You were born a carpenter, and you died a carpenter.
Every morning when you were young, men would sling belts over the line shaft to run their lathes and presses, working in stations by tall, bright windows in the days before Edison’s electric light. Your attic was filled with tufts of sawdust and wooden carriage wheel spokes, relics now of a bygone century; but scattered, too, with discarded fragments of the modern airplane parts you made and kept there decades later, when the war came and your country needed you.
There was nothing you couldn’t do, though your life was hardly what anyone would call glamorous. You worked long years for the railway. You kilned lime, one grueling day after another. During the Depression, when Roosevelt’s deal brought crates of groceries to town by train, you kept them cold and dry as the needy lined up each week outside your door.
And for a long while, you were lonely. You were alone almost forty years before you met my family and came back to woodworking, your love; but the day they introduced us, I felt sure I had already known you my whole life.
You were there the day my best friend proposed, and you were waiting for us with open arms when we returned to you newly married. You gave us the confidence and the means to build our first home together. There must have been a hundred sleepless nights, alone in the misery of chronic illness, when I came to you and we worked together fulfilling orders until dawn, silent except for the thunder of the two o’clock train. You even stood close by on the morning we brought our brand new daughter home from the hospital. You were always there, and we believed that you always would be.
The nights are fewer and farther between, now, when I lie down and close my eyes to sleep, only to hear the urgent voice of my husband from the bedroom door.
Nikki, get up! There’s a fire in the shop!
I can feel my heart rate climbing, the churning nausea, the pang of adrenaline. There’s never any stopping it, so I let it run its course. I remember fleeing the hazy apartment barefoot, the baby limp and still asleep on my hip – she, who never sleeps through anything! – bloodying my soles as I ran across the parking lot in time to see John’s silhouette disappear through the flame lit doorway, dragging a sorry length of garden hose from the standpipe.
Do you have your phone? Call 911! Oh, my God. Oh, God!
The fire was small when I saw it then, especially compared to the behemoth it became, but I knew we were going to lose you. You were already gone.
I was so sure I wouldn’t be able to face it when we rounded that corner the next day, still wearing what were suddenly the only clothes we owned. My stomach roiled with dread. I just knew I couldn’t bear to see you.
Yet, surprisingly – at least, it was a surprise to me – I was calm. The baby ogled fearlessly at the rumbling fire trucks still pumping water over your smoking bones while I looked around and waited to feel the sting of my heart torn from my chest. As the minutes passed, I realized that what I felt was much like approaching the casket of a beloved friend, prepared to suffer the agony of facing a lifetime without them; only to look down and see an empty shell, and to recognize that nothing of the soul remained there.
So why is it, then, that I could look at this pile of smoldering stones and feel no pain, but the memory of the fire still brings me to hot tears and a crushing, breathless grief? I care nothing for our things, or for our apartment, and I feel only marginally more sorrow now for our tiny house – which felt for many weeks after like the loss of a limb.
The truth is that I am a silly, sentimental person. Yes, of course our business is more than just a building – it is incarnate in the people who make up the Strong Oaks Woodshop, in our commitment and our faith and our camaraderie – but you were more than just a building, too, and as strange as it feels to admit, what brings me so much pain is to think of you in your last moments, standing alone there in the shattered darkness as those cruel flames stripped you bare and consumed every last sliver of your magnificence. You deserved so much better, my dear friend. We are in the business of salvaging beauty that might otherwise be lost. We are so passionate about saving history from destruction… and yet, in the end, we couldn’t save you.
I am truly, bitterly sorry.
People from far and wide, strangers and kin, our customers and friends of our friends have poured out their hearts and their material generosity to help us all begin to rebuild. That means a lot of things to us, this little shop that began once upon a time in a one-stall garage; not the least of which is that we have made something of ourselves. Somewhere along the line, it seems, we have managed to make a difference.
But the truth is that we couldn’t have done it without you.
I love you.