Made by Hand

For the past couple of weeks I have been working on a box. The boards were harvested a couple of years ago, rock maple, white pine and red oak. I cut them to length, planed them, joined them, glued and pinned them in the shop whenever I had a few minutes to myself. The box itself isn’t big, a little over a foot deep and wide, just under two feet long. each board was chosen for the grain — the maple filled with swirling checks from having stood at the top of a hill and being bent for over a century by winds coming across the top of the mountain, the pine stained from beetles, the oak tight grained and checkered with spalting. The hinges were salvaged from the fire that took our barn a couple years ago, peened flat on the anvil and sanded out to reveal the heat stressed iron beneath, blue and black where the barrel and pin come together. Then handles on either end are leather and fastened through the end boards with brass fittings. Last night while my wife and I celebrated a small victory in our life — paying the property taxes for another six months on the farm — I applied a clear stain to the box, wiping it in with an old dish towel making sure that every grain was imbued with the liquid, pass after pass, while we talked.

My wife is worried about our son, about what he will do with his life, the choices he will make, where he will go after he is through with us, this phase of his life lived under our roof. He has no plans for college which relieves me and pains her to no end. Clearly he is an exceptionally intelligent young man, his writing more inventive and powerful than anything I’ve managed to turn out in the past forty years, his sense of humore sharp. He relates well to others in virtually any social environment and he is well liked and respected by young and old alike. The word affable is used frequently when people describe my son to me so I have no worries on that front. He has been a great help around the farm, has always managed to earn his own money when he feels the need, has never given us a moment’s trouble in all his years and at times of tragedy — the fire comes to mind — he has risen to the challenge and faced things with calm and maturity far beyond his years. These things reassure me that we have done all that we could to raise him well, to provide him with the kind of skills and attitudes that will ensure his success in life whatever direction he chooses to go. Of course to my wife he will always be her little boy, always in need of her protection, vulnerable in a way I never saw him. And so she worries.

When I graduated high school my father gave me a copy of the poem “If” by Rudyard Kipling. I remember it because my father wasn’t the gift giving kind of guy and when he did bestow some special token to me over the years it was always deeply personal, always significant. My mother bought me toys and clothes and the thousands of assorted and long forgotten things that parents routinely gift to their children through the years, but my father chose things that lasted. I still have that copy and I will be placing it in the box that I am building for my son for his birthday. The box itself was originally meant to store his prized vinyl collection — lp’s by the Beetles, Pink Floyd, Mozart and Chet Baker that he has been collecting since he discovered music several years back. His tastes are ecclectic; Johnny Cash and Cake, Culture Club and the Orwells. Some nights as I lay in our bed I can hear the soft sounds of Vivaldi drifting down the hall from his room, followed by Led Zeppelin’s Babe I’m Gonna Leave You. I wanted him to have a way to transport those cherished albums from whatever place he winds up living in at whatever stage of his life he finds himself. I wanted the box to be strong enough to be left in storage for years while he hikes his way around the world, or to serve as a coffee table in his first apartment, to be able to withstand the repeated banging and dropping that accompanies the next 25 or 30 years of being dragged around from place to place, or to simply look good if it never leaves this property and winds up instead in his own home that he will build with his own hands on any of the acreage he might decide to select should he choose to stay here near us. I chose the kinds of wood I did so that people over the years will remark on it, the colors, the grain, the shape and the solid simplicity of it’s construction, but more importantly and less obviousloy so that it will remind him of where he came from and how he too was crafted over time into something both beautiful and functional and worthy.

There have been times lately when my son has come into my room and randomly given me a hug. We are close family, but something in our past, our DNA perhaps, has kept us from being overly affectionate. We embrace each other over important moments but keep a respectful distance at all other times. It was like that with my parents and in turn with their own and I suspect it will be that way when our children have children. That he is looking for an embrace from me at this time in his life is telling and I know where his mind is even if he does not. He will be leaving us and not long from now, I can tell. Part of him loves this place and everything it represents in a way I could not appreciate because he has grown up here, but like most young men he knows that there is so much more out there that he hasn’t seen for himself and soon that pull will become irresistable and he will follow it.

Everyone is alseep right now, but me and the dogs. I like this time, when despite the human silence there is still a fullness in the house, a sense of everyone being where they ought to be. I have a few things to do this morning before the snow comes in and then I will head back out to the workshop and put the last pieces of hardware on the box. I’ll probably put a couple of old albums in it that he might like, along with the copy of “If” and a snapshot of my son and I walking towards the entrance to an old fashioned amusement park called Story Book Land when he was four years old and my hair wasn’t gray. We are engaged in a conversation, our heads tilted towards each other and our shadows stretching out before us across the blacktop like the future. I hope he likes the box and what it represents. I hope he finds adulthood all he hopes it will be and that he follows his path with the same kind of assurance he has in that photograph.

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too:
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or, being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise;

If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim,
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same:.
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build’em up with worn-out tools;

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings,
And never breathe a word about your loss:
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: “Hold on!”

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much:
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!

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