The Woodworkers (A Story in Three Generations)

The Cross Maker

Whenever I look at that cross above the altar I see his plane moving back and forth along the wood like the pendulum of some old clock, see little curls of walnut rising and falling with each stroke.  I can still see the old man’s sinewy arms working tirelessly, driven by some inner spring.  He’d crouch over the bench for hours at a stretch in his little shop in the back of a barn full of rusty old farm implements.  That barn had once been the heart of the farm, full of milking cows, suckling hogs, and draft horses.  Two small windows in the corner and the hayloft door above gave the old man almost enough light to work by.  More windows would just tempt him to look outside, he always said; keep him from doing his job.

The shop walls were planked with knotty pine that had been cut to clear fields for grazing a long, long time ago.  Eventually the fields were turned to orchards of fruits, nuts, and sugar maple, but just who cleared the fields and built the barn, I don’t really know.  I only know my mother’s family worked that land for five generations before she married the old man.  The three great tool cabinets against the shop walls were made by my grandpapa.  Solid walnut with maple trim, they were.  There was not a single corner out of square on those cabinets, every drawer slid like it was on ball bearings but they weren’t — grandpapa used nothing but hardwoods.  Every dovetail joint was cut by hand.  The cabinets were full of nothing but scrap lumber and tung oil when I knew them since the old man only worked out of the tool chest at his feet.  My grandpapa helped him make that tool chest too.  It was nothing fancy, finger joints where he could have used dovetails, but it held all of his ancient planes, chisels, mallets, and saws.  A separate drill case nestled between a half dozen lift-out boxes, each of which had a drawer and a tray full of tools.  He always said he needed a portable tool chest to take to job sites, but I never once saw it outside of his shop.  It must have weighed four hundred pounds.  Every now and then he’d stop working with the plane, walk over to his grinding wheel, and pump the treadle with his foot, sparks flying from his fingers.  One thing’s for sure, the old man could put an edge on a cutting blade like nobody’s business.  Then he’d be back at the bench, working for hours on end, little curls of wood rising and falling and some of them flying off and sticking to his beard or his leather apron, all thin and stained with sweat.  A single drop of sweat hung at all times from the tip of his beak ’til he’d stop and pull some old rag out of his apron pocket.  He’d wipe his face and blow his nose before going back to working some more and that drop of sweat would be right back at the end of his nose.

It never fell on the cross though.  That’s all he ever made: crosses.  Cherry crosses.  Walnut crosses.  Maple crosses.  Some were fancy, but most were simple.  One or two were lifesized, but most were small.  He would use a single piece of wood for each cross, so the tree dictated the size of every cross.  You’d think you’d want to use separate pieces for the arms so you could work with the grain, but he wouldn’t hear of it.  The good Lord made trees with many branches, he always said; his job was to turn them into crosses.  After sawing, untold hours of working with the plane would go into each piece, followed by more untold hours with the mallet and chisel before a cross would emerge from the bench.  At last he’d get out a fold of cheese cloth and apply the finishing oil.  That’s the part I always liked to watch, when the grain would fairly leap off the wood with that first coat of oil.  Beautiful.  Especially walnut with its curly grain ranging from nearly white to nearly black, but I liked the ruddy cherry too.  I would go back to my own work as soon as the show was over and he was busy rubbing the wood to bring out the shine.

That box was my pride and joy; I was determined to make a box my grandpapa would be proud of.  It’s your basic six-sided box with a bottom and a lid, but each angle was perfectly cut by hand.  The old man wouldn’t allow any power tools in his shop, even after we finally got electricity out to the barn so he could work at night.  Power tools would just as soon take off your arm as wood, he always said.  The box itself is pine but that cross inlay on the lid is a single piece of walnut.  I told him it was a box for transporting one of his crosses, but he just went on and on about what kind of a cross didn’t use the Golden Ratio of height to width and this box was way too long and narrow to be of any use for carrying a cross and, besides, why he would put a cross of walnut, cherry, or maple into a plain old pine box?

