Saturday, December 19, 2009

Hands of the Father

I was telling Amy this story the other night, and I almost choked up doing it, but I thought it worth remembering here, if only for the sake of my daughter who may someday have a similar thought and wonder if her Dad thought the same as she did.


My love in life is woodworking. I’m neither a master craftsman nor a licensed contractor. I’m the son of a carpenter, who was himself the son of a carpenter, who was the son of a man who grew up in times when all men had to be carpenters as a way of life.


There is something pure about working with wood… it doesn’t forgive mistakes. Just sitting in my shop tonight beginning to work on a something as simple as a toolbox, alone in the cold of the garage, brought a peace over me that nothing else in life does. When I put my hands down on a board a few days ago I was struck the other day by the resemblance to my father’s hands. Hundreds of times I’ve seen him lean over a piece of fine hardwood, run his hands down the grain, and then pause with his hand above the first mark he’s going to cut.


At one particular moment recently I was doing the same thing, except in my mind I was remembering something. It’s not important what; just that I was looking back in my memory for the knowledge of how to do something I know my father taught me to do; to find the best edge to rout, or to make the right mark for a tenon, whatever. That’s when the thought occurred to me; Was that was he was doing when he stopped, pausing his hand before committing to a cut or a mark? Was he remembering something his father taught him, or something he learned previously. Was he reaching back in his memory for the skill, reaching out to bring the craftsmanship to bear like an invisible weapon, ready to be wielded, but not wielded carelessly. He never spoke of that, never spoke of how he learned things. He just worked with wood like a chess champion plays the game. His mind was always 8 cuts ahead of where his hands were.


I think of that now when I lay a new board on the table. I run my hands down the grain, feeling with my fingers for tricks the eye cannot see; feeling for small adjustments in the wave of the grain that will throw off my hand if I plane it wrong just once. I stop when I feel the furl in the wood, approach it slowly with my fingers from all sides, as if laying out a plan of attack against an enemy you can only partially see.


It’s not a battle. Working with wood by hand, using only your hands and the tools of a hundred years ago isn’t at all a hard thing or a thing filled with angst, but it’s very much like it in some ways. The preparation is the same. The grain expects you to know what you are going to do, to predict yourself and to predict it’s response. If you caress it properly, it will give up it’s secrets. If you delve into it with bites and scratches in a wanton manner it will remain there after scarred and defenseless, a visible reminder of damage you can’t repair.


I used to reach out to my Grandfather in my mind, to his hands and his mannerisms. I would arm myself in whatever limited way I could with his skills, but it always felt like a page boy trying to sneak into a knight’s plate mail, too small and ill-equipped to know how to wield it.


Today I reach less for my grandfather,and more to my father’s memories, to his skills. I’m older now. I have hands larger than most mens, but not as large as his were. They more comfortably fill the gaps in my memory that his did. My fingers curl around the same tools, fitting properly as I get older and as my experience grows. I’m finally able to reach out in my mind and take his hands in mine, or mine in his as the methodology might dictate, and use grace and care and precision that I didn’t previously have. And now when I reach to put the memory away I find that more of it stays with me, part of me.


The next time I lay my hands on the wood, and feel it’s grain underneath my hand, there is less to don, less to put on. Much of my father’s hands are already in mine, ready to do the bidding that my mind isn’t really even ready for yet.


I wasn’t as close to my father throughout his life as I wanted to be for a number of reasons, but I get closer to him daily now, closer and closer each day through his hands.


Love you Dad


  1. Early Sat. morning,after listening to the wind howl all night, I decided to give up the losing battle of getting any sleep and get up. Naturally I went to the computer as I usually do first thing. I saw that TJ had made a new post on his blog. As I started to read, the tears began to flow. TJ and Ray's dad and I had a very eventful and sometimes explosive marriage. We both had very strong personalties and often those personalities collided. I loved him, but I couldn't live with him. I hate to admit we did not remain friends after we separated and our 2 sons suffered the consequences. But thankfully in August 2008 Tommy and I settled our differences and when he passed away in March 2009, I am glad to say we were friends.
    TJ, your recent post is a beautiful tribute to your Dad. You are right about him; he was a craftsman in his work. A lot of houses in Dare County, his home for most of his years, proudly display his craftsmanship. He was an awesome cabinet maker. He didn't have the fancy tools or education to draw circles, angles, etc. He had a lot of imagination and wasn't afraid to use it in his cabinet making. His father, Lucky Jordan, was another craftsman and Tommy learned a lot from him . Your granddad had one of the most respected names in the construction business. I have seen Tommy take a pizza pan, his tool of choice, to make circles, arcs, openings in doors and designs on cabinets. He also used glasses, cups, anything that happened to be lying around and had the arc or angle he needed. A prospective customer could show him a picture of what he wanted and where he wanted it to go in the house and that's all it took. Soon, that particular item was complete. After both you and Ray were born, I was fortunate to be able to work at home the first year and I spent many happy hours working in the shop with him. In fact, looking back, those were probably our happiest times together. Because...we were together. He taught me a lot in those days. I learned to use most of the tools but never acquired any confidence with the router; it just turned too fast. But the band saw was my favorite toy. Note, I didn't say tool, because to me it was the neatest toy ever. Papa Jordan taught me to replace the blade after getting tired of changing it for me. I quickly learned, the hard way, not to cut the angles too sharply and not get the blade in a bind because the cost of those blades came out of my pocket. Buster at Beach Hardware next to the shop learned to keep a good inventory of that blade.
    Your post reminded me of some of the good times Tommy and I had. It reminded me that our marriage wasn't all bad. After all, you and Ray are a result of that union and I will never be sorry for the gift of you guys. Tommy and I had our differences, but he was a craftsman in his woodworking. I am so glad his talent has been preserved in you and I am glad you are using that talent. When I look at yours and Ray's hands, I am very much reminded of your Dad's.I always thought he had beautiful hands. They could be hard as stone when necessary, but they could also be so very tender.

  2. I am so sorry for your loss Tommy . I didn't know your dad had passed on.

    Loved this post . It so touched my heart . Thank you .

  3. Amazing. For better or worse, I am so honored to be related to the Jordan men. You're a handful but you're also a blessing. Love you, TJ.


Thanks for taking a moment to leave a comment! Please keep the language clean. (If you are considering spamming the blog, don't bother. It's going to be deleted anyway.)