The Cabinet Maker
His grandfather was a cabinet maker. The rarely smiling old man who now had trouble walking and whose fingers struck the young boy as gnarled, helpless roots of some moving-about-the-house-with-difficulty tree.
The grumpy old man who had trouble chewing most of his food for lack of teeth and who now and then drooled soup on his shirt at table and then pretended that he had not, even after mother would hand him a napkin, not even a thank you.
This old man’s name was Ljunge. It was my father’s name, too, he would tell the young boy on those occasions when he was in a good enough mood and his legs and hands didn’t ache too badly.
My father was a good man, he would go on. Good in so many ways, he was, my father. He was trustworthy, never went back on his word. Never. And he was hard-working. All his life, he was hard-working. And he was good with his tools, his axes and awls and knives and planes and clamps and saws and chisels. And mallets, he would sometimes add, as if running down some internal list and finally arriving at it. And his glue. He knew all about glue.
He built this house, my father did, every bit of it, you know. Even the chair you’re sitting in.
“I think Dad built this chair.”
This makes him look over, frowning a little. Looking more closely. “Well, yes, so he did.” Then he’d draw new breath and say: He was a very good man, my father, and I am proud to be his son, to wear his name, and I will wear it until I die, and you can take that to the bank.
His father was a cabinet maker. The not-quite-so-stern man who told the boy often enough to respect (and never, again, to make fun of) grandpa Ljunge, for he had lived a hard life but even so had always taken care of his wife of so many years—before she passed—and had always looked after his children when hard times visited upon them and their families. Always ready to help, no matter what the day, no matter what the time. I know he can be a bit of a grump, he’d tell his son, but he is a good man, and that is why grandpa lives with us now. We’re just returning the favor. He’s done us enough of them to be sure. The father’s name was Viktor.
The boy, whose name was Erik, on those splendid though a little scary occasions when time unfolded and spread itself out before him to hint at the future, glimpsed in his reflection yet another cabinet maker.
Ljunge, as was the birthright of his generation, never consulted the young Erik about his future. Neither his father, nor his grandfather, had consulted him about what he wanted to do and that had worked out just fine, hadn’t it? He would not have wanted a different life.
In Ljunge’s mind, young Erik’s future was a given.
Viktor, though, shedding some of his father’s strictness and somewhat dictatorial outlook on children and their children, sat Erik down one day and asked him point-blank,
“Would you like to do what I do?”
“What do you mean?”
“Would you like to become a cabinet maker?”
Now, Erik had thought about this; quite a lot, in fact. Most of the time, yes, that’s precisely what he would like to become. He would like to learn all that his father knew (and Viktor had a reputation throughout the county as the best cabinet maker around—something that always made Erik proud of his dad) and become as skilled at it as he was.
Then, at other times, especially if Ljunge had told him off for some thing or another, or ignored his questions, he decided that he would never, ever want to be someone like that.
And then there were the boys at school, most of whose dads worked clean jobs (is how they put it), well-paid administrative or sales jobs that came with annual bonuses around Christmas and didn’t get your hands dirty; and that is what they would do, too, growing up. And then Erik, too, decided that he, too, would get a clean job; make lots of money, buy the best cars and never have to wash resin off his hands (impossible to totally succeed, that; witness Ljunge’s gnarly hands).
And then there were the times when his dad would finish a table or a bureau or a chair and stand back and just smile at it.
Noticing, Erik would ask, “Why are you smiling?”
And Viktor’s smile would widen a little as he looked over at his son, and say, “I’m just happy.”
“About this chair,” he’d say and turn back to look at it again.
“But it’s just a chair.”
“It’s not just a chair, Erik. It’s a chair that I’ve made, and a chair that the wood agreed to be made from.”
Erik didn’t understand what he meant by that, but sensed that this was not the time to ask. So, what he said was, “It’s a beautiful chair, Dad.”
“Yes, it is,” said Viktor.
When Erik didn’t answer, Viktor asked him again,
“So, what do you think? Would you like to become a cabinet maker?”
“Oh, I don’t know, Dad. Do I have to decide now?”
“Of course not,” said Viktor, “but one of these days you’ll have to. We’ll have to choose the right direction and classes at school.”
“Most of the boys in class are getting clean jobs,” he said.
“What do they mean by that?” wondered his dad.
“Paper, I guess,” said Erik. “Not so much resin.”
“And you would like a clean job, too?”
“No, I didn’t say that.”
“Well, come fall you’ll have to decide. Your decision will determine whether you stay in this school for another few years, or transfer into town, where the clean-jobs school is.” Viktor smiled as he said this, and Erik was glad that he did.
Later that summer Ljunge was sitting outside in the sun, smoking his pipe and lapping up the sun. He actually smiled as he was squinting at the fields and at the nearby trees and at the lawn (that needed mowing) and at Erik approaching.
“How are you, boy?” he asked.
“I’m fine, Grandpa,” he said.
“Viktor tells me you want a clean job when you grow up.”
Ah, this was not a discussion Erik wanted to have right now and especially not with Ljunge. He knew what Ljunge thought he should do. There wasn’t even a question in Ljunge’s mind, Erik knew that.
