The Legacy of the Do-It-Yourselfer

Dear Rick,

Everything in this house elicits a memory. Absolutely everything.

I just heard the clink of the mailbox as the postman left a delivery. We installed the mailbox. We handpicked the perfect one with the perfect finish that matched the outdoor sconces on the garage. We toted it home in the back of your F150.

On a hot summer day, you dug a hole, filled the bottom with cement, put in a 4×4 post, and installed the mailbox on top of it. I aligned the house address numbers and affixed them across the box. You marveled at how straight the alignment was. You stood back, and exclaimed, How did you do that? You didn’t use a level or ruler! And I laughed because it’s one of the semi-useless talents I’ve always had that no one in my entire life had ever noticed. But you did, because you were always enthused about the smallest, most insignificant things, and always so supportive and proud of every little thing I accomplished.

And all of those memories flooded back because of the clink of the lid being closed during a simple mail delivery.

I wonder if the memories that surround me in this house are more pungent because we shared in the creation and the work every step of the way. I look at the bookcases we assembled together and remember that we did it twice – once in the house we remodeled in Maryland and again in our house here because we left the first set there because the buyer wanted the “built ins.” We loved the look and replicated it here. And I will forever think of you and us as we worked on the project together.

A dozen times every day, I walk through the doorway you widened to make an open floor plan between the living room and kitchen. You and I worked on it together using the sawzall. You taught me again how to build a header – I first witnessed that years ago when you turned a window into a doorwall in Maryland. You amazed me by the things you knew how to do, and the work you accomplished with little fanfare. After you finished the structural parts, we measured and cut the new molding that surrounded it together. I painted it glossy white.

And I remember laughing with you as we did our “thing” – that tradition we started in Maryland. Whatever project we finished, big or small, we walked away a few feet so we could stand back and look at what we had accomplished. You put your arm around me, and I put my arm around you, and we just stood and looked at it and felt pride that we had completed whatever it was. Then gave each other a little hug and a quick kiss and moved on to the next project. It was our little dumb ritual, one we did every time.

Every so often I question what hurts worse. Does it hurt more to stay here, entrenched in the memories? Would it be easier to wipe the slate clean and move to a place that doesn’t have so many triggers?


Not yet.

As much as the memories cause pain, they also bring joy. Together, you and I created beautiful living spaces. Together we built a life. As much as it hurts, you’re here in everything you touched and toiled to build. You’re in the remodeled kitchen, your sweat beading as you ripped out cabinets and ripped up flooring. You’re under the widened doorway, muscles rippling as you lifted the header into place while I quickly shoved a 2×4 under it to support it until you could nail it into position.

I picture you vividly everywhere I look in this house. Everything around me brings back memories. And, yes, it hurts. But I wouldn’t change a thing, because it reminds me of what we shared, of the world we built together. And those precious memories are all I have left of you.

May 18, 2018

About the author

Katherine Billings Palmer is a technical writer, poet, and essayist from Garden City, Michigan. She’s won several academic writing awards, including first place in the University of Michigan Dearborn Critical Essay Contest for her work about poet John Donne: “‘The Sun Rising’: A Lover’s Boast.”

In 2017, Katherine’s husband, Rick, died of complications from small cell lung cancer. She wrote a series of poems and essays about her struggles to cope with her grief. I Wanted to Grow Old With You is available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle editions.

Her latest book, A Widow’s Words: Grief, Reflection, Prose, and Poetry – The First Year was published in January 2019 and is also available on

Katherine is a guest blogger for the Hope for Widows Foundation and writes about her grief journey at

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *