They complement each other nicely in their designated nook in my living room-the rocking chair crafted nearly 150 years ago by my great-grandfather and the maple bucket attempted by me this past spring at the annual coopering school at the Somerset Historical Society. If these two works of art could talk, they’d tell quite a story.
* * * *
A love of wood runs deep in my genes. It goes back at least four generations, to my maternal great-grandfather, Clyde Simon West-a master carpenter. He passed on his manual dexterity and his hand eye coordination to all of his four children, of whom my grandmother was the oldest. My grandmother passed on those gifts in turn to my mother.
I was set to inherit those gifts as well, until Turner’s Syndrome-a chromosomal disorder whose symptoms include below average visual-spatial skills and below average manual dexterity, in addition to short stature- created a change of plans.
I recalled the day this loss became real to me. It was a beautiful June morning, 1996. My mother was seated at our kitchen table, setting out my father’s medication for the day. I was at the sink, washing dishes. My mother called to me’
“Barb, help me open this pill bottle.”
“Gee, Mom. Your hands are bigger than mine. If you can’t open it, I’m not sure I can.” I was trying to be funny.
“Not really, dear.” My mother replied.
“What do you mean?” I knew all to well that tone of voice and that look in my mother’s eyes-the look of the pure scientist-someone who was able to assess a situation with no emotional distraction whatsoever.
“Hold up your hand to mine,” my mother said.
I complied. I was shocked to see that although I am five feet even and my mother is five feet five, my hands were larger.
“You should have been at least five feet seven,” my mother pronounced her hypothesis.
So, I was short. It wasn’t the end of the world. I shrugged off my growing sense of apprehension.
Later that afternoon, I was painting my bedroom. The sun was shining, the birds were singing. I had my radio on, and I was as happy as a clam. All of a sudden, reality hit me like a thunderbolt. Had it not been for Turner’s Syndrome, I very likely would have inherited the family gifts of manual dexterity and hand-eye coordination. I began to shake so hard with unexpressed grief that I had to sit down. Now what?
As an only child, I felt keenly this sense of alienation from the rest of my family. Desperate for a place to belong, I set out on a quixotic quest to reclaim that which had been stolen from me. So it was that in April, 2014, I participated in the annual Coopering School at the Somerset Historical Society. This workshop would last the weekend.
It was a cool, rainy Friday night when I set out for the first part of this workshop. I pulled into the Historical Society grounds and made my way to the education building, where 12 coopering benches were placed in a semi-circle about the room. Other tools were stored neatly at the other end of the shop. In all, the atmosphere was cozy. I cased my classmates. Most of them were older, retired men. There was one other female in the class.
“Help yourselves to some coffee,” said our instructor, Marc Ware, who during the day was the executive director of the Somerset Historical Society. In the corner off to my right, there was a table set with a pot each of coffee and of hot chocolate. There also was a bowl of a Somerset County treat-walnuts glazed with maple sugar. I helped myself to a cup of hot chocolate and some of the nuts.
Soon enough, class was in session.
“We’re going to make some templates to use in our project, which is a traditional keeler or bucket that was used to collect sap from maple trees during sugar-making.” said Mr. Ware. “When I attended coopering class in Williamsburg, Va, we were not allowed to use aids of any kind. We did everything by eye.”
Yes, sir, we were in the 18th century now-the no-power tools zone.
I made my way to the worktable at the other end of the shop. We cut out on pieces of cardboard the templates we would use. We then traced those template on to actual pieces of wood, which we cut out by hand.
“Do not loose these templates,” said Mr. Ware. “You will use them for every step of this project.”
Instantly, my mind flashed back to 1986. I was in eighth grade at Connellsville Junior High East. That year was the first year that girls had been able to take shop, so I had been assigned to a metal shop class. Our project had been to make miniature tool boxes. I had struggled then over that assignment. I never did finish the thing. What had possessed me to sign up for this workshop?
“Would you mind giving me a point of contact so that I can reach you if I can’t make it to class?” I asked Mr. Ware.
“Why? What’s wrong”
“Oh, nothing.” I said. The truth was I wanted a way to contact him if I decided to quit the class.
The next step in the process was to mark our staves-that is, boards that we would use in making our buckets. Our work for the night was done.
I hopped into my 1997 GMC Sonoma and began the trip down the mountain. The rain had stopped; now, a thick fog took it’s place. It would be a long trip back to Connellsville.
Upon arriving home, I plopped down on the couch, my nerves jangled with a mixture of frustration at lacking my mother’s handiness and sadness at seeing these family traits come to and end with me. Having nearly an hour-long drive in unpleasant conditions hadn’t helped, either.
“When are you going to learn to stop me when I do something crazy?” I said to my mother.
“What are you talking about?”
“Letting me sign up for something that is completely out of my league. The idea was for you to take this class and then teach me what you learned. I’m a fish out of water.”
“I don’t have the stamina for that kind of work, anymore. Now stop fussing. You’ll do fine.”
I wanted very much to call Mr. Ware to tell him that I had quit the class; however, the next morning I found myself in my pick up once again, heading to Somerset. The rain and the fog that had passed through the area the night before was gone. The sky was clear and the sun shone.
At the workshop, our next order of business was to angle our staves. Then we beveled them. Before I knew it, lunchtime had come.
And what a spread. Ham, scalloped potatoes, green beans and a spice cake with maple frosting.
Mr. Ware gave me a glimpse into the small town life I thought had died by pronouncing grace.
Over lunch, I got to know my classmates better. Several of them were aspiring vinters from upstate New York. Their goal was to learn to make barrels in which to age their wine.
After lunch, I began to assemble my barrel. I put on the bands, riveted them into place. I then made the bottom for my barrel.My work was done.
I realized that nobody had laughed at me. There was such a difference between the industrial world in which I was raised and the agricultural world. These farmers respected continuing education. They also valued independence. In Fayette County people would have laughed me out of the room.
I arrived home that afternoon, proud of the barrel that I had made.
“Check it out,” I said to my mom.
“You could have done a far better job.” I said.
“I can tell what it is. Most folks couldn’t have done that well.” said my mother, ever the pragmatist.
“So, what will you do with it?” she asked.
“Oh, I think it will be a nice conversation piece.” I said.
It now sits beside my great-grandfather’s rocking chair. I am glad that I didn’t quit the coopering class. I met some wonderful people. I spent a beautiful afternoon in Somerset County, Pa. I have a barrel to show for it. All is well.