“I don’t know,” is what he answered, though.
Erik noticed that Ljunge had trouble fishing out a match from the box to re-light the pipe which had now gone out. “Here,” he said, and grabbed the small box of matches, fished one out and handed it, along with the box, to his grandpa.
“Thanks, much,” said Ljunge and relit his pipe. He billowed a few small, white clouds into the summer air. Erik loved that smell, even though Viktor had told him on many occasions that smoking was not at all a good habit and if he ever, ever caught him smoking pipe or cigarettes…” He never finished that sentence, but Erik got the picture. Still, it smelled wonderful.
“Can I ask you a question?” said Erik.
“Of course,” said Ljunge. “Fire away.”
“I don’t really know how to put it, but it’s something Dad said a while ago about a chair he had just finished.”
Ljunge said nothing, but looked over at Erik, interested.
When Erik took his time phrasing the question, Ljunge said, “What did Viktor say?”
“Well, he was looking at the chair, smiling.”
“He was proud,” said Ljunge. “As well he should have been. Viktor makes marvelous chairs.”
“Yes, I guess he was,” said Erik. “But when I said it was just a chair, he said that it was not just a chair, but a chair that he had made and that the wood it was made of had agreed to be made a chair from.”
Ljunge puffed a little more and then pointed at the nearby forest with the stem of his pipe. “Those are living things, Erik.”
Erik looked up and into the shady forest, some birches but mainly pines.
“I know that,” he said.
“I know you do,” said Ljunge. “But I mean that they are more alive than perhaps you know.”
“How do you mean?”
“A long time ago,” said Ljunge, “when we had to hunt for food and grow what little crop would grow this far north, I was told that a hunter should always thank his prey for giving up its life to feed the hunter and his family.”
“Even though the animal was dead?” wondered Erik.
“Even though the animal was dead,” confirmed Ljunge.
“How could it hear?”
“The animal’s spirit would still be around. Hadn’t run off yet. This is how the hunter showed his respect and gratefulness to the animal.”
Erik was nodding his head. Yes, this was a nice thing to do.
“My father,” said Ljunge, “taught me how to thank the tree for letting me cut it down.”
“But they don’t have any ears,” objected Erik.
“Oh, but they hear anyway. They are very good listeners.”
“So, how do you thank the tree?”
“Oh, I can’t tell you that.”
“Because that’s something only cabinet makers can know.”
“Are you serious?” said Erik, and scrutinized his grandpa’s face.
He was serious.
“Of course,” said Ljunge.
“Does Dad know?” asked Erik.
“Of course,” said Ljunge.
After a long silence, when birds could be heard bickering and summer leaves could be hear rustling, Erik said, “So, what about the wood agreeing to be made a chair out of? Does it hear even if it’s been long dead?”
“Not long dead,” said Ljunge. “Long cut down, perhaps. But not long dead.”
“It stays alive?” Incredulous now.
“Not as such,” said Ljunge.
“As what, then?” said Erik.
“As wood,” said Ljunge. “As grain running length-wise or across. As color and density of fiber. As suppleness. As willingness. I had a piece of wood leap out of my hands once.”
“What do you mean?”
“It just took off. Very unwilling.”
“Believe it or not, up to you,” said Ljunge.
“Why?” said Erik. “Why would it leap out of your hands.”
“It was the wrong piece of wood for a chair leg,” said Ljunge.
Erik said nothing. Waiting for more.
“When it hit the floor,” said Ljunge, “it grew a small crack half-way up the leg-to-be. A fatal crack. A flaw in the underlying grain I might not have spotted before I finished the chair. It would have dangerously weakened that leg.”
“You mean it could have broken if a heavy person sat it in?”
“Precisely,” said Ljunge. “That’s exactly what I mean.”
“And you’re saying that the wood knew?”
“I’m just telling you what happened.”
“Scout’s honor?” said Erik. Not really willing to doubt his grandfather, but not sure he was willing to believe him either.
“Scout’s honor,” echoed Ljunge.
After a long silence, during which Ljunge again re-lit his pipe and Erik looked out across the meadows, then at the nearby forest, and then again at his grandfather. “It is true that you can speak to trees?” he asked.
“Who told you I could?”
“Dad did. Once.”
“Well, he should know.”
“Why should he know?”
“He is as good a tree-whisperer as anyone.”
“He can talk to trees, too?”
“Did I say that?”
“Yes, pretty much. That’s what you meant, isn’t it?”
Ljunge fussed some more with his pipe, which had gone out again.
“Isn’t it?” repeated Erik.
“Isn’t what?” said Ljunge, suddenly playing the idiot.
“Don’t play idiot,” said Erik. “You’re no fool, and you don’t fool me.”
“Can you help with me with another match?”
“As soon as you’ve answered my question.”
“Which was?” Perhaps he didn’t remember.
“Dad can talk to trees, too?”
Ljunge nodded. Slowly, and long. “Yes,” he said. “Viktor is very good at talking to trees.”
“How did he learn?”
“I taught him.”
“Could you teach me?”
“Have you made up your mind yet?”
“I have,” said Erik.