“Old Wood,” Ensign, Aug. 1984, 54–55
I had made arrangements the day before to see the table and chairs in Mrs. Klapper’s basement. Mrs. Klapper was polite, though reticent, as she told us about the furniture. “I won’t go any lower than $150,” she said. “That’s what the antique dealer offered me. He said he’d be back Tuesday morning if I hadn’t sold them by then.”
I began looking at the chairs, and my husband surveyed the joints busily. I could tell he was impressed with the workmanship. I found one loose leg, and he quickly assured me that it could be fixed. Mrs. Klapper volunteered, “One chair seat has been reinforced on the bottom.” That was fine—old chairs separate easily. They were hand-turned, and Mrs. Klapper’s grandmother had been their first owner. “That was in Rhinelander at least eighty years ago,” Mrs. Klapper added, with a hint of pride.
I knew then that our home needed these pieces of furniture; and they, in turn, deserved restoration. I looked at the thick, dirty black varnish encasing the wood and hesitated. It would be a lot of work, I thought; but I said, “We’ll take them,” and my husband nodded his agreement. A sense of mission swept over me at the thought of releasing the wood from its varnish prison of eighty years.
I had written to my parents several weeks earlier and told them we were looking for furniture with “character.” I remembered with fondness the ancient wood table and chairs in grandma’s kitchen, and I especially sensed from those old chairs, in which knot and grain combined to weave intricate designs, that God must value individuality because he had designed it into his creations. In reply to my letter, my father wrote, “Wood with the grain exposed is a lesson in itself.”
The following week I was hard at work, scraping the varnish away. Much effort went into uncovering a small area so I could see the wood. I was pleased to discover it was oak, of a variety that had covered Wisconsin nearly a century ago. After working eight hours on the table top, I was finally rewarded by the sight of clean, natural wood. I stood back, covered with grime, to savor my accomplishment. I thought of my father’s words and wondered how he knew so much about wood. I couldn’t remember one piece of wood furniture in my parents’ home. Ours had been a home of practicality, filled with vinyl, metal, and formica.
I rubbed caustic remover on one of the table legs and watched the old finish bubble, then curl under the insistent nudge of my putty knife. And as I saw the wood underneath, I was reminded of a man by the name of Charles Pearson.
“Charlie,” as he was called, was an automobile mechanic in our community during my early childhood. Though a member of the Church, he had been inactive since the death of his first wife. When he married again, it was to a woman who did not share his religious beliefs. Charlie had built up a good automotive repair business. He was an honest, kind-hearted man, but the dusty shop where the fumes of motor oil lent meaning to Charlie’s life mixed all too easily with the tobacco habit of his youth; and afternoons found him sitting in the local bar. I remembered seeing him there after school as my friends and I passed the bar on our way to the drugstore for after-school treats. I was always filled with a childish panic as I passed the bar—afraid one of its patrons would snatch me and carry me inside. So I scurried past, but not before seeing Charlie talking and laughing with his friends.
My father was the elders quorum president in our ward and was concerned about the inactive quorum members. Many evenings found him out “visiting the brethren.” It was during this time that my father went to visit old Charlie, who called him a “young upstart” and laughed when father suggested he come to church. Father might have become discouraged then, but there was something about the old man that he liked. He came home insisting that the Lord wanted old Charlie back at church, and father was going to do all he could to help.
I was appalled at the thought of the old man in the beer parlor sitting in church on Sunday morning. He certainly didn’t fit into the same category as my own grandfather, who was a veteran high councilor; and I was adolescently disturbed that my father would have anything to do with him. Nonetheless, Charlie became a frequent guest in our home, sitting at our supper table week after week, talking with my father. Gradually, the vision of the old man in the bar faded, and he began to fit my father’s plans for him. Soon Charlie was at church, busily greeting people and making up for lost time.
A few months later our family moved to the Midwest so my father could continue his education. I felt sad about leaving Charlie, and I knew father worried about leaving so soon after Charlie’s reactivation.
Five years passed, with no news from Charlie, before we were able to visit our former ward during a summer vacation. Father was eager to speak to someone who might know what had become of his dear old friend. We entered the building expecting to see many familiar faces—but we were not expecting to see Charlie standing at the chapel doors, welcoming people.
He brightened when he saw us and came to embrace my father, who was a good six inches taller than he. Then in his usual, affable way, he boomed, “Well, my boy, guess what I’ve gone and done? I brought my wife into the Church, and we got sealed in the temple awhile back!”
My father was a large man and not given to emotional display, but he was so overcome that he could only stand there looking at Charlie while tears filled his eyes. The scene dissolved as people recognized our family and came up to talk with us, but the feelings of that reunion were impressed indelibly upon my mind. Our visit to the ward was over all too soon, and that was the last time any of us saw Charlie. As I grew older, summer vacations shortened and we never returned to the little town where father had felt such a calling to befriend a crusty old automobile mechanic.
I finished the table and stood back, tired but happy. I couldn’t believe that this beautiful, valuable piece of furniture had once been pushed into the corner of a basement, unwanted and almost forgotten. Taking the lesson of its exposed beauty into my heart, I now understood what my father had seen in old Charlie—and why, amidst all the vinyl and formica, he knew so much about wood.