If I pounded in enough nails, I was sure it would sink.
Mom’s friends thought it was awfully cute for me, a 6-year-old boy, to make an anchor out of wood, but I’d thrown the anchor off our neighbor’s boat into the Bay sans rope. I had to make him a new one. Truth is, I just wanted to pound nails with my hammer. It’s funny how things like that start.
After I’d hammered two pounds of nails into that poor piece of pine, Mom bought me a woodworking book. It was only about 50 pages, but it had lots of projects and full-color pictures, which was an important feature because I couldn’t read.
I knelt on the book—it was more comfortable than the garage floor—and kept hammering nails into my anchor. When Mom walked through the garage with laundry, she’d pet my shoulder in a way that was designed to encourage me and demonstrate her confidence in my genius, but the smile that accompanied the shoulder pat didn’t quite make it up to her eyes and, above them, her brow was furrowed in a way that said, “What is wrong with this kid?”
Once I had five pounds of nails in my anchor, I tested it in the bathtub—it sank. I presented it to the neighbor with great pride, “Your new anchor!”
“Oh. Terrific. Thank you.” He took it from me, turned it over and looked at each end. “I’ve never had a wooden anchor before.” Then he laughed, looked at Mom and shook his head.
She answered with an uncertain grin. Her hand resting on my shoulder, she spoke with no hint of confidence, “He’s really very smart.”
A few days later, in late November, Mom visited me in the garage and asked what Christmas gifts I had in mind to give the family. I told her I didn’t have any money, shrugged and resumed work on my next anchor. Mom said that handmade gifts are best; they take more thought, and so, represent more affection, more giving.
It made sense to me, so I set about making everyone in the family a wooden anchor. Mom pointed out that no one in our family owned a boat. The realization frustrated me and I tossed the anchor aside. She took the woodworking book, now torn and stained by the bloody results of nails that had missed wood and hit flesh, and leafed through it like when she read me bedtime stories. In the middle of the book, between projects I deemed too trivial for my skill-level, like a cutting board, and those that went beyond the scope of materials I had at hand, like a coffee table, was a picture of a casserole dish set atop something that looked like a small stage—just the sort of thing you would expect to find on Auntie Ruthie’s Christmas Eve dining table. I sounded out the word above the photo, “trivet,” and Mom, relief permeating her voice, praised me.
The trivet consisted of six parallel beams connected at each end to perpendicular rails which elevated them above a table. The beams were connected to the rails in recessed channels. I found a narrow-bladed saw in my father’s old tool chest and managed to cut the channels. The results were not pleasing. It wasn’t just the blood—I could get that off with sandpaper —it was the jagged imprecise nature of the cutting that I didn’t like.
Once again, I considered presenting Auntie Ruthie a wooden anchor for Christmas—but time was running out and I only had two pounds of nails left. The day before Christmas Eve, I sanded off the blood stains, applied white glue to the cavities and set the crossbeams. I tested it the next morning. It supported my weight. I could even jump off of it.
My trivet wasn’t pretty but it was strong; functional if not beautiful. I liked that.
I wrapped it in shiny red paper with enough tape to assure that Auntie Ruthie couldn’t peek. We got in the venerable Plymouth, and drove out to Oakland. On the way, I asked Mom if Santa went over the tunnel or through it. She didn’t know.
Every room in Auntie Ruthie’s house was draped in garlands and decorated with nativity scenes or tiny sleighs. The family tradition dictated that gifts would be exchanged in the post-feast tranquility of the living room, but the first Christmas that I could talk, my aunt and I had negotiated an exemption. Out of the way of the rest of the family, in the room between the kitchen and garage, she would give me a present prior to the great feast, before anyone else got a present.
This year, I had one for her, too.
We went into that little room and she gave me a small gift. I don’t remember what it was, probably something designed to keep the family’s most boisterous member occupied for a few hours. Then I handed her my package wrapped in rumpled paper and excess tape. She smoothed her red and green apron and thanked me. After struggling with the tape for a few minutes she lifted the bare pine trivet from the paper and tape as though it were a delicate crystal figurine.
I told her how strong it was and offered to demonstrate by standing on it.
She set it on a table and looked at it for several seconds. At first I thought she was examining how poorly the beams fit, or the big chunk of wood that I’d had to glue back to one of the rails. But then I looked at her. She held her hands together as though praying and smiled the most beatific smile I’d ever seen. She said my name and gave me a big hug. I didn’t like hugs, so I pushed her away and, in the interest of fairness, began pointing out the many flaws of the pine trivet. She quieted me by running her hand through my already mussed hair and told me it was perfect. She took me by the hand, the trivet in her other hand, and we returned to the family.
My pine trivet found a prominent spot on the Christmas Eve dinner table supporting Auntie Ruthie’s prize-winning chiles rellenos. That trivet worked at every dinner party Auntie Ruthie had—she told me that her sophisticated country club friends were envious and I glowed with pride.
Ten years later, when I was a surly adolescent offering no gifts but my own disaffected angst, that trivet was still there—even if my pride for it was long gone. It was there when I came home from college for Christmas bearing gifts of existentialist poetry. I remember asking Auntie Ruthie why she still used it. She didn’t say anything, just repositioned the casserole dish so that you could see the craftsmanship. It was there when I introduced Auntie Ruthie to my newborn daughter, and that’s when I started to understand what it meant to her. It will be there this Christmas, too, when my daughter brings her own existentialist poetry home from college.
That little pine trivet has been supporting those chiles rellenos for 40 years now. It’s still ugly and still strong. Last year, I watched my dear aunt, now 82, set a dish on it and we made eye contact. She smiled and we both chuckled. It occurred to me that if Auntie Ruthie had a boat, she’d still be using a wooden anchor.
Much to his mother’s relief, Ransom Stephens, a writer and public speaker who grew up in Walnut Creek, eventually learned enough about buoyancy to squeeze a Ph.D. in physics out of UCSB. Visit him at www.ransomstephens.com.
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