We are in the basement, my mother and I, at her workbench. It’s after supper. I am sitting on a high stool. Mom is standing. I smell sawdust and WD40. The cluttered surface, lit by a low hanging bulb, is a bright island in the shadowy cellar. Mom shakes the small can of paint and pries the lid off with a screwdriver.The paint, lustrous, reminds me of a bowl of cream for a kitten.
“This way,” Mom instructs, dipping a narrow paint brush a third of the way into the paint. “You always paint with the grain of the wood; that makes the finish smoother. Now, you try.”
I tuck my teeth over my bottom lip, clasping the brush. I feel nervous, trusted. Mom had made a Valentine’s Day box for me, and in a few days, I would take it into my classroom and it would hold all the first grade Valentines. Other moms made fancy cookies or ruffled homemade Valentines with doilies and glitter. My mom made the box! And the box was perfect. Square, with a rounded slot cut in the top and two brass hinges that allowed the top to open once all the Valentines had been deposited. We would use it every year until we were too old to exchange Valentines. Girls would say, “Ann, will you bring in your box again?” And I would nod, thinking, “My mom’s box—that she made.”
“That's the girl.Smooth strokes. Good job.” Mom’s praise is sweet as a conversational heart—the orange ones are my favorites. Be Mine.At six, I could read and knew already that being a good reader was my superpower.
Once two coats of white paint had dried, Mom would help me stencil a red Cupid on the top. We had heart stencils, too. I didn’t trust myself to keep the lines steady, but Mom explained that we could trace the outline with a bright red magic marker.The red lines reminded me of red hots—spicy, warm, sweet.
My fingertips still recall the feel of the satin finish on that wooden box, how triumphant I felt as I carried it into Mrs. Beesinger’s classroom.
“Did you make that?” Patsy asked, awed.
“My mom did,” I answered, bursting. My mom was a carpenter. She showed her love with sandpaper and wood glue and drills and jigsaws.
Is it any surprise my husband loves to make things, too? That he is happiest with a project involving clamps and sawdust? That the smell of hardware stores reminds me of my mother and my husband and fills me with love in the middle of February?