Key to the Past

“What are you doing down there?”

This is something I’m completely used to hearing from my wife when I’m at my workbench in the basement. Half of the cellar is my undisputed domain and although my wife has no issue with that, she does get curious and/or concerned when whatever I’m doing isn’t under her watchful eye. It’s not a lack of trust issue as much as making sure that I’m not burning up time on a task that is utterly frivolous and fool hearty. I’d like to say that she has no reason for this concern… but I’d be speaking an untruth to say that my track record is without blemish. I’m rather drawn the overly-ornate-task-for-no-reason, in a moth to a campfire sort of way.

No. It’s worse than that.

A raccoon to a bag full of trail mix might be more like it. Both the raccoon and I know that it’s going to be awesome and it takes some serious countermeasures to keep us away.

“I’ll be right up. I’m… getting a key fob for the spare front door key.”

I wait with head cocked toward the staircase.

There’s a thoughtful pause from the cellar doorway. “I don’t want to know, do I?”

After more than twenty years of this sort of thing, my wife is getting better at reading situations like this.

I put my head down and move faster. The key fob was not lie in the least. It’s exactly what I’m up to. The part that was not proffered was that I was actually constructing one from scratch. It was going to be sort of special actually, at lest to me.

We are going away for a couple of days and our good friend Coley is coming over to feed and water the cat for us. To do this, he needs a key. More accurately, what he needs is a second key since the one we lent him last time we zipped off overnight was regrettably lost. The lost key was really sort of my fault since I had simply slipped the key off our ring and gave it to him all by its self. He had put it in his pocket and at some point, it had slipped out and was gone. For most folks, this isn’t a really big deal. You just go and have another one made for a buck somewhere. What made this a bigger problem than normal for me was that my front door key is the good, old fashioned, skeleton type.

At one time, all keys pretty much looked like mine. It’s long, toothy with a large ring at the back and cast in bronze.

I love it.

When Action Girl and I had bought our house, I was tickled to see that the front door still had the original lock and knob assembly from when it was built in 1900. There was a modern dead bolt carved in above it, but still, after a hundred years of upgrades and remodeling, it was perhaps the only bit of architectural originality still possessed by this pile of timber. It was the last piece that hinted to where it had come from and how far back. Everything else was new-ish. At least it had been new in the 1950’s, 1970’s and 1990’s. A lot of the house was faded and worn, but the beautiful front door still had its lock. What was missing was the key.

I’ve seen a lot of old doors in my time, interior and exterior and one thing is nearly always true: the key is long gone.

Big, jangly skeleton keys get played with by kids, lost out of pockets or worst of all, put somewhere “safe”. Shortly after moving in to our new home, I found myself in the as yet unfamiliar shed out back, rooting through the few items that the previous owners hadn’t bothered to take with them when they moved. I have no idea what prodded me to stick my fingers into the cobweb covered eaves in there on a hot, summer day, but when I came out with that key, the first thing that went through my mind was, “NO WAY!” Without hesitation, I bolted to the front door, completely expecting to be disappointed.

I wasn’t.

This was perhaps the first time in my life that I had ever found a skeleton key that matched some far off lock. Giddy with the discovery, I decided then and there that this would be my front door key form then on. I gleefully put it on my key ring and there it has stayed. The hard part was getting copies made. Pretty much no one can duplicate them any more. Even locksmiths. What I needed was a real, honest to goodness, old fashioned hardware store. The kind with dusty bins of patina covered metal bits and pieces, marked with faded labels written by hand. Luckily, there’s Dupuis’

Dupuis’ is everything a hardware store should be. It’s musty and badly lit. Items on shelves had been stocked easily as far back as the Carter administration. There were unboxed items for sale that probably had gone out of production a decade or more ago, but still had a place of honor at Dupuis’. My eighty-eight year old grandfather calls this place the, “Iron Monger’s Shoppe”.

I call them amazing.

The whole place is like a museum to hardware Americana. Oh… and they can cut skeleton keys. Usually, when I have keys made, I just drop them off and come get them later on, but not in this case. When I saw the belt driven, cast iron lathe that they used, I had to stick around and watch the process. About 20 minutes later, I had two copies and happily forked out the ten dollars per key. It was worth that much just to watch a master key maker at work using vintage tooling. Many years later, it had been one of these copied keys that our friend had lost and now, I was going to do something to help that from happening again.

