Carpentry and grief

My 7-pound pneumatic nailer

Last fall, I decided to finish this house that Richard helped design and build with such skill, sculptural flair, and love (but never got around to actually completing the final pesky details of door and window trim, baseboard, interior doors, or finishing the master bathroom). Given my limited finances, I decided I’d do much of the work myself. Given my limited skills and energy, I figured I’d putter away a bit at a time.

Once I began working though, I recognized several problems with that approach. First, I had no idea what I was doing. I didn’t know power tools, much less large woodworking machines. Nor had I ever done any carpentry.

Fortunately I know patient teachers. Thanks to Bob Spencer, aka “Mr. Door,” my neighbor Beverly Gray, tireless painter and varnisher, and friends Maggie and Tony Niemann, who are fearless about tackling any project, I am making progress and becoming competent at finish carpentry.

Maggie and Tony working on baseboard in the living room.

Second, I don’t seem to have a “putter” speed. It’s basically all or nothing with me. Since I got home from Young Arts in mid-January, I’ve been spending a couple of hours on finish-work almost every day. A couple of hours that used to be my down time. No wonder I’m always exhausted.

I’m doing this the hard way, of course, and milling my own trim: I buy 1X6 pine boards, paint-grade, either 12 or 16 feet long, and rip them in half the long way on Richard’s big cabinetmaker’s table saw. Then I chop the 2-11/16″-width trim to length, run the ripped edge through the bench sander and planer too if necessary, and apply either two coats of paint or two coats of clear wipe-on poly, depending on where the trim is going.

I bring the finished pieces into the house, plug in the air compressor, attach the 20-foot-long hose and the big pneumatic nailer, and begin nailing. Of course, it’s rarely that simple. The drywall’s not straight, the door frame’s not level, or the framers left nails sticking out, or…. Each piece is a lesson.

My bedroom, with doors and trim around those doors.

Third, it’s a huge project. As of tonight, I have trimmed 18 of 21 windows, installed or helped install six of the seven interior doors needed, built jambs for 5 door openings, and put up framing around the inside of six exterior doors and both sides of six interior doors. By my rough count, I’ve milled several hundred running board feet of lumber in the doing. I haven’t gotten to the master bath yet.

When it all seems overwhelming, I remember Richard saying he had always wanted to build a house with his own hands. And now that he had, he would add, he wondered why. And then he would throw his head back and laugh his rich laugh.

He was a healthy six-foot-tall guy who had serious muscles and who never met a design problem he couldn’t solve–elegantly. I am not. Any of that. Although my five-six, 110-pound frame does now boast muscles in places I didn’t know I could have them (bruises, too).

Doing this work is a sweet connection to my Love, who died of brain cancer a year and three months ago tomorrow. It also keeps my grief awfully close to the surface.

Sunday afternoon, I stopped ripping trim to dash down to the Steamplant Theatre for a benefit talk by Salida novelist Kent Haruf. Kent read from his brand-new book, Benediction, a sparely beautiful and elegiac story of a man dying of cancer in the web of family and friends of Holt, Colorado, a fictional small town on Colorado’s eastern Plains.

Kent Haruf’s new novel

Afterwards, waiting near the front of a long line to have Kent sign my book, I felt edgy, cranky, trapped. The event was a celebration, both of Benediction’s release and of Kent and his wife Cathy’s dedication to Sunset Home, Salida’s hospice house. (Random House donated the books; sales benefited Sunset Home.) I was so impatient, I embarrassed myself. I just wanted out of there.

I practically raced home. Back out in the shop, ready to finish ripping trim, it dawned on me: Cancer. Hospice. Death. Kent and Cathy helped with Richard’s hospice care. Do you suppose the celebration and Benediction hit too close to my heart?

I turned on the table saw, put on my gloves and safety glasses, and ran a board through with a satisfying snarl (from the saw, not me). And felt better. Apparently my grief, and the inner asshole it sometimes triggers, is assuaged by this noisy, exhausting carpentry work. That’s a blessing I hadn’t expected.