By Alexander Newman
My father and I walk into the dimly lit furnace room adjacent to my grandfather’s workshop, and pull the cherry wood boards down from the shelves beside the oil tank. After thirty-five years spent quietly observing a family, the roughly planed boards make no secret of their age. Each of them has small sections that have succumbed to rot, but, for the most part, their damage is limited to stains left by years of exposure to mice and the things that mice do. But it’s nothing that a thorough sanding won’t fix. The boards, some nearly 10 feet in length, will provide more than enough salvageable wood to get the job done.
A few months after Megan and I had bought our first home, furnishing it remained a work in progress. Our budget (or lack thereof) had left us reliant on buying used furniture. We were successful in this endeavour, and some might say brave, tempting fate by acquiring a pair of matching white couches. But, in spite of our efforts, the spaces between and beside them remained empty. Ottawa’s used furniture community seemed unanimously opposed to the sale of any pair of matching side tables. While the hardwood floor served well enough as a temporary resting place for our coffee mugs in the morning and our wine glasses in the evening, it wouldn’t suffice in the long term. With no solution in sight, I began mulling over the idea of building the tables myself.
My grandfather was an accomplished woodworker before old age, and the immobility that came with it, denied him access to the workshop that he so loved. As a kid, I would spend countless hours down in his shop, watching and learning. He was endlessly patient with my inquisitive little mind and never turned me away, regardless of how much work needed to be done. He would show me his different tools and demonstrate their uses as he skillfully crafted simple cedar boards into children’s toys or Muskoka chairs, which he would sell at the Huntsville Farmers’ Market.
A retired teacher, principal and school board superintendent, my grandfather had kept his mind sharp over the years, and retained an uncanny ability for recollection. Intertwined with his instructions and explanations were stories, which he would almost always find a way to fit in. In doing so, he fostered in me a love of storytelling and an awareness of our family history that seems rare in modern families.
One by one, my father and I carry the cherry wood boards into the bright main room of the shop. I run my finger along the dusty surface of one of the boards, inspecting its grain and condition, admiring the slight red hue that reveals itself along the path where my finger had cleared the soot. I think about growth rings, each representing a year of a tree’s life. I wonder to what extent they are influenced by external forces and what events from each year are retained in the wood’s grain.
We measure and cut each board to the necessary lengths. When we’ve finished, my father goes back upstairs to watch the hockey game with my grandfather. I stay down in the shop and start on the tedious task of sanding each board.
Megan and I loaded up the car and left Ottawa for Lake of Bays, where the cherry wood boards waited patiently to be rediscovered. Autumn seemed to have come early, and to our disappointment, the trees lining Highway 60 as it winds through Algonquin Park had already shed their leaves, depriving us of the breathtaking views we were accustomed to in fall.
It had been a hard year. My grandmother had passed away the previous winter. After a long battle with dementia which was as hard on my grandfather as it had been on her, my grandmother’s death left my family with an unsettling sense of relief; significant, but in no way equal to our sense of loss. The decline in her health started in subtle ways: forgetting people’s names and needing to be reminded of memories that had begun to slip away, but ended with her in a nearly catatonic state.
Not long before she died, I went with my father to visit her in hospital. I held her hand and listened to her struggle to keep her throat clear, coughing and making sounds similar to someone choking on a hastily ingested sip of water. She was unable to speak and so was I.
Although my grandfather and I would have long conversations over the phone, they didn’t happen often enough, and visits were even less frequent. I found myself driving with a heavy foot, excited to get up to the lake.
When we arrived, my family was already there. We poured a drink and sat down on the couch across from my grandfather’s Lazy Boy chair. He asked us about the house and I told him about my lofty aspirations to build side tables for the living room. His face lit up.
“You know something, Alec. I think I’ve got some old cherry stashed somewhere in the basement.” He said this while looking up towards the ceiling trying to remember if he had held on to the boards. “Yeah, I think they’re in the furnace room. You should go have a look.”
My father and I went downstairs, through the shop and into the furnace room to investigate. Sure enough, sitting on the shelves, mixed in with old cedar 2x4s, were the cherry boards covered in a mix of dust and mouse droppings, but still in good condition.
While I was downstairs searching for the boards, my grandfather had been retrieving memories. When I got back upstairs, he began to tell me the story of how they ended up in his furnace room.
I think it must have been thirty-five years ago now. I got a call from Al Monroe. He had a couple of dead trees on his property, one oak and one cherry. He had a preference for working with maple, so he didn’t mind giving ‘em up.
Anyway, I attached the car-trailer to the snowmobile and made my way over to his place, down on South Portage Road. The snow wasn’t too deep, so it wasn’t bad trekking through the bush to find the trees. He had a big property you know, something around 17 acres. Once we found ‘em I cut ‘em down, loaded ‘em on to the trailer and made my way over to Don’s … hmm I can’t remember his last name, but your uncle might know. Anyway, Don had a little saw mill over on Britannia Road in those days, about 15 miles from Al’s place. The machinery was a little shaky, but I figured I could always sand out the imperfections later. Once they’d been cut and planed, I brought the boards back home. Not too sure what I used the oak for, but the cherry has been sitting down in the furnace room ever since. Thirty-five years.
The loud buzzing of the power sander drowns out the noise from the hockey game and my family’s chit chat upstairs. I focus on my simple task, stopping periodically to blow the excess sawdust from the tops of the boards. My hand begins to feel numb from the vibration. The smell reminds me of my childhood. I think of my grandmother and her scent. Since her death, I’ve kept a box of her old sweaters and t-shirts in my closet. The thought of her smell fading from those clothes makes me feel anxious. I don’t want to forget. Sawdust is my grandfather’s scent. I’m glad I still have him.
The wood begins to feel smooth and soft to the touch, as if years had been filed off of its aged exterior, exposing a youth held just beneath its surface. Noticing the power sander’s silence, my father makes his way back down to the shop. The table tops are ready to be assembled. We clamp the boards and bind them together with driven metal and good intentions. Before long they are finished, and I’m pleased to see that they’ve retained some of their more rugged characteristics. They are imperfect but beautiful. They look honest.
I bring the tables upstairs and present them to my grandfather. It had been years since he had felt the satisfaction of crafting something with his hands. He smiles and showers me with praise for a job well done. In his expression, I see a clear understanding between us. To him, as they do to me, these simple planks bound together are a symbol of our connection.
Megan and I say our goodbyes and load the tables into the car. When we arrive home, I place them in the living room; old boards given new life.