Embracing my love for the nostalgic, I rooted around in a box down in my basement looking for something special. Long ago now, my other Grandfather, my Father’s Father, had passed away leaving behind a few objects of interest. His tools mostly now hang on nails at my parent’s house but one particular collection went to me. This grandfather of mine had been an avid appreciator of firearms and through owning more than a few, had also embraced the hobby of loading his own ammunition. My own Dad doesn’t have that much interest in guns having gotten his fill shooting at groundhogs and crows on the family farm as a youth and then later, drilling with an M16 in the National Guard. Firearms never really did much for him and so, over time, he drifted away from shooting. For whatever reason though, the fascination seems to have skipped a generation in our family and I happily use the guns that I inherited and even reload just like my Grandfather did, often times using his equipment. This was why I was in the basement. That’s where the reloading supplies are.

At the bottom of the plastic tote I was pawing through, I found the faded, stained and repurposed Schraft’s Chocolates box that had long ago been picked by my Grandfather for a new duty. When my own Dad had been just a young boy, it had been filled with fired, cleaned and de-primed Colt .45 brass. The pistol that had once fired all this brass was long gone before my time, probably traded away for another pistol or rifle that had caught his eye, but being the picture of an old Yankee, Grandpa had naturally not thrown out the brass. There might be a use for it, after all! I doubt that he had expected it to take something in the time frame of sixty years, though. As for the bullets…

In the spring, the ground thaws and burps up all manner of stones and lost items as it heaves. If you happen to be at the firing range and look at the sand berms behind the targets, you can also find loose bullets! Here, having spent a winter or two in the soft sand, they wiggle their way to the surface and glint in the morning light like lost bits of treasure. I can never resist grabbing a few and here, on my reloading bench, I sift through the scarred and dirty projectiles until I find a nice, copper jacketed .45 round. The soft sand had left no mark and the paper target that it had gone zipping through probably didn’t slow it in the smallest way. It looked new aside from the rifling marks on its flanks.

“Okay, Grandpa. You’ve got the brass so you must have the reloading dies too…”

I often talk to him when I’m sifting through his belongings. It’s been twenty-seven years since I could talk to him face to face, so chatting to his spirit will have to do. I like to hope that he can hear me somehow. It would make us both happy, I think.

Sure enough, I find the right bits and pieces and after about 10 more minutes of work, I have a perfect looking .45 round, minus the powder and primer and plus a hole that passes right through the base of the brass to allow the addition of the key ring. I give it a quick buff with some emery paper and… not bad, If I do say so my self!

“Hey, basement troll.” It’s my wife, Action Girl. “If you feel like joining us above ground, Coley’s here for the key.” With not a little bit of triumph in my step, I emerge to a warm handshake and a cold beer with our friend. Coley and we have gone shooting several times together in the past and he laughs when he sees the new key and accompanying fob.

“Well, I guess I can’t lose that one!” he chuckles as he pops it in his pocket.

Our vacation now over, our friend had returned my front door key with my Grandpa’s bullet key chain. Making it probably wasn’t the most constructive use of my time, but it was certainly an enjoyable allotment of some of my minutes. The added bonus is that every time I feel it in my pocket or see it sitting on the sideboard, it reminds me of him, the old style key sort of echoing the history for me. My children will never get to know my Father’s father, hear his voice or see his face form into that crocked smile like I have, but there will be a little bit more of him in my house now, and that’s good.

And the best bit for me is, when I want to do something with him, all I need to do is creep down to the basement and uncover my bench. He’ll be there, waiting in that old chocolates box full of spent brass and reloading dies, and I’ll chat to him a bit while I load up for a day at the range with our guns or just maybe just mess around making another doo-dad to help keep track of one of the keys to my front door.

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The Old Ways

I have always had a fascination with cemeteries, the old ones, anyway.

Growing up in New Hampshire, the heart of the “old”, New World, gave me some wonderful opportunities to spend rather a lot of my younger years walking among the stones, reading the inscriptions and appreciating the handwork that went into them. My particular hometown was settled in 1735, and though there are other towns and cities a few hundred years older in these parts, I always thought that the mid 18th century was a respectable time for a New England town to start. It also gives the old burying grounds some wonderful character.

It gave them slate stones. And there is nothing like a slate stone.

Slate is simply amazing material. It is both fragile as glass and stronger than steel. It will shattering easily if hit by anything of any hardness, (a lawn mower, a car’s bumper, even the frozen ground if it falls in the winter before the snow covers the brown grass) but if left unmolested, it will hold the smallest detail of the craftsmen’s chisel for hundreds of years without wear or blemish. It will not take a high sheen, and yet, it will not loose any of its beauty for lifetime, after lifetime, after lifetime. I have always loved slate stones.

