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  • Tracy N. Coley

Stepping Up



"Anybody seen my ladder?” The subject heading on my email to the church congregation earlier this week signaled my desperate (legs paddling fiercely below while everything above water remained calm) plea.


“My ladder has apparently grown legs and walked off. It was last seen in the youth storage room. It’s a 6-foot aluminum ladder with a green top and painter’s tray with “T.Coley” written in large black letters on the side. Was needing it this afternoon but could not find it ... Would appreciate its return, as this is my personal ladder from home.”


I’d left the ladder at the church for our crew to use during our recent youth room remodel. It was the perfect ladder: lightweight for portability, compact to fit in my small SUV, and sturdy enough to hold a worker in precarious positions for painting, rewiring and replumbing above one’s head. It stayed in the youth storage room, unlocked, free for anyone to borrow, as long as they let me know and returned it to its rightful spot. But the borrower neglected to tell me, and I panicked when it disappeared Sunday afternoon. Now some might mistake my email for a “Who-Moved-My-Cheese” rant or assigning a Gollum “My Precious” designation to my ladder. There may or may not be some truth to that.


Absurd as it sounds to be so upset over an inanimate object, I loved that ladder. But I have to consider that the borrower didn’t know the ladder was more than just an implement for climbing. It symbolized my 16-year struggle for independence and self-reliance following divorce and particularly my father’s death.


Daddy learned his electrician's trade as a young Navy seaman aboard the U.S.S. Oriskany during the Korean War. The Navy taught him to be self-sufficient, something he endeavored for his children, and thusly delegated chores on an equal opportunity basis. My brother and I toiled many summers in our garden acreage, helping plant, weed and harvest the food we’d eat for the next year. He also taught us how to replace an electrical outlet, install a new ceiling fan, and engineer solutions to basic household problems. None of us were excused from work, a fact that I really didn’t appreciate at the time.


Over the years, my father and I often didn’t agree, particularly about his drinking habit, but I respected his resourcefulness and ingenuity for fixing things around the house without outside help. He expressed love not by words but by household repair. When he passed away in 2003, I was at a loss for wondering how I could manage without his handyman skills. I joyfully accepted a small inheritance of tools that I keep stored in my Stanley toolbox. A worn, sturdy hammer, measuring tape, electric screwdriver, bow saw, and a pair of channel lock pliers were each Dremel-monogrammed in his chicken-scratch handwriting, a technique he employed to prevent tool theft on the job site.


My toolbox complete, I was prepared to manage my first house as a single woman the year after he died. I purchased square and round tipped shovels, a hoe, and a 6-foot aluminum ladder to add to my collection. I’m not sure what I thought I was going to do with shovels and a hoe, but I knew the ladder was essential to gaining access to places beyond the height of a kitchen chair. And taking cues from my Daddy, I wrote my name in big black letters up the ladder's flat side, just in case the inevitable happened.


The ladder came in handy over the years. I hung pictures, painted walls, changed air filters and light bulbs, installed ceiling fans, and strung Christmas lights. The ladder provided me with a means to do things myself while instilling a sense of accomplishment. I felt Daddy would be proud of me, even though he’d never have told me. And as I am single once again, that 16-year-old ladder is a token of my independence. I am woman, watch me do it myself.


As we celebrate Women’s History Month and the 100th anniversary of women’s right to vote, and memorialize Rosie the Riveter, I look to one of my long-time heroes as a source of interminable inspiration. Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of President Franklin D., was a strong advocate for the poor, the young, minorities, disabled, and writers and artists. During World War I, she volunteered with the American Red Cross, and in the 1920s she was active in the Democratic Party and the League of Women Voters. Yes, Eleanor was a suffragette! After years of heartache and disappointment, I hold tight to her famous quote: “You must do the things you think you cannot do.” I like to think she meant me to put one foot in front of the other and live my life. Don’t be afraid of things I can’t control, but take charge of what I have every right to handle.


Most people think of a ladder as a measure of success, as in a career, to step above (or over) everyone else. For me, a ladder symbolizes what I can do independently. It represents self-reliance and a self-assurance that can only be earned by stepping up to do the things I’ve been scared to do. Like moving on after divorce or after the death of my loved ones or not allowing others to roll over me. I didn’t realize my ladder’s significance until I could not find it, and its absence sent me into a virtual tizzy. So I did the thing I needed to do—I boldly asked for its return.


It paid off. My ladder was quietly returned the next day, and my confidence in my fellow man/woman was restored. I was never concerned with who took it, but am thankful that the borrower heard my plea. My ladder is back at home where I am using it this week to change my HVAC filter.


I think Eleanor would have supported my efforts. And I think my Daddy would have been proud too.

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