My father was a crafstman with wood.
He could build furniture, build a house, take some pieces of wood and shape them into a 3-inch tall replica of a rockingchair with splayed legs pegged into the seat (just like the full-size ones we sit in) with a matching magazine rack 1-inch in height. He could bend wood and shape it into a guitar or ukelele (he actually did this on a dare from his father-in-law when he was a newlywed).
I have many pieces of his work sitting in my house today.
He never owned power tools, everything was done with hand tools. Maybe that’s why I tend to avoid power tools myself.
Many of his tools had previously belonged to his father, Peter Birger Bengtsson, who immigrated (some say he was a stowaway with his cousin, Louis Pearsson, but . . . that is another story) to the states from his native Sweden in April 1911. Dad took great pride in his tools, cleaning them after each use and keeping them spotless.
One night, a number of years ago, some thieves broke into Mom and Dad’s house in Tucson, Arizona, taking (among many other things) most of Dad’s tools, including some very old ones that had belonged to my grandfather. I am thankful that Mom and Dad were not there when the thieves came; I would hate to entertain what would have happened if there had been an altercation. Nevertheless, when I heard of it I was incensed.
Those tools almost defined my father.
His identity was so intertwined with tools and woodworking that it is hard to imagine the two separately.
I was thinking of this yesterday as I labored to refurbish my own master bathroom. I was cutting new baseboard with Dad’s old wooden miter box and one of his saws. And I did a horrible job, by the way. Cutting mitered baseboard is an art form I have yet to master!
But as I handled his tools . . . I felt a sense of his presence.
And I recalled watching him when I was a young boy as he used to ponder his projects, considering the next cut to make, or a perhaps a new way to secure one piece to another. He would stand with his mouth closed, noisily breathing through his nose, pursing his lips, and holding the piece of wood, turning it in his strong hands, looking at it as if . . . as if he and that piece of wood were discussing their mutual future.
Then the lips of his closed mouth would part, and I could see him taking a breath as his final rumination blossomed into a choice, a decision, a verdict (if you will).
My father was a craftsman with wood.
And I sensed something else yesterday as I struggled repeatedly to cut the baseboard corners so that they would match perfectly together, failing over and over again. I sensed that my failure to perfect this craft in an afternoon – was alright. It was as if my efforts were enough; almost as if the experience itself was the goal, not the finished product.
And it made me feel close to him. It made me feel approved by him. At first, I longed for him to be present, or at least a phone call away, so that I could present my woodworking challenge to him and ask for a solution.
But then I realized . . . I had his tools.
And I had his example. And so I held that piece of wood in my hands. And I turned it over and over as I considered how best to achieve my goal. And it felt good. It felt right. Imperfect as those baseboards look – they are my work. And I made them with my father’s tools.
I wonder what tools I am leaving behind for my children, and my grandchildren. I sincerely hope they will be tools worth keeping. If I am as good with words as my father was with wood, then that will be one tool worth its space on the page.
Better yet, maybe I can leave behind the tools necessary to mend broken relationships: owning up to a wrong done, a pliable heart, a willingness to forgive, and the courage to persevere. I have certainly had experience in that arena.
A true craftsman perfects his craft by doggedly repeating the basic principles of his respective skill until they become so much a part of his identity that his name and that skill seem inseparable.
Maybe one day . . . one of my children will find herself in a challenging situation. And suddently, she will remember: I have my father’s tools.
That would be a great legacy, I think. To pass on to my heirs the tools necessary to live a resilient and joyful life. And if I am able to do this . . . the day may come when they will say
“My father was a craftsman.”