Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Beautiful, Useful Things

            My father made beautiful, useful things with his hands and his tools. As far back as I can remember he had a well-equipped workshop in the garage which included a 1949 Shopsmith, an amazing multiple purpose woodworking tool that could saw, drill, sand, and best of all be a lathe on which he turned many intricate smooth objects like the posts and spindles on my brothers’ bunk beds, table legs, chair legs, candlesticks, and other decorative but useful items for our home.  I liked spending time with him while he worked, especially when he turned some blocky 4 x 4 post into a smoothly rounded, fluted, curving piece of beauty. I loved the smell of sawdust mingled with oil and the faint burning smell as his chisel cut into the swiftly turning block of wood.  I enjoyed the task of using fine sandpaper to further smooth the objects he turned on his lathe, luxuriating in the feel of the wood.

            After thirty years of knowing my father, I should have realized when I asked him drill 9 holes in a block of wood as a makeshift Chanukkiah* for my first Chanukah that he would not pay attention to my instructions, but instead create something incredibly beautiful that violated all traditional Jewish rules for a Chanukkiah.  A Baptist turned Methodist by marriage, my father knew nothing about my adopted religion. I think he wanted me to know that he supported me as I made this major change in my life, unlike my mother who took my conversion as a rejection of her and my childhood.

            I sent my dad (in California) a sketch of a plain, flat, block of wood with nine holes in a row. A few weeks later, I received (in Kentucky) a large box in return. Carefully wrapped in layers of tissue paper and newspaper was a work of art.

My first discovery was that he had chosen to use some of his precious chestnut wood instead of a scrap as I had suggested. The wood had been scavenged in the late 1970’s from his childhood home in Virginia. In the late 19th century before the blight destroyed most of the American chestnut trees, my grandfather had built the family home with chestnut paneling, stairs, railings, doors, molding, and other adornments.

Within the box was a block of wood, but unlike my sketch it had been carefully laminated in half inch layers of decreasing size, creating a double staircase effect with four steps on each side and a ninth platform at the top.  There were nine holes drilled, one in each step.  However, those holes were not for candles, for in the box, individually wrapped were nine perfect wooden cups, each with a stem to sit in the stair-stepped holes. Each cup had been turned separately on the lathe to perfect smoothness. They were all the same size, same diameter, same depth. The bottom of each cup had been curved like fat brandy snifters.  Each of those little wooden cups had to be turned on the lathe separately; checked and rechecked to make sure they were the same diameter, the same height, the same, length stem, so that when set in the stair-step block they would form a perfectly graduated holder for candles rising on both sides to a point in the middle.  I lifted each cup, turned them in my hands feeling the smoothness of the fine wood grain and placed them in the block one by one.

My father had carefully cut green felt and glued it to the bottom of the main block of wood, so that the bottom of it would not scratch or scar any surface it was place on. Then in the center of the bottom, he had left an opening in the felt, and in it he had burnt the words:  To SUE/from DAD/DEC 1981.
Thirty-seven Chanukahs have come and gone. Sometimes I consider getting a “proper” Chanukkiah. Jewish law and tradition say that all the candles in a Menorah or a Chanukkiah should be at the same height, because no day, and no person is more important than another. Also, Jewish law and tradition call for a new candles every night or a total of 44 candles, so most Chanukkiah are designed for small candles less than ¼ inch in diameter and only about 4 inches high. My father designed his candle holder for regular sized candle tapers - 2/3 of an inch in diameter and eight to ten inches in height. The cost of 44 regular sized candles is getting to be a little prohibitive these days even at Walmart.
But in the end, every year I use this cherished gift from my father. It may not meet the standards of Jewish law, but it is still beautiful and a product of love.
*Most people refer to these as Menorahs. However, a Menorah is a seven branched candle stick used in synagogues and homes on the Sabbath. A Chanukkiah is a nine branched or holed candle holders used only for the eight days of Chanukah.

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