The Spirit in It
by Ruth Jackson
May 20, 2024
Ruth standing by Fireplace facade

My husband and I bought a house in the year 2000.  It faced the freeway.  Other than that, I liked the house but I couldn’t see living right across from the freeway.  Since my husband had already fallen in love with the shop behind the house, he said to me, “I will fix it up and we will sell it in two years then you can move anywhere you want to.”  I fell for his sincerity, hook, line and sinker.

Pocket door where there was a wall before

Pocket door where there was a wall before

Well, here I am in 2024 and I still live in the house.  From 2000 to 2019 he built floor to ceiling bookcases in the living room and in the family room.  He built a wooden fireplace façade that is just breath taking.  He turned the columns on the lathe that go from the top of the fireplace to the ceiling.  He built the coat rack and the magnificent mahogany pocket doors and the grandfather clock and the hall tree.

Shall I go on?

He passed away in 2019 and now there is nothing in the world that is keeping me from selling the house and moving anywhere I please –– except for every piece of wood he touched.

I don’t regret not moving.  The state kindly built a wall between my house and the freeway and that helped significantly.  I feel comfort in living where he lived.  I feel him in the shop when I’m working on one of my projects.  I did a rush job on refinishing a chair and I could hear him in my head saying, “Wood working takes patience.  You can’t rush it.  Do it over.”  And I did.

My husband, a master woodcrafter, would laugh at me when I’d drool over a wooden box at a yard sale.  He laughed when I wanted to transport my pine bookcases from Texas to California.  The wooden box and the bookcases were inferior in his mind because they were not oak or walnut or mahogany.  To my mind they held history.  They had been useful items that endured.

Ruth holding plane with friends Stjepan Grgas and his daughter Yvonne Grgas-Beck

Ruth holding plane with friends Stjepan Grgas and his daughter Yvonne Grgas-Beck

Not long ago a friend I have known since the 1970s was moving out of his home and in with his daughter.  They were selling or giving away all of his tools and personal belongings.  I asked if I could have a tool that he had used.  His daughter brought out a metal adjustable wrench.  I accepted it but looked a little sad about it.  When she asked about it, I said something with wood on it would hold more of his spirit.  She looked at me and then at my daughter and shook her head as if I was just a tiny bit looney.  My daughter, trying to make some sense of my request, explained, “Mom has American Indian heritage.”  I’m not sure if that made me look more or less sane.

The truth is that the plane with a wooden handle “feels” more like him. I feel his spirit more in the plane with the wooden handle than in the wrench, although he used and touched both of them.

I feel my mom’s spirit in the heavy, dark walnut furniture that graced her family room for decades and now lives in my family room since her passing in 2002.  I always thought they were of Spanish design but an insurance appraiser said they are Portuguese.  Regardless of origin, they were loved by my mom and, therefore, they are loved by me.

Grandma's treadle sewing machine

Grandma’s treadle sewing machine

The older I get, the more important these memory triggers are.  I can run my hand over my Grandma Grace’s Singer treadle sewing machine and feel myself in her sewing room.  I can “smell” that room and feel the hot, humid Indiana summer.  I remember walking through her bedroom and through her closet to get to the small room where she did magic with that sewing machine.  She could turn flour sacks into summer play clothes, or turn a few yards of fabric and some lace into my Sunday best.

It’s not just wood that retains the memories.   At the holidays or on special occasions I wear the diamond necklace that was first my aunt’s and then my mom’s and now is mine. I put it in my hand and I can remember my aunt brushing my long, red hair when I was eleven years old.  I “see” her and the apartment and her furniture and I know I was getting ready to start a new school and I was petrified.  Somehow the rhythmic brushing of my hair calmed me.

Not long ago a small, carved, wooden box “spoke to me.”  I was at a Thrift Store although the price wasn’t exactly “thrifty.”   I was particularly enthralled when I saw it had a lock and a key that worked the lock.  With old items like that so often the key is missing or is just for decoration.  I made the purchase and found my most precious pictures and trinkets and placed them in the box.  Any time I want to walk down memory lane, all I have to do is unlock that box.

Memory loss is so often part of the aging process. I believe pulling up old memories helps strengthen the neural pathways and make those memories less likely to fade.  If it takes a small wooden box or a photo album to keep those memories alive, by all means, keep those treasures and look at them often. Bathe in the glow of those memories from the past.  Tell those stories to your children and grandchildren.  Tell them how you cried at the airport when they said they could not ship your grandma’s sewing machine because it was half an inch too tall.  Tell them how the Airline manager gave in and let it be shipped.  Tell them how hot it was on the 4th of July in Galveston, Texas, when you tried to shut the door of the trailer before leaving for California and the bookcases stuck out too far for the door to close.  Tell them you grabbed a jig saw and cut 6” off the bottom of the bookcases and slammed the door and left!  Yes, tell them over and over.  Tell them until they number the stories.  “Oh, yeah, Mom, story number 347 about when you left behind the refrigerator and washer and dryer but took Grandpa’s sea chest and Grandma’s sewing machine because they have ‘spirit’ in them!”  They may seem irritated at the time but later when they are trying to recall the story, it will help that you told it over and over.  Recalling these memories is a form of time travel. You can give your children your past.

Maybe my husband’s or my mother’s or my aunt’s or my friend’s spirit doesn’t really reside in the wood or the tool or the jewelry. Maybe their spirit resides in me.  Either way, I can’t part with these “keys” to my memory treasure trove.

On January 10, 2024, my dear cousin Christopher Brant Armstrong passed away suddenly and unexpectedly at the tender age of 65.  He was a master cabinet maker.  His sister, Jenipher Lagana, asked if there was anything from his home that I’d like for the sake of memory.  Guess what I asked for?  A tool with wood on it.

Ruth Jackson is the mother of two perfect daughters and four delightful grandchildren. For 50 years Ruth worked with people who have a disability. For 34 of those years she has been and currently is a CARF (Commission on Accreditation of Rehabilitation Facilities) surveyor. She is on the board of directors of Options in San Luis Obispo, California and of Unity Church in Arroyo Grande, California. She enjoys travel; gardening; sewing and writing. She can be contacted at jxnruth@hotmail.com

5 Comments

  1. Amanda Sherlock

    Ruth, thank you for your magical words. I was transported back in time with you and I also find that the furniture in my own home holds deep memories.

    Reply
  2. Jen

    Lovely article. Ruth has a delightful way of writing.

    Reply
  3. Dixie Wilsbacher

    Love your expressive writing, Ruth, on your life, family and friend’s treasures and how precious those items and memories are to you now.

    Reply
  4. Terry L Dworaczyk

    Hi Ruth,

    I so loved your article. It speaks of the warm and loving relationships you have had not only with your husband but with other friends and family as well. You have a real talent for conveying your thoughts and feelings via the written word. Keep writing!

    Warm Regards,
    Terry

    Reply
  5. Beliza Perdomo

    Always a pleasure to read articles by Ruth. She has a way with words and painting a picture we can be in with her.

    Reply

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