On weekends or long summer evenings, I fondly recall going for bike rides with my Dad, a man who also enjoys a good stroll through a graveyard. It was he who really got me interested in the stories you could find there and the two of us would often wind up in one after a bit of peddling around our end of town. I can think of one burial ground in particular and for two distinct reasons. The first is that it is located on a very old crossroads, not more than a stones throw down the street from an old, 18th century tavern, now a private home. The character of the whole place seems frozen in time and I have no doubt that if you could bring a town man from 1780 to that spot, he would know exactly where he stood.

If not for the fact that he would also be very, very dead.
But hey…!

The echo of ages past is strong there and adds real gravity to the tall, black slates standing like quiet bedsteads in the tall grass and leaves. The second reason that particular place stands out in my mind is because it’s where I ate a spider. It’s the sort of thing that you don’t forget and it’s not something I’d recommend making a habit out of.

As I walked through the old grounds, I had turned my head to say something to my father. At the moment my neck swiveled back forward, I walked between two stones, directly into the web cast between them and, POP! The spider went right in. It was an… interesting moment. The problem was that he was pretty far back there, past my tongue, actually. Spitting him out would have required more tonsil control than I had, so, there was only one thing to do. I didn’t even have any water to wash him down. I recall a lot of grimacing, squinting and dry swallowing.

Despite my little impromptu meal, I still enjoy visiting these places, though now, with a wary eye cast about for unexpected webs.

I tend to travel with water now, too.

Spiders or no, I keep going back. I can’t help it. I find these places to have a magnetism I simply can’t pull away from for long. Oddly, they make me happy.

Well, maybe not happy. Peaceful.

Alive.

Serine.

I think I know why. Here, in the burial ground, everyone is good. They are mothers and fathers. They are sons and daughters. They are old, young, middle aged, and missing but for a stone. Their past transgressions are lost to time. They are just families.

And sometimes, more and more now, it seems, the families are there, but missing stones, which brings me to Susan Jane.

In the ancient cemetery down the road from my house, lays in rest a mother and two of her children. A son, George, died as an infant. He daughter, Susan Jane, died when she was five years and eight months old. The year of Susan’s passing was 1835 and that’s more important that you might think. The mother, Lucinda, had passed away only a few years after her daughter, and her slate slab stands true and clear to this day. The V cut letters are bold and easy to read. If you get close enough, you can see the individual chisel hits in each letter. Only the telltale scrapes at the bottom from careless lawn moving mar the smooth surface. Lucinda’s slate stone stands out sharply in comparison to her children’s unreadable white lumps. By the 1820’s, slate was fast falling out of favor for gravestones and marble soon took over completely. You might wonder then, why her stone was slate, while her children’s were marble. Well, even if you didn’t, I’ll still tell you why:

A lot of people bought their own grave markers in their young adulthoods. They would simply store them in the attic, shed or basement until they were needed. It was seen as a way to get what you wanted on the stone as well as being a courtesy to your family. That, and you didn’t have to set aside part of what you left behind to pay for your marker. Think of it as grave insurance. I’m willing to bet, this is why Lucinda’s stone is slate. It would have still been in vogue when she entered childbearing age. Her young children had passed after the age of slate had pretty much come to a close. And this is a problem.

We are loosing about a hundred and seventy years of history in the blink of an eye, because it’s cut in marble.

Marble is a beautiful stone. It’s wonderful to carve, brilliant when polished and, sadly, melts like salt when exposed to air pollution and acid rain. When I first found Lucinda’s stone, I crouched down to read the inscription, checked her age and then, looked around. She was married and in her thirties so there were probably children here too. To her left, a small marble stone and to her right, a slightly larger one. They were nearly unreadable. The only parts I could decipher from the smallest stone was, “GEO.” at the top, and the word, “died” Everything else was scrubbed away. The larger stone had slightly more. The name was obliterated through pitting, but, “Daughter of Benjamin and Lucinda” as well as the month and day of her death. Most of her name, the year of her death and her age were missing.

It was a worthy hunt.

One of the wonderful things about a small community like the one in which I live is that someone is bound to know local lore, and mine was no different. It only took about three tries before I found the right person to talk to. In her possession was a book compiling all the inscriptions, names, placements and dates of everyone in that particular cemetery. It had been made long ago, before the ravages of pollution had done such a number on our past. She had everything I was looking for. I was ready for the next step.

