April 10, 2008
Wood, paint, and a little magic
Many years ago, my father built a big green bench for camp. He put the bench under an oak tree down near the dock, creating a private spot where anyone could go to read a book, have a quiet conversation, breastfeed a baby, or just look out over the cattails. The bench was big enough to hold ten grandchildren, so long as they crowded in close and sat on each other's laps, as evidenced by some of the photos we've taken over the years. The tall sides of the bench made it the perfect place to hang wet life jackets after a canoe trip.
The green bench stood in the same place for many years, but eventually the weather began to erode the paint and eat into the wood. By the summer of 1999, it was no longer safe for the kids to climb on. The slats were rotted, ready to break.
And that's what led to the secret project.
It took place in August, when I was spending a vacation week at camp with my husband and our four small kids. My parents weren't there that week, nor any of my siblings; it was just the six of us. One morning the weather turned cloudy, too cool for swimming, and my daughter said, "We need some kind of project to do." I agreed. I didn't want to spend the whole day playing cards in the tent; the kids were already old enough to beat me.
Inspired, I said, "Hey, let's build a new green bench."
As we talked over the idea, we decided it was the perfect carpentry project. We didn't need a plan: we could just look at the old bench and copy it exactly. And we would do the whole thing secretly. That was the best part. We'd build a bench that looked exactly like the old one, and when the rest of the extended family came up later in the month, they'd think the green bench had magically healed itself. The kids loved the secrecy part of the plan: even my four-year-old was excited.
We set to work. The older kids took the task of measuring every piece of wood on the old bench and figuring out just what we needed at the lumber yard. Soon they had a yellow legal pad filled with my daughter's neat handwriting. Even though my parents' cabin is tiny, I knew my father kept tools under the wooden bunk that served as their bed. I rummaged through to assess what tools he had. My husband gathered the tools we kept in our car and then went off to the camp on the other side of the hill to see if he could borrow a circular saw. I told the kids to break off a piece of the bench so we could take it with us and match the green paint exactly. They did so gleefully.
The slats on the back of the bench were neatly spaced. "How do we get them to look exactly like that?" my daughter asked. I tried to picture my father putting the bench together. What would he have used as a spacer? I looked around my parents' small cabin, and my eyes fell upon the breadboard. I handed it to my daughter, and she ran down to the bench to put it between two slats. A perfect fit.
The kids were excited when we all returned from the lumber yard with new-smelling wood strapped to the top of the station wagon. They didn't even want to stop for lunch. In the shade of the oak trees, they spread the lumber out across the grass and began marking off pieces with pencils, consulting my daughter's pad of figures again and again. Afternoon brought another trip to town, this time to a hardware store where we bought nails and matched the green paint.
I wouldn't let the kids near while my husband or I was using the circular saw, but they participated in all other parts of the project. Beautiful Smart Wonderful Daughter and Boy in Black took charge of the two hammers, and the youngest boys sat on wooden slats to hold them down while they were being nailed. Everyone kept running back and forth between the new bench and the old one, checking to be sure we were getting every detail right. And all four kids happily painted, getting splashes of green all over their black t-shirts and shorts. With-a-Why kept sticking his entire hand, both the fist and wrist, into the gallon of paint every time he wanted to put more paint on the brush, and by the time I brought him down to the dock to wash up, his arms and face were bright green.
A few days later, when the new bench was done, sturdy and shiningly green, we burned the old bench. That was part of the secret plan. A light rain was falling that day, perfect weather for a bonfire. The kids hacked at the old bench gleefully, breaking it into pieces, and we tossed the old, dry wood into the flames. We stood in the misty rain, warmed by the fire, and talked excitedly about how surprised everyone would be.
By the end of the day, the bench had disappeared completely into ashes. But down by the dock, under the very same oak tree, a new one had risen in its place.
The photos of the green bench were taken over the summer. The girl in pink is Dandelion Niece.
Posted by jo(e)