Gratitude Making

My workshop

On the 12th day, I’m grateful for my workshop.

When I was growing up, I spent a lot of time with my dad’s Aunt, Louise. Her husband, Lonnie, had died right before I was born, and so he was someone whose shadow loomed large in my childhood, but who I never met.

Uncle Lonnie was Louise’s second husband (y’all gonna make me devote a whole one of these to her before I’m done), after she divorced the drunk sign painter. Lonnie worked for Ford Motor company as a machinist, and had a good union job with benefits, but the thing that made him remarkable was that he was also a mechanical genius.

I don’t say that lightly – there were cars in the 60’s that rolled off Ford’s assembly line due to his patents (well, that Ford owned, that whole work for hire thing, you know). He wired the houses of pretty much everyone I knew growing up. He could plumb, do electrical, weld, build with brick, concrete or wood – he could do it all.

He had a workshop behind their house – a small 10×16 or so shed he had built, with his tools lined up above his workbench, a drill press and a lathe on the other side. And Aunt Louise told me that when he got home, he would eat supper, and then he would go out to his shop and work.

As a ten-year-old boy, I would go out to his shop when I would stay over at her house. It was dusty, having not been used since he died. The tools were gone, but the racks were still there, and so was his workbench. The lights he had wired still worked, and the fixtures he manufactured out of pickle jars still did what he had intended. It was a magical place. I would sometimes just sit there on a milk crate, soaking it in. I have, as an adult, been in gothic cathedrals and felt some of the same feeling, like I was in the presence of some higher intelligence just out of my reach.

Uncle Lonnie was the dominant man in my dad’s life after my grandfather died when Dad was 7.

My dad was a tinkerer – an inch thick but a mile wide when it came to skills. He could rebuild your engine, wire your house, fix your radio, cut down your tree, repair your air conditioner, weld a trailer, build a house. He wasn’t amazing at any of that, but he could do them all, and perhaps most importantly, he wasn’t afraid to try something he hadn’t done before.

He told me once that it had all started when he was 8 or so – his father had passed away the year before, and his mom was working at the grocery store on the corner for a dollar an hour – money was hard to come by, and there was none for frivolities. A lady at the church had a bike her daughter no longer used, and was going to throw it out – Dad took it and he and Lonnie rebuilt it.

“It was a girl’s bike, and it was in bad shape when I got it. But I didn’t have anything to lose, so I figured out how it worked, and then I asked him for help, and we fixed it. It was having that bike or have no bike, so I was motivated,” he told me once.

But Dad never had a workshop when I lived at home. We lived in a 1,000 sf home, the five of us, and there wasn’t room for things like that. And there wasn’t any money for things like that, either.

So, his projects would live on the kitchen table, or on the porch, or on the tailgate of his truck as an impromptu workbench. But he really wanted a workshop.

A few years before he died, he finally built one. He knew retirement was coming up, and he planned endlessly for what life was going to be like after he retired. He would build furniture, he would do blacksmithing – he had hundreds of pictures of pieces of furniture he saw out in the wild that he wanted to capture because he liked the way it was shaped, or fastened or was built.

But the shop just filled up with things  – projects he intended to work on in retirement – tools he got on clearance he would need in retirement – bargains on materials he would need in retirement.

My Dad was supposed to retire in June, but then the pandemic hit and he didn’t feel he could ethically leave his job as Emergency Management Director for his county at such a bad time. He died in October, from COVID.

He never got to retire, never got to build things in his shop, never got to while away an afternoon there, never got to actually use it, in any real sense of the word. His shop is nice, and a lot of thought went into it, but it doesn’t feel like anything to be in it, because he didn’t get to really make it his. It’s just a building he built.

After Dad died, I inherited some of his tools. Like Dad, I have always wanted a workshop. I always have projects going, and tools scattered everywhere and…

Then we bought a house. And a pandemic hit. And my Dad died having never used the workshop he longed for and looked forward to.

So this spring and summer, I built a workshop.

It’s small – 10×16. But I mostly use handtools, and I don’t use it for things that aren’t a workshop (like, this isn’t where the freezer or the bikes go), and so it works for me. I also like to tinker, but mostly I’m a woodcarver and small wood furniture maker, and for that it works perfectly.

In some ways it’s nicer than either Dad’s or Lonnie’s. It’s insulated, and I have a window unit air conditioner in it, and led lights and Wi-Fi and clerestory windows and a small TV and an Alexa for music. I really wish Dad could have seen it.

Mostly, I’m glad I get to use it while I’m still young enough to enjoy it. I’m glad I get to actually use it, get joy from it, and get to have a creative workspace that I don’t have to clean up when we need to set the table, a space that is mine to shape and be shaped by.

It’s not perfect yet, and in some ways is still unfinished. But most evenings after supper, I go out to the shop and work.

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