Now, the family to whom Lucinda and her children belong has long since left this island. They are scattered to the winds and I have never heard of any of them returning for a visit. At least not in the past eighty years or so. I wouldn’t know where to begin to start looking. What I do know is that in just another five or six years, the last traces of text on George and Susan Jane’s stones will have disappeared forever. The pieces of marble that mark their final resting place are now broken at ground level and crumbing like bread. Soon, they will sink away into the soil. This will happen within my lifetime. Marble has betrayed yet another piece of history. But slate though…

So, with my love of the old ways, much of my time spent doing one form of art or another and my particular interest in this one family, their last mark to show they were here, I’ve decided to do something. I’ve decided to carve in slate.

Some people don’t even call slate a stone at all but simply metamorphic rock. I don’t really understand this but the semantics really aren’t important. What are important are these facts:

Slate carves like nothing else. It is so soft that you can scratch it with a hard fingernail, and yet, it will stand unmarked by three or four hundred years of weathering.

It has a very fine composition, unlike the fat crystals you’ll find in granite and so the detail you can get in slate outshines the finest granites.

Also, slate is the best at resisting that enemy of graveyard inscriptions everywhere, the lichen. Granite might be stronger and Marble more brilliant, but both succumb to lichen quickly and loose their identity beneath a thousand islands of the little blooms of growth. Slate, so long as it isn’t toppled or split, will out live all other options by centuries. Plus, I find it beautiful in its simplicity.

I have decided to start with Susan Jane’s stone first and have already done some test pieces. The profile of her original stone is still identifiable and so, I’ll mirror that in her new stone as well. As for decoration, if there ever was an image at the top (called the tympanum), above her name, then it is gone entirely now. This took some serious thought and in the end, I picked something that I hope would have made her parents pleased. Here in Maine, the black cap chickadee is not only our state bird, but a sweet little bird as well. It stays here all year long, through all seasons and its call is immediately recognizable and beautiful. Hearing and seeing one has always made me smile. It’s a tiny little thing, but then, so was Susan Jane.

What has surprised me the most about this endeavor is the reaction I’ve received from those whom I’ve talked with and the positive remarks have been very encouraging. So now, I have some more work to do this winter. Right now, the ground is frozen hard as the grave markers in the burial yard and a fresh coat of snow has been pulled over the children’s markers like a heavy down quilt. It will be some months before I can bring in the new, purple-black marker and set it home beside Susan Jane’s mother. I’ll bury the old stones just below the sod so they can be retrieved if desired, but I think it likely they will rest there with the occupants for a long, long time.

Who knows? This could be habit forming and with time and practice, I might just become proficient enough to make some real work out of this. In the mean time though, I’ll happily continue on in this fashion. I’ll look for the shattered or pitted slabs, now unreadable or just about to become so and see if I can help out in my own way.

Perhaps some day, a hundred years or more from now, some wandering soul taking a walk through the cemetery will stoop over to read the stone of a little girl who died when Andrew Jackson sat in the White House, read her short story and marvel at how crisp the letter cutting is. They might reflect on what she saw in her brief years and remember her name for just a little while longer.

What I do know is, without a new slate monument, she will never be seen at all. And that would be too bad for all parties involved.

So, I’ll make my self a sandwich for lunch and sit down with it, the blank stone and chisels and eat as I chip away on this sunny afternoon. We shall see how it turns out and if it’s worthy of marking such a long lost treasure.

Just hold the spider, please.

Tiny Pieces of Childhood

I stood in the childhood driveway of my best friend’s house and simply marveled at what was before me. This is how a pirate must feel after digging up a lifetime accumulation of treasure, long left in its chest and now excavated in preparation of a well deserved retirement. I don’t know for sure, but it felt like my eyes might actually be twinkling. It was that kind of a moment.

“Wow” was the best I could pull off.

The Doctor smiled on and basked in the glow of a happy friend.

“Enjoy!”

The happy moment I now lived had begun decades ago, but its fruition had only been set into motion two years before…

It had been a beautiful summer day as Action Girl and I drove along the winding roads of New Hampshire, Short Stack snoozing heavily behind us, strapped into his car seat. The trees were deep green and broad leafed and overhung the rural roads with muscular ancient branches, turning our drive into an undulating and twisting tunnel, dappled with the light of the sun. Being native to this part of the country, my wife and I have an abiding love of it and miss it quite a bit. It’s the type of place where we feel instantly connected with the land. I love where we live now, but being “back home” makes me nostalgic and drunk with memories.

Lost in my own private thoughts, Action Girl jolted me back to the moment at hand by reminding me that I was under the gun, so to speak, and totally unprepared. We were almost to the place where my all-but-blood brother would soon be married. The Doctor and I have been best friends since the third grade and this being his wedding, I was the best man, and as such, I was going to have to speak publicly about him at length during the reception.

