The Love that Eludes Us
Finding fulfillment in woodworking and other childhood dreams
It all started on a paint-chipped park bench. I’d walk along the rows of pine trees for twenty minutes searching for the thickest, straightest stick I could find to hand to grandpa.
“Grandpa, make me a sword, please!” I’d flash my five-year old cheesin’ grin and he would be working his pocket knife in an instant. Sometimes it was a sword, sometimes it was a shank, it didn’t really matter. What I enjoyed the most was watching the blade gently erase the bark of the pine and delicately carve the point. There was magic in the transformation.
My next calling was the way the wood that laid beneath the shed enchanted my mind with its mystery: where did it stand before the shed and what did it want to be? Before his arthritis limited his movement, grandpa built swings, shelves, and tables. The wood, along with the saw horses in the garage and workshop in the basement were remnants of his younger years, all puzzle pieces of possibility.
After grandpa was gone, I would share my visions with my mom. “We should use that to make a go-cart like on The Little Rascals.” She’d decline, “that’s too much work, Lex.”
Hellbent on creation with full-faith in Santa Clause, I strategically asked for a tool-box for Christmas when I was eight. Mom would say no, but not Santa. The Home-Depot themed orange, plastic box came wrapped in red and white Rudolph-themed paper and held a tape measure, a Phillips head, a hammer, and a small box of screws and nails. I was enraptured.
“Don’t play with that in the house, Lex, and only when I’m around.” My mom noted.
I opened the birdhouse kit next.
“Wood glue included!” Read the box in bright blue cosmic sans font. I was aghast: I wasn’t interested in children’s crafts, I wanted to build things, big, important things.
The fortunate thing about being an only child is you’re often alone and unsupervised; therefore able to disregard your parents without risk. All it took was a distracted grandma. I grabbed the tools and poured out the pieces to the birdhouse, disregarding the glue. Ever impatient and overconfident, I threw the instructions to the side and began nailing. I did not build a birdhouse. I didn’t build a thing. After an hour of hammering and guessing, the thin, craft-house wood was in pieces except for a roof piece I managed to secure to a floor piece, oversized nail sticking out the bottom. I put my tools away, threw the pieces in the garbage bin outside, and retired until Spring.
Easter brought a bounty of new possibilities, including a team of fellow-woodworkers in my three, close-in-age cousins. On this warm, sunny Good Friday, while our parents reunited over drinks and a matinee, my great uncle read his paper while we gathered the wood from under the shed. We were going to build a kid-sized Uno table to save ourselves from the burdens of dangling legs and out-of-reach cards on adult-sized tables. Matt, my partner in crime and punishment, agreed enthusiastically and his younger sisters, Katie and Nicole, nodded in tacit agreement.
To my surprise, the wood under the shed wasn’t ideal. Much of it was plywood or stained with mud and some of it was rotting. There were a few promising boards of oak, but they were too long and we weren’t allowed to use a saw. We picked a dozen mediocre pieces and hauled our bounty to the driveway. A born manager, I began barking out orders. Matt was inspired by my leadership and began building.
After a few minutes of hammering and comments like “not like that!”, “well that’s not right!”, and “ouch!” Uncle Joe, a man who’d built his own home, put down his paper and came over to save the table and our dignity. Usurped from management, I joined the ranks of the displaced and began searching for work in the wood pile.
I found two boards, one 24x4 inch and another 4x6 inch. Then I re-recruited the littles, and tasked them with finding a photo of the four of us in the photo album inside. They took to the task while I hammered four nails into the boards. The action was full of power and prowess and, most importantly, could be successfully completed without instruction. The girls returned with an image of our trip to Disney World, and I found the wood glue (yes, that wood glue) and pasted it centered on the top board.
There it was: my first masterpiece (nevermind others). The architecture of the Magic Kingdom in artful contrast to the simplicity of our frame’s design. Matt completed the table. It was lopsided, about eight inches off the ground and threatened slivers. We found an old rug to serve as a tablecloth and played a few rounds of Uno before leaving it out to rot in the yard, prized as it was.
Years blazed by before my next project. In high school, I longed to take shop but resolved to fulfill my curricular credit with something practical like Latin (no, it didn’t help me on the SATs). In college my furniture was assembled and after graduation, still averse to instructions, I recruited friends to piece together all of my purchases from Ikea. There was an incident with a white board (I tried to read the instructions, failed, and drilled two holes through the front), but two decades passed without any hammering or whiffs of fresh wood.
It’s funny how we resist the things we know will make us whole.
One day, finally, universal forces combined to force my fate: I was too broke to afford a nice, new table, and I found a cheap one on Craigslist. $25 (negotiated down to $20), chipping mint green, and oak wood. I hopped in my smoking Buick LaSabre and picked up my prize, some sanding paper, and paint.
The following Saturday, I scrapped for hours on the shaded lawn outside of my apartment. Cars and buses passed on the nearby road, and I lost myself in the mission to discover the original color and feel of the wood. This table had a history. It changed hands dozens of times (judging by the many different colors of paint I found layer by layer) and, based on the design, seemed quite old. I got lost in the circular motion of my hand, and the questions that propagated my wandering mind, wondering who sat here, what conversations they had, what food they ate, what games they played.
Eventually, after a restful night’s sleep, I reached the natural surface. It was a muted neutral color, smooth, with a few knots on the table top. I was reminded that it was a tree once. It stood outside in the light of the same sun it sat under now and was full of life. It’s veins carried water from its roots to its branches, and the cells of its leaves performed photosynthesis. Those leaves and branches held birds, bugs, and fungi, and, one day, a logger came, saw that it was a healthy, happy tree, and knocked it down. It was a sad loss, but the table helped it carry a joyous legacy. Life returned to this wood through those who sat at it, and now a new set of people, eventually a new generation in my two little girls, would call it theirs.
I stained the top in a light finish and painted the legs black. I can still see the knots and clean lines of the woods through the transparent finish and it reminds me of the cycle of life and how, even when something comes to its end, it can still be enjoyed.
Shortly after I finished the table, I registered for a woodworking class where someone else walked me through instructions. I don’t have my own shop, but there is one in my community where I go twice a week to acquaint myself with wood, and build shelves, tables, and chests. Just like the shanks of my childhood, there is a magic in the transformation. It reassures me that all is never lost and it’s taught me to gravitate towards the things that call me, regardless of my ability.