My grandfather, Taft Rakes, was a woodworker. No, that’s doesn’t come close to doing him justice. He was a craftsman. He could take beautiful, raw pieces of cherry and pine and oak and create pure art. My mom’s house is dotted with the work of his hands: an incredible dining room table, 8 ladderback rush-seated chairs, a drop-leaf table in the living room.
My papa died when I was young, but the memories I have of him live on. We’d drive from the plains of Oklahoma to the foothills of the Blue Ridge in Virginia to visit in the summers. I loved to go watch him work in his shop. By the modern wood-working standards, it was a safety disaster. He had an old, weathered metal barn with a dust-covered wood floor. There were only a few windows to let in natural light, and I can’t recall if he ever turned on (or even had) an overhead light. There were rough-cut boards piled everywhere: cherry, his wood of choice I gather, maple, no doubt some pine and oak. And there were the mysterious machines spread out around the shop, devoid of most safety guards and features we have on shop tools today.
The only piece of machinery I can remember him using was the lathe. It was positioned to the left of the door, directly in front of the window. I can see him standing there, inspecting the piece of stock, making pencil marks where he wanted to shave away the excess to reveal the shape in his head. He didn’t use patterns; he eyeballed it. The chairs my mom has are identical upon first look, but he knew every turn and dip where they differed. I see him locking in the stock, squinting over the smoke from his pipe (or hand-rolled cigarette) as he made wood chips and sawdust fly, cutting away the rough until the curves he envisioned emerged.
His hands were curled perpetually into a claw shape, thanks to the twisting work of arthritis, yet he could hold a chisel with precision and skill. I marvel at that now, how it must have hurt him to work with those hands, to hold that knife with just the right pressure against the wood. Those gnarled hands shaped countless turned legs, chair parts, and other curves on that lathe. Hmmmm…there’s a lesson in there somewhere.
That place captured me. Decades later I can still see it, smell it, feel it in my bones. It marked me, the way only certain places, times and people ever can. I love the smell of sawdust. It infected me, burying a love for woodworking in my bones. I’m nowhere near the craftsman my papa was, yet I feel at home doing it. I’ve always been drawn to it, the feel of the wood in my hands, the aroma of sawdust in the air, the thrill of creating something out of a (nearly) nothing.
I only have a few pieces my papa created. One of them is the frame in the picture below. Amanda had been looking for a frame to hold 4 pics of my boy, Silas. The size of the one we had from papa would work, but it had no glass. After getting glass cut to fit, I was working on pinning in the mat when I saw the inscription: “Made by Taft Rakes, Stuart VA Nov 25 1973.” Knowing that was about to be hung on a wall, not to be seen again until we move the next time, I snapped a picture.
And like the smell of sawdust in that old shop, the picture frame has haunted me. I kept going back to it. Kept looking at it on my phone. I walk past that frame every day. It hangs right outside our bedroom. Images of my son at 6, 12, 18 and 24 months stare out at me, marking those rapidly changing early days, hanging in the work of hands that never knew the boy.
He died long before Amanda and I met, long before having kids of my own was even on the radar. He crafted that frame just over a year before I was born, so heck, I wasn’t even on the radar! Somewhere along the way, it got passed down to me, and now his work holds pictures of my son. He made something my family now enjoys, though he never knew the family we’d become.
His legacy lives on. And not just in the wood, glue, and nails of his craft. He created things, but his life was about more than shaping wood. I see his build and stance in my brother. I see his smile, and his hands, in my mom. I see his demeanor in my brother’s son, his namesake. I hear his dry sense of humor in pretty much all of my siblings. I see his love of woodworking in me. The same blood that flowed through those gnarled hands flows in me, and in my boy, whose early days are now framed by the work of the man he never knew.
I want to see more of him in there, too. He was a “Primity Baptist” elder, a man ok with sitting quietly and waiting for God to speak. Man, I wish I saw more of that in me. I wish I could sit under the apple tree in his yard, smell the deep aroma of his pipe smoke, and ask him so many things. He had a quiet confidence and wisdom I little understood as a boy. I long for it now.
I wish I could just sit and enjoy the presence of a man that seemed to be unconcerned with the worries so many of us face, content to rest in the small pleasures of life, to work with hands curled by time on pieces of wood planted long before he was born, carving out heirlooms for children he’d never see. He seemed to be a man unbothered by the slow passage of time, unbothered by waiting, something his grandson (and great-grandson) struggle with.
He lived a simple life that created things which endure long after he left us. He didn’t know how the work of his hands and his heart would continue to impact the world long after he left it. Do any of us?
Papa’s work lives on. So will mine. So will your’s. What will our legacy be? What are we planting, creating, crafting…not just in our jobs, but in the lives of those we go through the years with?
It will endure, and get handed down, like old picture frames.
But what story will it tell?