Naturally, I had done nothing in preparation for this moment.

That’s how I roll.

Since it seems to be a spouse’s job to try and save their significant other from making a total bumbling ass out of themselves, she decided to see if she could help me overt a verbal train wreck that was looking all the more likely as the miles ticked off and we got closer to our destination.

“Okay.” Action Girl pulled out an old scrap of paper and pen from the car console. ”Give me some facts about your friendship”

As I ticked off various points, thoughts and entertaining moments from our long friendship together, Action Girl scribbled them down in the form of a bullet list. I’m pretty good at talking off the top of my head and rather than reading from a scrip, a good list like the one being compiled would be just what was needed. Most of the items I recounted barely got a response from her, until one in particular made her stop writing and look up at me.

“Really? Wow! That’s the one. Talk about that, for sure.”

We pulled into the parking lot and roused a sleeping Short Stack from the comfort of his seat and strapping him to my wife’s back, headed down the beautiful carriage road that lead to the idyllic, garden setting of the wedding.

The choice of venue was beautiful, as was the bride and the ceremony as well. Things went off mostly as planned and I got to spend a wonderfully surprising amount of time with The Doctor just prior to and after the nuptials. It was a perfect day.

We sat back to enjoy our after “I Do” meal and after a fashion, staff appeared dutifully filling our empty champagne glasses, Action Girl gave me a gentle prod.
“Now’s probably good.” A smile and then, I’m fairly sure, a silent prayer that I wouldn’t make an ass out of my self.

Show time!

I’m not a bashful or reserved person when it comes to the public, which can surprise some people since I’m not normally interested in being in the thick of what ever is going on. I’m a periphery sort of guy and prefer to watch than direct. When I get to talk, however, it can be hard to get me to shut up again and go back to listening. My dear wife has pointed this out roughly fifty-two thousand four hundred and sixty five times. With a reassuring gulp of beer, I stood up to address the crowd of friends and family.

I don’t recall a lot of the specifics that I spoke about, drink in hand and mind wandering. I can recall the smiles and various heads bobbing in agreement as I described my extra-familial little brother and I took that to be a good sign that I was neither boring nor off track. I forged ahead.

“I could tell you that The Doctor and I have been close and constant friends for years, but that’s really a cliché that we’ve all heard before at occasions such as this. What I want is to give you an idea of just how deep our loyalty to each other goes.” I scanned the crowd of wedding guests and took in a vista of scientists, engineers and other proud nerds. They would understand.

“I’ll just say this: We pooled our Legos.

Gasps and murmurs bubbled up from the guest tables. Perfect! I had read my crowd correctly.

Legos, for those of you who somehow do not know, are those little, multi-colored, interlocking bricks that have become the ultimate prized item for any geeky child and the ultimate bane of their parent’s. Filling the categories of being tiny, easily lost, both painful and likely to be stepped on and, oh yes, unimaginably expensive, amassing a good Lego collection can take a lot of convincing on a kid’s part. In the end however, they are totally worth the work.

When The Doctor and I first began our friendship, we were only half way through grade school and our own individual caches of plastic mini-bricks were modest, but adequate. As I look back, now as an adult, I marvel at how much of their discretionary income my parent’s spent to feed their son’s Lego habit. Legos have always been pricy and for the money spent, you didn’t get a lot in the way of pieces. It’s a testament of their devotion to a happy child that I had what I did. They didn’t have a lot of money, but I did have a nice little bucket of Legos to play with.

Then, The Doctor started to come over to play.

The two of us spent innumerable hours on our hands and knees, driving our creations across floors in both his house and mine. So, many, in fact, that I can, to this day, clearly remember the pattern and texture of all the rugs throughout each of our homes. Whole days may have passed when neither of us were more than a foot and a half off the ground. T was what we did. Eventually, as the years passed and our friendship came to be an obvious rock of permanence in our lives, we dared to do something that only people who were close as brothers would ever consider.

Through years worth of birthdays and Christmases, each of our collections was something to be proud of. They were impressive in terms of both diversity and scale. Together though, it would be something of childhood legend: A resource that would enable a Lego builder to construct just about anything. Possibly two of anything!

And so, we did it.

One day, into the hopper they all went and from this mountain of plastic, we extracted the materials for one wondrous project after another… for years. Just about every weekend, we built together and creating a cornucopia of beweaponed space ship fleets and mighty fortresses to do battle with. Then we’d break them down and start again. It was wonderful.

