By Trudy Wischemann
“He changed my life,” the stranger said at my father’s memorial. It turns out that he’d worked with Dad at the Coast Guard station at Two Rock. “I was a dope-smoking ruffian with no interest and no skills, and in three short months of working with him, my whole life was turned around. When I left the Coast Guard, I went out and got a job working in construction, and from there went on to have a family… I never saw him again, but when I saw his obituary I knew I had to come.”
As I stood there surrounded by chattering friends and family, the one lucky enough to receive this stranger’s story, I realized that this is why we have memorials, or celebrations of life, or funerals – whatever you want to call them. It’s so that people who have known a person on the outside of family life can bring their stories, their remembrances, to the ones who knew that person wholly, wheat and chaff together. The ones who now stare death in the face and may be suffering the fact that sometimes the chaff was all they saw.
The stranger described the tender, dedicated way my father had shown him how to think about a problem and find the answer, how to pick up his hammer and saw, cutting up pieces to pound together, making something new. As he spoke, I remembered the time my father almost hit me with his hammer when I moved in too close, trying to learn how to repair a double-hung window. But the stranger was telling me something I needed to know, so I stayed quiet and just soaked up his words.
“I hope he was the same as a father,” he ended, looking around the room full of people who were all strangers to him. I followed his gaze and my eyes caught on my brother, who suffered the most from my father’s attention given to other people. I didn’t answer, mostly because I was still sorting my wheat and chaff and didn’t want to mar the stranger’s glowing distillation, which was helping.
In another part of my sister’s house, where we had gathered to celebrate Dad’s life, some students were chatting from Sebastopol high school’s wood shop. He’d volunteered there for years, right up to the last weeks of his life. The students had brought their most recent projects to display in honor of what they’d learned from Dad. “Before, I didn’t really care about anything,” one young man told me. “I was sitting in the back of the room texting and goofing off, so the shop teacher told me to go talk to Dave.” The stranger’s story from the 1980s replayed thirty years later, cementing its truth: my father loved to show people how to work with wood, how to make things, fix things, how to be resourceful and creative and survive, spirit intact. That’s really what he gave away freely to life, and somehow we are all better for it. That’s really what I learned from him, even if I can’t turn bowls on a lathe or repair a double-hung window.
The chaff is not nothing. It is necessary: it protects the wheat kernel as it grows and becomes a byproduct after it is separated. It is like the sawdust on my father’s shop floor below the table saw and the planer, a byproduct of some pretty terrible cutting and shaping of what once was a living tree into a table or bowl, relatively inert. We’ve all got our piles of sawdust to deal with, even after the carpenter who made them is gone. The blessing of memorials is that we also have the kernels, sometimes held only by others, to appreciate.
Trudy Wischemann is a recovering carpenter’s daughter who writes. You can send her your sawdust stories c/o P.O. Box 1374, Lindsay CA 93247 or visit www.trudysnotesfromhome.blogspot.com and leave a comment there.
– This column is not a news article but the opinion of the writer and does not reflect the views of The Foothills Sun-Gazette newspaper.