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New Scribbling (199902)

The passing on of myths

By Jeffrey Gifford

This was originally written while I was trying to write some thoughts to speak during my Grandmother's funeral. She passed away in February 1999; we buried her in Erie that week in a terrible cold spell with much wind and greyness. The funeral itself was that summer. Erika Margaret was born in August.

This would have been written in March, 1999. I think it is lousy writing. But it was written and so deserves to stay.

My wife-to-be had already decided on the name of our first girl before we'd even decided to get married or else I might have been tempted to suggest the name of Camelia, the name of my maternal grandmother who passed away some weeks ago. As I write this, that would be February (1999).

It seemed that my relatives would always pass away in January or February. For many years after I discovered this myth in middle school, I would root for them, secretly keeping them alive all winter long with my own strength while I was miles away at some warm and southern location. In college, we'd get one dusting of snow in early January that would serve to remind me of their frailty and what I had to do to keep them around. That would keep me busy until Spring arrived down south, many months before the snow stopped flying around their houses up north.

Now that "up north" is where I live, I've found that it snows whenever it wants to during a six-month stretch of time. Living here, I've grown immune to that reminder, keeping the myth at bay. Perhaps that's why she chose this February to die. It was one of those myths that didn't get destroyed.

Many years ago, when they cleared out her house to move her closer to my aunt near Erie, they uncovered a large stash of wormy chestnut above the garage. My dad received this treasure and for a while longer it lay above his garage in Virginia. I don't know who first began playing with wood first, my dad or me, but I started hearing about it, then started seeing it: picture frames given at Christmas; small pieces here and there.

And another myth began: This came from a chestnut tree that shaded Grandma's front lawn before the chestnut blight. After the tree died, no one could bear to cut it down, so like many others on the street, it stood for five, maybe six years more before my grandfather, a general contractor, became worried it might fall and hit the house, paid a man to cut it down, saw it into planks and return it to him where it sat over his garage. Only then did they find that after the tree had died, the wood borers had moved in, making it "wormy".

Grandfather was a man of myth, too. Somehow during the years when I first started swinging a hammer to nail scrap two-by-fours together for tree houses, I found some really neat construction nails with the double heads (probably in a rusty coffee can in his garage).

You know the nails. Regular sixteen-penny with an extra head on them so that after they were pounded to the first head, a good quarter inch would remain before the next head. These were really neat nails! Somehow I learned that they were good for tree houses: I could still get my hammer's claw in there to take them out when Grandma yelled at me for building a tree house in whichever one I chose that time. Then she'd say I was taking after Grandpa—building stuff all the time, never coming in for lunch.

Somehow, I was told, or made up, or figured out, that he had invented these nails. He had passed away before my mom had ever even met my dad, and that probably added to the myth. There was no one to ask about them, just his work. We would drive through Erie, Grandma showing us the various homes and buildings that he'd built or designed. Yes, I'm sure I added to that myth.

I've learned most of my woodcraft on scraps, pieces of pine that became tie racks, bird houses and race cars. When we first were married, my wife and I made a shelf for our oddly shaped kitchen to hold the wine glasses we'd use for water. It was our first real project together. It's been in other houses since and we still have it now, a reminder, not a myth that we can work together. Since then it's been poplar and oak, dabbling in cherry, walnut and maple.

But I've always wanted to work with Grandma's wormy chestnut.

A few scraps ended up at my house some years ago, stuff with big knots, small cracks, mostly useless. I'd look at it and think of her in the nursing home, and sometimes I'd visit. My two-year old son did meet her a few times, but to know here, he'll have to hear stories from me, his great-aunt and my mother.

When I heard in early February that she was dying, I got the nerve to cut into those scraps. I was able to make a fairly nice coat hanger out of them. The wood turned a characteristic chestnut orange when I finished it. My mother was proud when she hung her coat after the funeral. I told her "It's from the chestnut tree at Grandma's house." No, she replied, somewhat confused. They never had a chestnut tree. My aunt thought that it probably came from some other house Grandpa once worked on. I wouldn't believe it. "But this was Grandma's wormy chestnut—my memories reconstruct it on her front lawn, towering over the house in Erie."

A myth destroyed. Just like when I asked my mom to tell me about how Grandpa got tired of clawing all those nails out of his makeshift sawhorses and had the bright idea to instruct some metalworker to make him some nails with two heads so one would be left exposed to claw out. She asked me where I got such crazy ideas. Just like so many other myths I've created, carried and kept going over the years.

I'm hesitant to talk about Grandma and Grandpa with my mother these days. I'm too afraid that another one of my myths might be exposed. Who knows but if they might have been ordinary people?

I have more of the wormy chestnut not. I'm still hoarding it, but I've got a few plans. Truly beautify things worthy of wood with such a mythical tradition.

We're having a second child soon, and they think that it's a girl, so the chestnut might become a hope chest. Since my wife's already named this one, we'll probably have another someday, and perhaps I'll get to name her Camelia, after her great-grandmother. I'll probably have to plead with my father for more wormy chestnut.

That's the easy part. What's harder is whether or not to pass down the myths.