As time moved along, Legos, like so many focuses of childhood, moved to the back burner and then off the stove completely. Eventually, our huge collection of plastic bricks was packed away and forgotten all together. We had moved on.

Then, the day of my friend’s wedding came. After I had wrapped up my soliloquy with the necessary champagne toast to the bride and groom, the cake had been cut and eaten and things calmed down to chatting and strolling, I couldn’t help by find The Doctor and ask.

“Hey, what ever happened to all those Legos?”

He grimaced a bit as he thought about where they could have gone.

“Eesh. I think they went to my cousin. You can ask her if you want. She should be at table four. I doubt she has them any more though.”

It was worth a shot. I looked over at my little boy playing in the grass with an adoring wedding guest and guessed that someday, he too might get the Lego Fever. When I found the cousin, the outlook got worse.

“Oh, wow. My mom never hangs on to anything like that and I haven’t seen those Legos in ages. I’ll ask though, if you want?”

Over the years I have learned that in situations like this, you say, “Yes” to questions like this. You’ll regret it later for sure if you don’t and I wasn’t going to regret not trying this time around. I didn’t expect anything to come of it, but hey, why not?

Two years later on a visit back to my hometown, I was reaping the benefit of my inquiries.

“Are you sure? Don’t you want to hang on to at least some?”

The Doctor just smiled back and shook his head. There they all were. A huge box, filled to overflowing was in my arms and I honestly wondered how I was going to get it in the car. I’d find a way though!

The pile has now been passed on and happily, is in the very capable hands of one Short Stack and is appreciated just as much by him as it was by us. It has in fact, become part of my life again as well. After Lulu Belle is put to bed, teeth have been brushed and jimmies put on, it’s time to break out the Lego box.

I’ve built him a new one just for this purpose and it is the size of his mattress and just barely clears the bed frame. Inside are thousands of little pieces of memories of a happy childhood from long ago as well as the fuel for one being woven today. Just about every night, the two of us play and build and as I lay on my side on his bedroom floor, I can just about see the world through the eyes I once did. The Doctor might not be here to build and play with me anymore, but Short Stack makes a great playmate. I hope that he thinks his dad does too.

Now if you’ll excuse me, there are some space ships that I need to get back to constructing. You see, we have a launch schedule to keep…

Basement Archiology.

I know that using the TV as a babysitter is not going to win me “Parent of the Year,” but there are moments where there just aren’t a lot of other options. To be fair to myself, I don’t actually own a television and haven’t for well over a decade. What I do have though is a laptop and my own personal “Leaning Tower of Pisa” built entirely out of the kid’s DVDs and the empty cases in which they are supposed to be put neatly away. I do my best, but the cases often do far less of a job protecting the movies that came in them than duty as coasters for either my coffee or beer, depending on what time of day you happen to catch me. Either way, provided that a disk remains relatively scratch free, popping one in will buy me about a half hour of productivity as Short Stack and Lulu Belle learn about something wholesome and educational. Thus far, I haven’t mistaken a Miffy DVD for say… The Guns of Navarone or Big Trouble in Little China, but I could see that happening eventually. THAT will be a fun time to explain.

Being the Christmas Season and I, being a sucker for the trappings thereof, I’ve been slowly tarting up the house with the trapping of the Holiday. It’s something that I get form my Mom and though the gene isn’t as strong with me as it is with her, it’s there nonetheless. Her house is always decorated like something out of a children’s book and it was magical to watch the transformation happen as a child. As a kid, I just assumed that everyone’s Mom went bonkers with the seasonal decorations and cookie making. I’ve since learned that’s not the case, so I do what I can with my own meager attempts to carry the torch for the sake of my own children’s holiday memories. The DVD that the kids were now successfully glued to gave me the chance I needed to do some rooting in the boxes that lurked in darker corners beneath the house.

Let me explain my house, just briefly. It’s small. No. It’s VERY small. We have exactly one closet in the entire structure and that is crammed to the bursting point with coats and boots. When we moved in here seven years ago, it was only a summer camp with no pretensions of being anything but that. It sat on posts and scoffed at the notion of insulation. I’ve spent the last seven years and a wheelbarrow full of cash changing all that. We now mostly have insulation in the walls and ceilings, but most importantly enough, we also have a basement. A FULL basement that is about seven and a half feet high at its shortest and nearly nine and a half at its highest.

It is also, do to the lack of storage anywhere else in the house, packed to the point of horror/hilarity. Finding anything down there requires persistence, the ability to balance on one foot for extended periods of time and very strong arms so you can carefully tilt four stacked boxes at once so you can peek into the fifth one. This can often result in something that Action Girl and I refer to as a “stuffalanche.”

