My Dad could do anything with his hands. When we were little, he used to spend a weekend taking apart a car engine, cleaning everything, then putting it back together again.
He could fix leaky pipes, he could paint walls and trim. My Dad could lay down carpet, strip wallpaper, rewire lights, plane the bottoms of doors so they wouldn’t stick.
Most of all, though, my Dad could bring out the life and the beauty of wood.
He made shelves, and little stools and steps and work sheds.
My Dad made my sons tiny wooden train sets that fit together perfectly. Each car had one of the boy’s names on it.
They are still here, in our house. The golden stained wood still gleams. The pieces still fit, 25 years after he made them. They are still beautiful.
Last weekend I drove two hours out to the small city in the Berkshire Hills where my boys live. I got a tour of the classic Victorian house where my son Matt is living.
As soon as I saw the old wooden floors, and the built in shelving, and the gorgeous dark wood bannisters on the stairs, I though of Dad. He would have loved that house!
We went up into Matt’s room, and there I saw his bureau. An old, golden hued wooden bureau, in Matt’s bedroom.
And it was if Dad was standing there beside me.
I started to laugh, but there were tears in there, too.
“Oh, man! I forgot that you have this bureau!” I said, running my hands across the smooth top.
“This is rock maple.” I said it reverently, although I have no idea what “rock maple” is. I could hear Dad saying those words to me, and they were filled with respect and pride when he said them.
So I repeated them to my boy.
This old bureau had belonged to my husband in his childhood. He doesn’t know where it came from, but he grew up with it. When we got married, it became our bureau. It was in our first apartment in the corner of the bedroom. It travelled with us to grad school in New Jersey, and then to our first apartment after graduation.
When our baby was born, we moved for a while back into my parents’ house. We needed to save money and we needed a safe, clean place to live. So back “home” we went.
And that’s where my Dad taught me how to refinish furniture. We took that old bureau, scratched and dinged and dirty, down into Dad’s garage workshop. And he stripped the old stain off, and sanded it, and sanded it again. I learned about the grades of sandpaper, and the use of a good “tack cloth”. I learned to use mineral spirits to clean up every speck of dirt and sawdust.
I learned about the proper use of stain, and how to smooth it on evenly. Dad pointed out the dovetail joints in the bureau drawers, telling me that you don’t see those very often any more.
Together we chose the stain, a very light golden oak that brought out the warmth in the hard, hard wood. Dad showed me every grain in that wood. He showed me how to be sure that every rough bit was smoothed away.
“Like a baby’s bottom,” he’d say when we got a drawer face perfectly smooth.
It was so special to work there beside him. He never got impatient. He never seemed in a hurry. I saw how the wood came to life under his hand. I saw how he was able to coax beauty out of something rough and old and stained.
I had wanted to toss out that old piece of furniture as soon as we could, but Dad was horrified at the thought.
“This is rock maple!” he’d said. “Those are dovetailed joints!”
Together we worked on the old wooden bureau, and I learned that my father was an artist, though he never described himself that way. I learned to be patient when polishing the top of a refinished piece of furniture with wax.
I learned how to listen, to watch, to imitate. I learned how to see the strength and the beauty under the rough exterior.
I learned how much my father loved a job well done, and I learned how much I loved my father.
Last week, standing in that bedroom in that old Victorian house, I caught sight of that beautiful bureau, with my son’s belongings sitting on top.
“This is rock maple!” I told him seriously. I pulled out one of the drawers. “See?” I asked him and his bemused friend, “These are dovetailed joints.”
They agreed that the bureau is a real beauty. They were smiling at my earnestness.
We left then, turning off the lights and leaving the old rock maple bureau in the dark, in that old, old house.
It’s hard to say how much I love the thought of my son sleeping every night beside that wood that had felt my Dad’s loving hand.
I hope Matt keeps that bureau. I hope he gives it to a child of his own one day.
I hope that he tells that child, very seriously, “This is rock maple, you know.”