I found the wood for it one sunny day when we were out scouting for trees to fell; some for firewood, some for lumber, all for sometime in the future after the wood had cured.  Mother went with us that day.  She would look for new sprouts in the cherry orchard, especially around trees that the old man decided were ready for timber.  She would take the trowel out of her kitchen apron, put on her old work gloves, and make a ring of soil around each little tree, then sprinkle dried twigs and leaves within it to catch and retain the rain so the little tree would have a fighting chance.  The old man just scoffed and said if the good Lord wanted a cherry tree there He would grow one.  She said nothing in return, simply went on with her work.  Before we left the cherry orchard though she did say the harvest had not been what it used to be.  When we got to the walnut stand, the old man started salivating over this one great old tree while Mother was picking up nuts and loading them into the fold of her apron.  I took this opportunity to look for a particular pine I’d seen the year before that ought to be just right for the box I had in mind.  Sure enough, it was perfect, but I had a devil of a time, some weeks later, felling, hauling, and sawing that thing all by myself.  Soon they were calling me and I joined them in the sugar maples, which hadn’t produced a drop of syrup in years.  He found a couple of younger trees for smaller crosses while Mother and I strolled through the meadow, enjoying the heady scent of alfalfa, chasing the butterflies.  When he joined us again, she turned and looked wistfully at the maple grove and I saw the scowl she shot in his direction even if he didn’t; he had already turned and started back to the house, eagerly anticipating next year’s harvest of hardwoods.

He made that cross over the altar there from the walnut tree he selected that day, over forty years ago.  Of course, I had to help him fell the giant and haul it into the sawmill in the back of our old wagon.  When we had crosscut it, I counted seventy-eight rings.  It was way too big for our little mill behind the barn, so he ended up giving away half the lumber to the local mill operator just so he could have enough to make that cross.  Oh, he got a few smaller crosses out of it too, but I always thought he got took on that deal.  As a matter of fact, that walnut inlay in the lid is one of his many rejects from the same tree.  After his cross was finally finished and we had hung it over the altar, everybody shook his hand and congratulated him on his fine craftsmanship, and he just sat there in his pew, shaking their hands and nodding, smiling, saying the good Lord made trees with many branches; his job was to turn them into crosses.  I kept my head bowed most of the time, but when I looked up I had the same thought you must be thinking right now:  It’s crooked.


The Box Builder

Of course, Daddy made a fortune on the war.  He managed to meet the government’s demand for wood products, mostly boxes, crates, and coffins.  After Yale, he found somebody with enough money to open the shop in New Jersey, where I grew up.  They couldn’t turn their crates out fast enough and finally he got tired of driving up here to get another couple trees every weekend so he had it clearcut.  I never saw it before he clearcut it.  He rented the land out to one of the neighbors, who ran cows on it, and I was scared of the bulls.  I think they scared Grandpa, too.  At any rate, we only looked at it from the house and the barn beside the creek, which Grandpa said you couldn’t even see before for all the trees.  After the war, demand for wood products slacked off, but Daddy captured what there was of it.  He bought a bunch of islands in the South Pacific and imported all the exotics, mostly teak.  But he’ll tell you the profit’s in the product; the wood’s merely an expense.  Labor and applied technology are where you make your money, he always says; not resources.  I suppose he would have sold the place until he found out Grandmother was leaving it to me.  After that he never came up here, but they sent me every summer between years at boarding school.  And then the hard times came and he found himself overextended to the tune of something like the combined national debts of several Third World countries.  All write-offs, of course.  But the best times were Christmas vacation back when the factories were in full swing; I’d go into the factory every day and he’d see me through the glass and wave me in.  It didn’t matter who was there — politicians, generals, Japanese businessmen — and I’d lean on his shoulder and smell his cigars, and pretty soon he’d give me a kiss and I’d go back out onto the floor and watch the men work from behind the yellow line.  Each one of them was like a statue in motion to me, statues working with saws, routers, and the drill press.  The ringing of the saws, the screech of a router bit, and the smell!  Like perfume.  Like money, he would say.  Or the finishing room, watching the grain come out, getting giddy on the fumes.  And then one year I just didn’t go back to college and Grandpa started telling me about how Grandmother would follow him around and plant new trees as he went along cutting them down and we walked up to the north edge of the property and tried transplanting some saplings from the other side of the fence.  To our utter amazement, they took hold and grew.  Daddy was already down in Florida by then and never saw them.  Oh, I’m sorry — I’m going to cry again, I can just tell.  You can see he’s just not the same since the bypass.  I see Mom every couple of years, still in New Jersey.  She’s fine; says her lumbago’s bothering her again.  Or maybe it’s her libido.  It’s always something.  You know, I used to play vampire in that box when I was little.  I always thought Grandpa had made it for someone who didn’t die.  I was as surprised as anyone when Daddy came and hauled it out of the barn.