With the few moments I had and the baby monitor turned up all the way and clipped to my belt, I moved boxes and totes in an effort to find a missing piece in my Christmas preparations. I didn’t find it, naturally, but as is often the case when I go spelunking through boxes of odds and ends, long forgotten, I did find something else that made me stop cold.

A rapidly disintegrating cardboard box spilled its contents at my feet, and among the old pay stubs, bank statements and notes to my self to do things in 2006, I saw a red binder.

My red binder.

THE red binder.

Once, I had a business that was based some distance from my house. It was a drive to get there and though it was hell on my car and the gas I burned up was impressive, it did give me one thing that I don’t really have any more. Solitude. I’d leave in the morning for work and since Action Girl works mostly night shifts, she’s be too groggy to be calling me as I drove on my commute. Content to leave the radio off, I’d spend that time in my car just letting my mind wander and observe things as I whipped by. It was a very nice way to start the day, to be honest.

One day as I trundled along the highway, I started to compose a little poem in my head. By the time I made it to work, I had worked most of it out and was pretty happy with it. Once my coat was hung up and the lights turned on, I sat down and scribbled it on a bit of lined paper. The next day, I did it again. Then again. I really grew to enjoy what quickly transformed into a morning ritual, and though I did not write something everyday, I did put my mind to it pretty often. By the end of the year, I had quite a little pile of prose. I’m hardly the one to judge its quality in the world of poetry, but it was good to me.

At some point, I got concerned about the scraps of paper with all that work and thinking poured onto them and decided I needed to transfer it all to my computer. I put them all in a red binder and brought them home. Then we lifted the house and the binder disappeared.

Normally, I’d not be too concerned about this. My attitude about these things tends to be, “Hey, it’s got to be here somewhere.” and I’m usually correct. This time though, I was worried. Very worried. After the house was picked up, had a basement put in and plopped back down on it’s new underpinning, my Father-in-law had come over and “helped” This is a dangerous thing. Though he has a good heart and the nervous industry that most twenty year old do not, he also has a very bad and well earned reputation for throwing things out that do not belong to him or that no person in their right mind would toss, all without clearance from the owner. Here I’m thinking about the bag of nuts and bolts that held my table saw bench together. No joke.

Long after the visit, I discovered that he had “helpfully” cleaned up an area in the house that, though I admit it, was knee deep in… stuff and debris, it also contained my binder of poems. It had been hastily put there with everything else during the house construction and was going to be dealt with… later… whenever that would be. When I looked at the spot now, it was empty. I knew he had also been to the dump at least twice during his time here. My heart sank. I never asked him if he saw it. I didn’t want him to feel guilty for only trying to help.

I actually wrote one last poem about my book of poetry moldering away under piles of trash at the city landfill, and then I didn’t write again. For whatever reason, the spirit to write poetry just sort of went dormant for me. I tried here and there over the years, but it just didn’t flow like it did before. Not having the commute to quietly reflect anymore, no doubt was a major impact, but thinking of a year’s worth of writing, gone for good also killed the joy.

With a lightning fast snatch that would have caught a fish by surprised, I grabbed it with both hands before it disappeared once again. Eye’s wide, I fearfully examined the open edge of the binder to look without really looking. I had other red binders like this one. It could easily be filled with receipts or old product information, long since irrelevant. No. It wasn’t that.

A smile spreading across my face, I opened it up to see sheet after sheet of hand written thoughts and personal observations. A year’s worth of thinking and writing. I scanned quickly and then snapped it shut and hugged it to my chest, eyes held tight.

“Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!” was all I could say.

The little spy speaker on my waist told me that the show upstairs was coming to an end and thus too, my ability to remain here any longer. Holding the long lost binder under my arm, I headed back to the living room where Short Stack immediately burst into a long and accurate description of the show they just watched as Lulu Belle scurried off in search of a lucky stuffed animal with whom to have tea. I listened with half an ear as I made a new home for my memories in a safe and easy to remember location upstairs.

I still have a lot of Christmas-ing to do around the house and that’s the main priority for me, but it will be over soon as well. Once it is, and the kids are tucked into bed, I have some transcribing to do. I don’t know what is in store for me present-wise this Christmas, but I’m already as happy as I could be. What was lost is found and with the distance of time, I’ll be reading these again with new eyes as I type away in the night.

Merry Christmas to me!

Well Used Hand Tools

As I sit here and type this, I can look down at my hands and see a least three cuts or abrasions in various states of self-repair. If I turn them over… I can’t type any more.

