Wednesday, October 9, 2013

A Provincial Portrait: The Woodworker

When Grandpa stood up, he gave the impression that his head was in constant danger of striking the ceiling. He stretched up in a way that was sure and steady, feet planted on the ground and a body judiciously built upon that foundation, causing everything around him appear smaller by comparison.To a young child, he resembled the sturdy oaks of old: his depth was as great as his breadth, and he remained a steadfast beholder to the bustle of life beneath his eyes.

He was a man who belonged to a school common to generations before but uncommon now. His speech was rare; each word was carefully chosen to convey thoughts that were simple and deliberate, and his conversation undulated in a typical grandfatherly tone. His handshake was firm and his gaze, steady. At first glance, he appeared serious and reserved. Yet, his quiet nature was pleasant and suffused with a warmth that made it clear he was a friendly presence rather than a cool observer. Moreover, his smile was easy and stretched to accommodate every corner of his face, causing his blue eyes to crinkle and shine. It was always accompanied by a low, reverberating chuckle. 

Grandpa built things. His workshop was in the rear corner of the basement, down a low passageway lined on either side with whitewashed walls of concrete. There, he constructed cabinets, tables, and Adirondack chairs. He whittled little animals for his grandchildren and built trains and puzzles out of shapes he carved from wood. That concave enclosure beheld the assembly of a baby cradle, the oaken slots of which received both myself and my youngest daughter.

In the slender space above Grandpa’s head, rafters spanned the length of the ceiling. Various tools and implements hung from nails hammered along their plane. Amid the metal contraptions, my great-grandfather’s hatchet perched horizontally upon two nails. Next to that, there were rusty sheep shearers belonging to an old neighbor. The tools kept there were periodically taken down, used to their purpose, and replaced. 

Around the perimeter of the room stood a variety of bulky saws, each one designed for a specific cut. Grandpa took planks of lumber that had been hewn at his brother’s saw mill, and he carried them to those saws. There, unwanted corners were shorn off and edges were levelled--the firm boards brought to form in accordance to the will of the operator. Wooden scraps were then thrown into a homemade wood stove that sat just outside the entrance. All the while, Grandpa stood in the midst of clouds of dust and spitting wood chips in his starched shirt and khaki slacks.

In this way, wooden creations took shape beneath his touch. Grandpa built with the same attention that his brother and his father did, but skills were passed down through blood rather than words in his family. What was missing in vocal expression was made up for in earnest dedication. It was that same trait which allowed him to spend weeks constructing an item, only to give it away with a nod and a simple sentence. In between the time spent watching baseball and telling stories, my grandfather could be found in that remote alcove, quietly occupied in his carpentry. What he produced was not ornate, but it was of the highest quality--just like the man who created it.

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