By John Thomas Tuft
Harlan lived by a very strict code. Never take more than you need. Treat others the way you want to be treated. Put in a hard day’s work and don’t expect to be paid until you have done the work. Take care of your tools and your tools will take care of you. If you borrow someone’s vehicle always return it with a full tank of gas. Put things back in the same place that you found them…in effect, a place for everything, and everything in its place. This applied particularly when it came to his tools for woodworking, which gave him endless joy. And finally, live strong until the time comes to lie down and die; and when the time comes, lie down and die. No complaining, no regrets. Love those you love, enough that they can live on without you.
Harlan spent countless hours in his workshop measuring twice and cutting once, always being sure to push the hand bench plane with the grain, fashioning mitered bridle joints or half blind dovetail jointed drawers, sanding table tops to a smoothness fit for a king, treating, staining, shellacking and even waxing his woodworking projects. He took great delight in fashioning spindles on his lathe, skillful in using carefully sharpened woodturning chisels to work magic on a spinning chunk of wood till it revealed graceful curves and tapered to fine fits. But what he was most proud of was being able to fix anything that his Rachel needed fixed.
He could unstick doors, rehang the cabinets, create a beautiful frame for her favorite pictures, use a jigsaw to make a graceful bread board with rounded corners and a graceful handle. He glued together blocks of alternating dark and light woods and carved out a set of bowls on the lathe and router. Harlan reveled in her delight at the wooden porch swing he made and hung over the deck he built with his own two hands. And when her footsteps began to falter, Harlan built a ramp from the sidewalk up to the deck, with a secure safety railing to keep her steady. When Rachel got sick and needed to be able to get around with a walker, Harlan spent weeks pulling up carpeting, sanding and cleaning the hardwood floors, before refinishing them so Rachel could move about.
In the evenings, Harlan would take Rachel out onto the deck and they would sit on the handmade swing and murmur in the low voices of those who know that there are times when muted joy is the surest communion. He would brush out her hair and tie it up with one of the ribbons that hung on the delicate rack he fashioned from a branch of the old oak down by the creek. During the long, languid evenings Harlan started to carve small figurines as they reviewed together the psalms of their lives, written in scars. And as the sun went down, Rachel would sing “What if they’re right/what if we’re wrong/what if I’ve lured you here with a siren song/what if I be wrong/what if I be right/let me be here with you tonight.”
Just as wood can weather and dry, even crack or rot, bow and warp, so too can those who love to work with wood. And those who love them. Sometimes a strict code is not enough. Sometimes you are given more trouble than you need. Sometimes treating others fairly is met with the most unfair cuts. Sometimes the hard day’s work goes unrewarded. Sometimes what is borrowed is never returned. Sometimes the place for everything overwhelms the biggest of hearts. Sometimes the old branch from the oak falls into the creek and floats away. Sometimes the sun sets, and it feels like the night will go on forever. Sometimes it is the last time to brush her hair and tie it with a beautiful ribbon. Sometimes the last note of a song fades before we are ready to let it go.
Harlan goes through the house, slowly collecting all his old woodwork that he can carry. He takes it to his shop and carefully lays it out among all of his beloved tools. Then, with as much love as he shaped and fashioned before, he now takes it apart. He loosens glue, removes nails, unbinds the joints, unscrews the hardware, strips away layers of lacquer and ignores the splinters in his flesh from the rough edges. He reshapes the woodwork, finds a new way to fit it together, being sure to measure twice before cutting through old grains. He sands the new joints, smooths the edges of a new reason, planes the pieces to a new purpose. When it is finished, he knows it is complete. And completely done.
Harlan sets it on the ground and cradles Rachel in his arms as he lowers her inside, laying her to her rest within all the love he has to give. His woodwork will carry her home, to a place beneath the old oak down by the creek. After all, you never take more than you need…
Words are magic and writers are wizards.