I don’t know what should hurt worse; the loss or the fact that, in the end, I really didn’t learn anything. Sitting in the saw dust and stain breathing in the smell of the old man’s workshop I couldn’t help but think about the things he might say or do if he were to walk through that door and see me dumbly stroking the handle of the old saw on the bench. Big, sun browned hands had raised these walls and made everything around me and there was a bit of him in everything I saw. The table in the center of the room was covered in tools and bits of wood he’d been working on years ago and, at least in my memory, he was standing there tinkering with a hinge on a cabinet door that was stuck. Beside me was a box of rags and smooth pieces of sandpaper he and my grandmother had used on shutters he’d built or the desk that they had made me for my graduation. I could hear his voice, singing or telling a story or explaining exactly the way something worked as he sketched it out with a carpenter’s pencil on the yellowed, ancient spiral notebook that was collecting dust now on a shelf on the far wall.
I’d made for a terrible apprentice and there are only so many times you can slice your hand with a saw or break a finger with a hammer before you have to give up and move on. I was a day dreamer then and still was now looking at the weathered old saw that had drawn my blood so many times as I tried so hard to be like him. He made it look easy, as natural as breathing in and breathing out as he used those rugged old hands to work some planks into something solid and beautiful and lasting. The yellow, dust caked radio sitting on a ledge by the drafting desk on the far wall was only on on Saturdays and only if he had to finish something while the Opry was on. Otherwise he would hum and whistle and sing the old songs he’s sang as he plowed the field and helped his father with the business of the farm where he was raised. Once in a while you might hear a hammer strike, a thud and a thunk on a thumb and a muffled curse that might have been imagined if it had ever come out of his mouth to begin with. He’d cradle it in his hand for only a second and then go back to what he was doing.
He wasn’t remarkably tall or built broad and muscular but he seemed like such a towering figure of a man in my memory. Wearing whatever old baseball cap he had on with his brown shirt and striped carpenter’s overalls, he looked as natural to the scene as anything he’d built in that workshop. To be there now, without him there working on something… it just didn’t seem real. How could this place still stand without the carpenter there to say that it was okay? Who was holding these walls together, making the light shine through the window or out of the flickering florescent bulbs? Who was going to be here now to tell me where to go and what to do and how to fix it when the world was so broken around me?
The old radio crackled, popped with static as a surge of electricity flickered the lights. I walked across the shop to turn it off but, as my trembling hand reached for the switch, turned the dial a bit to the left instead. The static cleared enough to hear the Stanley Brothers singing. I stared at the glowing yellow light inside the broken dial as I tried to figure out just where the red arrow had landed, what station I’d found. Instead, all I saw was a familiar face smiling in my memory and singing along as the chorus of Angel Band reprised.
“Bare me away on your snow white wings,” the carpenter sang as he hammered the last nail in place. “To my immortal home.”
The static pop erupted again from the speaker and the light faded. I flicked the switch back and forth but the radio was dead. Shaking my head, I slowly walked away and stood on the little landing at the top of the steps leading out of the workshop. The air was warm and thick in the smell of honeysuckle as a gentle wind blew across the hill. My son was running around the yard with his cousins, laughing and chasing after a stray ball that had butted against the fence where the garden used to be. I smiled.
“That’s it, Danny,” I could hear him saying in my ear. “Now you’ve got it.”
All those years, all those attempts to teach me to build and to make things that had ended so badly… it was never about making me a carpenter. Just like he’d done with his own sons and grandsons, he tried to teach us all something different. He tried to teach me what I needed to learn, not what I wanted to. Those hard, calloused hands built everything with patience as he put a song and a story into those simple items that would become a part of someone’s life. He could have made anything he wanted out there. He chose to make a man out of a little boy.
Because God needed one more carpenter.