Hand Carved Birds & Little Wooden Chairs
When I was five, my grandfather died, and the kindergarten circus was at the same time as his funeral. My memories of the two things are all mixed up: it was the first funeral I went to, and when I think about it, I remember jumping through a hula hoop meant to be a ring of fire at the circus dress rehearsal and also my parents checking me out of school before the actual circus for the funeral, walking to the car, confused about what death really meant and what a funeral would be like.
Since I was only five when he died, my memories of him are fuzzy and probably shaped just as much by stories and photographs as my actual memories. He was called Big Fred, and I think I remember his laugh, sitting on his knee as he bounced me around, “his” chair, that my grandmother still referred to that way, even years after his death.
I have his desk. It’s an old roll-top desk, the kind that people say “they don’t make things like that anymore” about. I don’t have any memories of him and the desk, but the desk came to my dad after he died, and it sat in our house for all of my childhood. When my dad died, the desk came to me, and now it sits in our dining room. It’s big and heavy and we don’t have a great place for it, but it’s a piece of furniture that’s going with me wherever I go. When I opened it up to start filling the drawers, I found the guestbook from my grandfather's retirement party and a paperweight from my dad's first full time job. I love this desk because it is full of history and stories.
On top of the desk sit a few hand carved birds. There are a few more scattered about my house, and I remember them from my childhood, scattered about my house, the houses of our extended family. My grandfather carved them. He made me a chair too, a little toddler sized chair that has a heart carved into the wood at the top. It sat in my room for years as a child, and now it sits in my youngest child’s nursery. It’s been a fixture in each of their rooms, and as soon as they were old enough to sit up without help, I made sure to snap some photos of them in that chair. Maybe one day I’ll see my own grandchildren sit in that little chair.
The birds and the chair aren’t the only things my grandfather made. He also built me my own playhouse, in the backyard. It was just a little playhouse, nothing big or fancy like the Pinterest ones you see these days. But he built it, just for me, painted it yellow to match my parents house at the time. There was a little front porch on it, perfect for sitting and reading or for hours of make-believe games. My children loved playing in it too. When my mom sold the house I grew up in and we couldn’t figure out a good way to move the playhouse to our own backyard, I mourned the loss of the playhouse, even though I had only set foot in it occasionally since I became a teenager.
I’ve been thinking a lot about legacies lately. How we spend our time here on earth and what we leave behind when we’re gone. I’ve also been thinking about minimalism and consumer culture, and how being home all these months of 2020 has taught me that I really need less than I think I do, but also, that some things, while ultimately, just things, also have a legacy behind them. When I sit at that rolltop desk, I feel the history there. When my kids ask about the birds, I have the chance to tell them a story. When they sit in that same little chair that I sat in as a child, I feel a connection between my childhood and theirs.
I’ve been thinking about stories a lot too. What kind of stories will they remember from their childhood? Will they want to go back and read the stories I’ve written down when they are grown? Will they one day share them with their own children? My grandmother wrote a lot of stories down. She had her own newspaper column “With Cherry.” I have some of the clippings that she laminated; some of them tell the stories about my own childhood. There is a presentation book filled with photocopies of old photos and newspaper clippings, a cookbook she wrote with her mother, a book her mother published. I have another presentation book, spiral-bound; a family history my grandfather worked on, documenting our family ancestry.
I’ve been flipping through them, wondering about the stories there. I’ve been wishing I thought to ask my dad more about his stories, before he died. He had some really funny stories, like how my grandmother would sell furniture out from under him, and how his fraternity brothers put his VW Beetle in the chapel at school, the same VW Beetle that he talked about driving up the mountain to college, rust holes in the floorboard. He told about stopping for gas, and the questionable brakes not cooperating with the incline, so he’d have to circle around the parking lot a few times to fill up his gas tank. I know a few of the stories, the ones that he told often, but I wish I’d written them down before the details got fuzzy.
What I’m trying to say, I think, is that when we make something we leave a legacy. Whether it’s a hand carved bird or a little wooden chair, a playhouse or stories told or written, legacies leave a story, and stories are something to be thankful for. They help us learn who we are, and knowing who we are helps us realize who we can be.