I could also find three or four more.

This is not an uncommon state to find my hands in. Bandages are a common accessory and the scars that criss-cross my fingers, palms and forearms are plentiful and, to me, read as some of my life’s stories. I can’t say that remember where all of them came from, but I can tell you about some of the major ones. The long curve between two knuckles on my left hand made by a slipped screwdriver, the three parallel lines on the outside of my right thumb from the hand saw that I didn’t see until it was too late or the blobby one on the back of my left hand made by the hot lead dripping off the soldering iron. They make me think of the projects that I’ve tackled and that tackled me back just a bit.

I work with my hands a lot and to any one who takes a moment to notice, it shows. I’ve always been somewhat proud of that. When I was a child, I remembering looking down at my soft, doughty hands and then at my father’s and marveling that someday, they might look like his. Mine seemed impossibly soft and round. The backs stood up like little hills and the mole that sat like a small bug on the back of my left hand was the only mark of distinction that I could find. Other than that, they could have been anyone’s. Any kids, at any rate.

Dad’s hands however had veins that stood out boldly as they twisted over knuckles and the scars dotted here and there, made them unique. On one hand, the size of a shelled peanut is a little mound of smooth flesh, devoid of any hairs and a slightly different hue than the rest of his skin, browned in the summer sun. Being the sort of kid who asked questions unabashedly, I inquired as to what happened here. Being the sort of Dad who indulges, he told me:

Many years ago, while he sat in high school chemistry class, the teacher was doing a demonstration. This particular experiment involved a Bunsen burner, a beaker and a small amount of sulphur. What ever the experiment was meant to show, the lesson that my father took away with him was that, A: melting sulphur can and will at times jump out of the beaker and, B: if it lands on your skin, it will immediately burn a hole through it until it cools off enough to stop. Then it will crystallize.

To this day, a small yellow-green patch sits at the bottom of my Dad’s scar, a memento of his school career. I was always taken by both the story and the mark it left and recall many instances of sitting in my Dad’s lap or near enough to touch him and quietly poking the scar and looking for the yellow-green at the bottom.

Since those days, my own hands have taken a lot of use and abuse. Though my love of collecting and using tools has taken its toll, the hardest work they ever put in was when I had my own manufacturing business. It was very hands-on type of work and the thing that my hands were on was clay. Lots and lots of clay. ;

Clay is insidious stuff. It’s smooth to the touch, cool and mushes easily in your hand. Other than being heavy to move around, it’s pretty simple stuff to work with in a lot of ways. What it also does is suck the moisture right out of every pore you have. Add to this that hand lotion and clay do not play well together, and you have a recipe for some seriously dry hands, especially come winter. The other thing about clay is that it’s like semi-liquid sand paper. It might be a very fine grit, but it still scours away at your skin. Do this for about ten years, and the result looks like this…

hand

That’s my hand just a few days before I sold the company and decided to do something else to earn my cookies and milk. I tell you honestly, there is not enough moisturizer in the world to heal those cracks. Ten months later, they look much happier, and so, by the by, am I.

Over the months I’ve been home, I’ve bent my will and tools to making our house look more like we want it to and less like a pile of lumber and shingles that have been dumped into the approximate shape of a house. My hands have been working hard, and Short Stack has noticed.

Like most children, he is obsessed with Band-Aids and will cry for one to cover the most minor of abrasions. To a kid, putting a Band-Aid on something is almost a magical experience and is viewed as a near panacea for all woes. When he spots some cut or blister on my own hands, his first inclination is to take me to the bathroom to get a Band-Aid for it. Some times I agree and we head off to cover the damaged digit with a dancing Snoopy or other cartoon emblazoned sterile strip. Other times, I tell him that I’m fine and that it will heal on its own. That doesn’t seem to bother him too much but I can see him think about it and wonder.

I look down at his hands and then at my own. Devoid of any obvious and permanent marks, they are pretty much as they were meant to be. My daughter, Lulu Belle’s are the only ones in the house that are cleaner and softer. Not even two years old yet, they are delicate, smooth and puffy, the knuckles existing only as dimples. Both of them will see many changes in their hands as time goes by. The thought of scars marring their tiny hands turns my stomach, even as I look at my own scars with pride. How funny.

I’ll happily show them someday how to use their hands to build and make things, though I know it will inevitably result in skun knuckles, scrapes or worse. That’s a given. It’s part of using something whether it be a machine that gets dinged and scratched with use or our own bodies. I still feel that it’s important to use them, though.

I’ll just try to keep them away from the clay. That and teachers with shaky hands and Bunsen burners.

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