You can tell I am the carpenter’s daughter because I have nails tucked between my lips and saw dust sprinkled in my long coarse hair. My hands are shaped by the tools I use, my fingertips bruised and nicked, my palms padded by calluses years old by now. I gaze fondly at wood I fashion by purpose or caprice; I know the ringing tunes of every nail I drive, of every screw that hums as it fills the space it sinks its heart into. The world, for me, just as it was for my father, is a world of constant creation, resolute innovation, a world of need and fulfillment in turn. I am the carpenter’s daughter, an initiate in a vocation I would quickly embrace even if I had the choice to make. My father used to say, learn how to do this. You might marry a stupid man who doesn’t know how to swing a hammer.
My playground was my father’s garage, a wonderland of exotic objects with mystical names and resounding ingenuity: a square that is shaped like an L, a block plane that looks like a steel sled, a spoke shaver that looks like a propeller, a crow bar that doesn’t look anything like a bird. My first encounter with a hammer was at the receiving end of a blow to my forehead, a curious anointing at the hands of my baby sister who, motioning as though she had a great secret to impart, urged me to bend my head closer to her as she swung the hammer with her tiny hands. I often think it marked the moment of my calling by targeting a cell in my brain, setting into motion a steady division of more cells that would reinforce my destiny.
My father used to marvel at my sheer preoccupation with pounding nails into his wooden saw horses, a wonder which manifested in various displays of frustration when his circular saw blade would ping and spark every time it hit one of my embedded nails. The saw horse, you understand, is a particular creature in the world of the carpenter. It has slightly splayed legs, vertical and four in number, and a flat spine, horizontal in disposition and fastened at the withers by joints held together with glue and nails. There are many varieties of saw horses—some are bulky, but most, symmetrical; some are thick because they are built of the standard two-inch by four-inch lumber. Nowadays they are chic plastique—sissy horses, I call them. My father’s horses were organic and svelte. The legs were one-by-five and three-eighths boards, and the spine was two inch by six inch. This gave them a lithe quality, combined with remarkable strength, so that when he wasn’t using them to hold other boards or sheets of lumber, I would throw a scatter rug across their backs and ride wherever my imagination wanted to go. I drove two nails into their ends for bridles: beige-colored mason’s lines. This amused my father because he was an immigrant, and cowboys were something of a novelty to him. He used to draw pictures of Gene Autry with a rectangular pencil that could be sharpened only with a pocket knife, the same pocket knife that he used to remove splinters from my fingers. Yes, with remarkable precision.
The spines of the saw horses had, as part of their function, many cross-cuts that resulted from the circular saw cutting into them, usually unintentionally. This explained why the horses looked scored from as far back as I can remember, as though lashed by whips. I have known other carpenters whose blond saw horses of pale wood bore not so much as a blemish on account of their owners’ meticulous cutting. I do not trust carpenters who have immaculate horses, because it means that they are more concerned with the appearance of being a craftsman than with the craft itself. My father’s saw horses signified honesty. Years after the saw horses should have been put down, when they were grey and porous, wobbly and no longer able to hold the nails in place, so that they began to loosen from their joints, I cut the spines out and made a fire out of the rest. A section of a saw horse with cross-cuts and empty nail holes sits on the window sill by my desk. On top of it are free arrangements of the stones I gather from different places for different reasons (but this is another story); it is one of my most treasured possessions. One thousand years from now, someone will conjecture that it must be a pagan shrine. This makes me smile, because I am also the deacon’s daughter, and stones too are holy.