This is a story I wrote in 2004 about A-mom’s dad and his workshop. I think it fits in well with the Treetown stories.
Part of me still feels bad about selling his home, his land, his (and later A-Mom’s) memories. The Model T he loved, his homemade snowplow, and all the rest were sold in the summer after Mom died. She never could get rid of anything. To her, his memory was inseparable from his stuff, the material possessions he left behind. I had to be more practical, but it still hurts me that I needed to sell his things. I used the money to help finish college and afford a house of my own. He was pretty practical, and I think he would have understood.
The thing I remember most is the smell of Grandpa’s workshop. It was a sweet musty smell, created by cedar floor boards covered with sawdust and steeped in a mixture of solvent and chain saw oil. The air in the shed was moist with the oil, like humidity but thicker. The sawdust was heavy, almost sticky, from the oil moisture soaking into the remains of thousands of saw cuts. There was the smell of dirt, the soil just below the floorboards, kept cool and moist under the shed. The smell of mineral oil, which had lubricated dozens of moving parts in bench grinders, table saws, wrenches, gears, improvised bicycle chains, and other surfaces. The glistening fluid was gone now, evaporated into the still air, only remaining in the shop’s memory by its scent.
There were many fascinating things for a boy my age to look at. Tools for every use imaginable, some I knew well, others whose purpose I could not imagine, and could no longer ask him. There were dozens of tiny plastic drawers, each containing a specific type of item, springs, washers, nuts, screws, wire connectors, ball bearings, or special nails. There were so many different nails he used for various jobs. Some I knew the names of: box, common, roofing, concrete. There were other nails that I never have learned why they were necessary, when to me an ordinary nail would suffice. But Grandpa knew, and in my eyes, it made him that much better for knowing.
I moved some things, looking at tools and gadgets many times older than myself, stored in decayed cardboard boxes nearly the same age. The worn, dark color of the wood was exposed where a box had been disturbed, interrupting a thin covering of sawdust. There was a small pile of metal shavings below the grinding wheel on the workbench. The pile had not been perfectly conical for some time, because I always had the uncontrollable urge to feel the shavings with my finger, the tiny, rough bits of metal gently sanding my skin as I rubbed it. On the untouched part of the bench, shavings were layered with sawdust in a lithology recording Grandpa’s various projects over the years.
I already had a sense of family history, of passing time, and fleeting memories. How could I not have learned those things so early, with all the loss and death and sadness I had already seen? A calendar on the wall, showing the finest cars of 1961, had notes written in his scrawled hand, probably with a red, flattened logging pencil, sharpened with his Buck knife. The notes, like “Call Bud, LE4-1301”, or “visit B. Daley”, or “repair plow”, were probably rather mundane to him, but it seemed very important to me to have those notes. They were my connection to his life, a way to remember him working on things, showing me his tools, or making a trail for me to follow him through the deep snow.
Even on the hottest summer days, the shop remained cool and damp, as if the spirit within fed on the moist air and refused to let the summer sun take that away. The sun was needed in his garden anyway, for the corn and squash and beans. The beans that A-Mom and I planted that year were extra special, as they were the last beans from the coffee can on the workbench. They were buried one inch deep in his garden that spring, covered with sadness and watered with tears.
His workshop became a memorial, or maybe a crypt for all the memories, his tools, his spirit. I knew his body was resting in peace at the cemetery, but to me, his spirit always remained with his workshop. He built it, along with the other sheds, the garage, and the house, with his own hands and those of his since-departed friends. I was impressed that my Grandpa was smart enough to build these things himself, a humble monument to hard work and common sense. Over time his memory became almost mythical, with the significance of both my own memories and those of a-mom. He was the only man I had to look up to, since I had no father of my own, and his passing caused a void in my heart that has never been filled.
With passing time, the stillness of the workshop always surprised me. Maybe I expected to hear the saw blade cutting one more board, or the grinder sharpening one more axe blade. The only sounds there were in my memory, except for the occasional buzzing of cedar borers or paper wasps in the rafters. I could hear him telling me to not be scared, they were not interested in me if I left them alone. I felt the creaks in the floor just the same as he did when he walked to the door. I could see the edges of the doorway base board, concave depressions worn smooth from the countless impacts of his boot heels stepping through. The hum of the water pump in the next shed, pumping water from a well that he dug himself.
A few times, I heard A-Mom’s quiet sobs and unanswered questions in the drowsy late afternoon, or in the gathering twilight. She never did recover from his passing; he was her best friend, her biggest fan, her devoted and loving dad. I had my own questions and tears too, which never got answered either. Other kids still had their Grandpa, why couldn’t I? Why did he have to die, when all the worst people in my life continue to live? My own sadness and sense of loss always seemed stronger and more meaningful sitting on his old chair, in the moist dusty air of his workshop.