The Tree Sower

My great-grandpa taught me how to whittle, but he only made crosses.  This is going to be a beehive — like the real beehives that bees make, not the big white boxes that my grandpa makes.  When it’s all finished I’m going to oil it and put some ribbon on it and make it into a Christmas ornament for my mom.  Bees are her favorite; that’s why she calls me Honey.  We go all over, planting seeds so the bees will have more flowers to pollinate.  And the butterflies.  I like butterflies too.  Maybe I’ll carve a cocoon after I finish this beehive.  When we were down south last year I saw lots of butterflies that I’d never seen before, but my mom says bees are the best pollinators and they make honey too.  Besides, people and all the other animals can eat the fruit that grows on trees that bees pollinate.  That’s why she plants so many fruit trees everywhere we go: apple trees and plum trees, and peaches and pears sometimes, but pear trees take a long time to grow.  You plant an apple for your children, she always says; you plant a pear for your grandchildren.  All I know is, there’s going to be plenty of apples for me to eat when I grow up.  That’s because we go all over the country planting seeds.  Not only fruit trees though; every morning when we wake up she climbs out of our tent and looks around and decides what we’re going to plant as we go along that day.  She carries all kinds of seeds in her backpack, and sometimes she’ll stop and pick the seeds off of some plant and either plant them right there to help the stand grow or she’ll take them with her to plant somewhere else.  And whenever we eat fruit we always save the seeds for planting.  Sometimes she still has to buy some seeds though.  Like when we were out in Colorado, we had to buy some spruce seeds because there wasn’t any spruce around and she thought there should be, so she bought some.  That’s when we found out he died.  She called home while we were at the seed store and started crying.  She said we should’ve been home, but when we got here she said we should’ve stayed out in Colorado and planted trees in his memory instead.  She didn’t know my grandpa would be here; he hasn’t been here in twenty years, she said — why would he come back now?  He said he had to make sure Great-Grandpa was buried in the right box, but my mom doesn’t like it.  After she hung up the phone, we went back along the road to plant the spruce seeds she got.  We always plant them where the cows and the deer can’t get them, and just far enough off the road that nobody will mow them before they’re full grown.  On this road there were a whole bunch of quaking aspen trees along the stream, and she said there was probably a fire back when she was a little girl and now all the aspens have taken over but it should still be good for blue spruce.  Someday people will think the spruce trees were there all the time.  Nature has better memory than people do, she always says.  She couldn’t stop crying though, so we had to stop planting and come home.  I was pretty sad too, but I wanted to go out into Great-Grandpa’s shop and try some of his tools.  He always let me use his tools before.  He showed me how to plane the wood ’til it’s nice and smooth and then use a mallet and chisel to shape it and square the corners.  Mom says the best thing about his old shop is the smell — she always takes a big, huge breath when she goes in, but never stays very long.  As soon as she gets a whiff of all that wood, she says, she wants to go out and plant some trees.  It just makes me want to do some woodworking, but I like planting trees too.  Great-Grandpa said he was going to take me out into the woods next fall and find me a good walnut tree so he could show me how to see the cross in the tree and bring it out in all its glory, just like that one up there.  My mom says the walnut trees are too young now but when I’m old enough I’ll know how to find the cross in the tree all by myself.

Categories: Stories


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