Here is a story I wrote after sweating and cursing through the refinishing of two antique pieces of furniture for my daughter's room. I love heirlooms and storied family treasures. The idea is to keep a copy of this story with the furniture for future reading. Enjoy.The Carpenter’s Furniture: a Redemption Story
They began life as a handful of seeds. Or perhaps what merely amounted to a handful, for they had never been gathered together or held in anyone’s hands. Long they lay in the ground, waiting while winter visited its breath upon their elders above the surface. But then, something inside said that it was time, and they began to change. It was hardly noticeable, really. No one paid much attention when any of the thin green saplings poked their brave noses above the dirt. That was as they wanted it.
But soon their skin hardened into bark and they added years to their lives, piling on the seasons of flood and drought, until one day, a man came and called them by a name. It was not the name they had known when they were born, the name that ran through their sap and roots and stretched out to the smallest twigs of their branches, the name that the sky spoke when it looked down upon them. It was a foreign name: “May-puhl.”
“May-puhl?” they thought, and they questioned one another along the breeze that ran through their grove. The man was young, it seemed. Men did not live as long as trees, but this one seemed to think himself old enough for judgment. Then he took out a long, serrated knife, and cut them all down. It hurt terribly, and they didn’t understand, but they bore their fate with the patience given their kind. Other men came and carved up their bodies and carried them away, where they were divided up and rendered unto planks and facings.
Time passed, and the planks were bought and sold and nailed and glued together. A carpenter from Alabama happened upon a collection of them and paid out quite a sum, taking them back to his shop excitedly. For many days he stared at the wood and drew up plans, hoping that his work would feed his family. Then, on a Saturday in April, he began to work, beveling edges and routing grooves, ripping boards and gluing joints. His wife would occasionally look in on him. He moved from the larger bits to doing some scrollwork on the apron of two pieces. They seemed to his wife to be turning into a bureau and a vanity. The scrollwork was new to him, but he threw his heart into it, and in the end it turned out well. The bureau and the vanity were sanded and stained and went up for sale in his tiny storefront.
There they sat for a time, and the carpenter began to think less of himself and wondered about the value of his skill. But upon an unexpectedly warm day that September, a lady came in the door. The timing seemed queer, Uncanny as the carpenter’s wife later put it. For the lady searched round the storefront and decided on exactly those two pieces which had languished for months. She offered a sum for them which was strangely a few dollars more than what the carpenter needed to make rent. The carpenter took it with a meek and thankful look in his eyes, and he loaded the pieces into a truck to deliver them to her house, which turned out to be a small affair tucked away on a large farmstead near a bend in the river. Cotton bolls were beginning to open in rows stretching away to a line of elms that towered in the distance toward the south. The field to the north, away from the river, held a vast crop of late bush beans that hung like green jewels in the sun. The dirt road ran straight on a slight causeway between fields. The carpenter drove up to the house, which had apple trees surrounding it and a large kitchen garden. He unloaded the bureau and the vanity and carried them into the sitting room, hoping to meet the farmer himself, but the man was nowhere to be seen. The lady thanked him and offered a basket of vegetables to him as he left.
She, though her frame was delicate, worked happily to move the two pieces into respective rooms, cherishing the idea of her husband’s return. And return he did. Late in the evening, he came down the road in the seat of a red tractor, his weary shoulders slightly hunched at the wheel and an exuberant border collie dashing about the path around him. His wife met him at the front door. Dinner was ready, but she wanted to show him a surprise first. She led him into the back bedrooms of their tiny house, and he stopped in the doorway when he saw the new furniture. His mind quickly rifled through the accounts, drawing up beads of sweat on his forehead when hard times came fresh on his memory, but then he saw the joy in his wife’s face. He let it be in good faith, and he smiled and thanked her for the gifts.
It was several years later, when the farmer’s wife took sick. She lay in the bed trying bravely to manage a smile on her wan face, as the farmer did his best to work his land and care for his wife. He wished that she had borne children who might help with the work, but they had none. At last, the malady conquered her, and she died. He buried her and mourned deeply, but did his best to continue the work with his dog for company.
As time passed, he fell in love with another woman, much younger. They married at length, but she, being immature in ways, was jealous of her husband’s first wife. She despised the bureau and the vanity, knowing them to be cherished gifts. Late one afternoon, out of youthful spite, she hewed the legs off of the vanity, and painted both pieces a creamy white. To be truthful, it was a rather dashing hue, although the vanity was now little more than a child’s desk. The farmer himself said nothing, hoping not to upset her.
Years crept up and flooded away again, and they, despite this offense, were faithful to each other and bore two children: a daughter and a son. The young girl inherited the carpenter’s furniture as a bedroom set. Initially she did not know the tainted history of it, but as she grew they saw fit to tell her. Soon, she married a quiet man, a jack-of-all-trades as it were. He was a musician but was studied in many arts and had industrious hands. They also bore two children: a son and a daughter. The little girl inherited the carpenter’s furniture in her turn, and cherished them as heirlooms.
Upon leaving home to attend school as a young woman, she met a strange young man who liked music. Different though they were in their persuasions, they fell in love and were wedded. They bought a house in the city, and she brought the furniture up from her mother’s house to be their own. In the course of time, she came to be with child, and they decided upon a use for the carpenter’s furniture. Their child would also inherit it, but they desired that its history should come upon a different chapter. The young musician liked wooden and storied things that were well built, and bent his mind toward stripping the furniture of its creamy coat, which had now crackled pleasantly over the first finish. Many commented on the quality of the cracking, saying that it had class and was beautiful. But the musician and his wife reasoned that, as the paint was applied in spite, it should be undone in love.
Many hours of longsuffering work they spent, painstakingly removing the layers of yellowed paint and even the stain beneath. The musician’s friends came by to help. A black man from New York worked side by side with him, and alongside their work, they freely discussed the angst between the races of black and white men in the South. They worked as brothers, and were glad to have a freedom from the constraints of fear, at least between themselves. The musician found a man begging on the side of the road, and gave him the chance to live with dignity again by working for his food. They ate and worked with each other for a day, and the musician prayed over him and sent him off.
Most of all, the musician’s wife worked beside him, even though she was greatly with child and could not easily move about. After they had stripped away the years of paint and stain, they put new legs on the vanity and sanded the carpenter’s furniture again. Once, the vanity was left out on the porch, and the wet air bowed the paneling on one side. The musician was angry with himself, but sought knowledge about kerfing. He kerfed the panel himself and patched it, sanding it again when it was dry. The musician and his wife also began to stain the furniture a deep and dark tone, nearly black. Patiently they worked as the furniture took up all the space where they once dined as a family. Persistently, they stained and sanded and stained until it was done. It was polished and handed down as a set to their first child, a daughter. That is how it came to be here.