Even though I haven’t a clue as to what else he is doing, or how this birdhouse goes together. All I know is that I’m sitting out there in this patch of dirt, watching him build something – and he won’t let me do what I want to do

He sets the hammer down and studies the birdhouse with a critical eye. I watch him pick up another board and start fitting it.

Dispassionately, I pick up the hammer. I raise it up over my shoulder. His head comes up, following the thing.

And then I brought the hammer down, driving it as true and square as any experienced carpenter driving a nail – not quite between his eyes, but a little higher, centering it on his forehead. Instantly a hot pink dot forms on his forehead. And his eyes got quite round and his mouth made an astonished “O” – and I’m still watching this red dot forming – it’s growing brighter and red – when he breaks out in screaming and leaps up, running into the house, crying a fit.

I watch him go and then – not angry, not sad – just . . . dispassionate, except with a firm smug sense of satisfaction – I go to work. Fitting the board and hammering me one nail.


I really don’t remember much of what happened after – not immediately. I seem to have some dim recollections of my mother and brother storming outside – perhaps getting my pants whipped – and then tied to the clothes line.


But I do remember that evening had one of the most beautiful sunsets I’ve ever seen. Everyone was in the house; I had been left out on the line. The sky in the western horizon was streaked in bands of purple and gold – majestic dark clouds, their tops ragged; their bottoms smooth – a horizontally streaked sky. The land seemed endlessly flat (how big back yards seem to young children!) – and the horizon was aflame beyond those dark clouds. I just stood there watching (I had been running back and forth for awhile; now I had settled down) – the leash running up my back to that droopy old clothes line. And while I didn’t know have the word ‘beautiful’ or know what it meant, I knew what I was seeing. And the wonder of it all.

And it seemed beautiful to me.