A solid metaphor for the ways we gather together

Posted Dec. 22, 2009, at 6:29 p.m.

In eleventh-grade shop class, I worked all fall on a dining room table, a surprise Christmas present for my parents. It was the biggest shop project I had ever done.

Week after week, I worked away, sawing 2-inch-thick pine boards into square strips, laminating them into 12-inch sections, joining the sections, then cutting a circle out of the large square blank. After a few more weeks sanding the round top, I had a heavy, smooth wafer. After coat after coat of oil and finish were applied, I buffed it to a golden luster. It was not quite a Shaker reproduction, but it was constructed with similar affection. “Hands to work, hearts to God,” as they say.

It weighed a ton, being “overbuilt” like many of my finest woodworking achievements. I planned to move it under cover of darkness and sneak it into the house on Christmas Eve.

After school one day, I moved the table to a friend’s barn as my staging area, and at midnight on Christmas Eve I wrapped it in blankets and strapped it to the roof of our old Volvo station wagon, drove it across town, and eased up our driveway, headlights off. My brother and I rolled it through the front door and into the dining room, set it on its pedestal base, and covered it with a sheet.

In the morning, I unveiled it. Mom cried. Dad was impressed. My pleasure in making it and giving it away was far greater than any pleasure I remember from receiving gifts — that year, or any year. We ate Christmas dinner on my table.

Looking back, it feels as if I were setting the table for so much more. Many years later, the table came to my own house where, by then, a series of infants had joined the dinnertime conversation. Three new Nelsons that I couldn’t have imagined during eleventh-grade shop class spent many meals laughing and spilling juice before that table was finally relieved of duty and sent to Table Valhalla. My big round table had countless lovely scratches, burns and bangs that made it all the more valuable.

These memories returned recently when I read Matthew Crawford’s “Shop Class as Soul Craft.” “Shared memories attach to the material souvenirs of our lives,” writes Crawford, “and producing them is a kind of communion, with others and with the future.” He recalls building his own mahogany table at a time when he “had no immediate prospect of becoming a father, yet … imagined a child who would form indelible impressions of this table and know that it was his father’s work.”

A table is a metaphor for all the ways we gather together. Aren’t we setting the table and inviting one another to dine for a class, a school, a home, a community? We gather at the table of learning, friendship, sustainability, mirth, ritual, civility, and spilling juice. When we share a table, we see one another accurately. We share and pass the bread.

Most teachers would recognize the feelings of table maker and host, fashioning sturdy lives that they cannot quite predict out of vocabulary lessons or the multiplication tables. Our children will, we hope, think back on their shop projects, a multigenerational gathering of makers and hosts.

“I imagined the table fading into the background of a future life,” says Crawford, “the defects in its execution as well as inevitable stains and scars becoming a surface texture enough that memory and sentiment might cling to it, in unnoticed accretions.”

This year we’ll dine at an old architectural drafting board. It belonged to my father-in-law, Lowell Brody. It still bears the pinholes and scribbles of draftsmanship back when architects actually used pencils and rulers. “Window goes here” is still discernable routed in the wood. His clients and projects are lost to memory, but preserved in the wood beneath the blueprint where he instructed the builder. And now the children and grandchildren that he couldn’t have imagined sit and re-imagine him, working back in time thanks to the “stains and scars” on a humble few planks of dark, storied wood.

Todd R. Nelson is principal of the Adams School in Castine.

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