A Wooden Gift and a Start

She doesn’t want dinner with the whole family at the usual place. She’d prefer not to hear about that long, rainy spring and how the sun came out the day she was born. On her 17th birthday, my daughter wants to discuss world history with just me over a platter of Ethiopian food.

Her high school graduation and potential move to college are still a year away, but we can see that moment from here. And neither of us is quite sure how to handle it. She has a lot to figure out about where to pursue her love of art and her love of global affairs. She is ruminating about what she wants to do, and worried about all she has to sort out. It’s exciting and unnerving.

A few weeks ago, as I was thinking ahead to her birthday and gift ideas, our neighbor, Nelson, shared news that he had taken up wood-working and was hoping to start a business. He gets very animated as he talks about turning wood that would otherwise be on a scrap heap into something beautiful. His face lit up as he showed me his first finished item, a cutting board made from a tree that had been struck by lightning.

I wanted a memorable gift for my daughter. And I am all about encouraging people to do what they love to do. So, in that spirit, I commissioned Nelson to make a cheeseboard, a small wooden serving tray, as a gift for her. My daughter routinely sets out an array of cheeses and crackers for herself in the afternoons after school, with kalamata olives and pesto or hummus, if we have them. Her favorites are a reflection of both her Wisconsin origins and her more worldly tastes. A cheeseboard seemed just unusual enough to be fitting, and I thought Carolyn would appreciate the craftsmanship.

As the weeks rolled by, my neighbor gave me nearly daily updates about this project. He was excited to tell me about how he glued walnut, cedar, cherry and purple heartwood in tight rows, then finished and sanded repeatedly with increasingly fine grit sandpaper. He protected the wood with a food-safe blend of beeswax and walnut oil. The result was a simple, elegant piece and a point of pride for him.

After Carolyn’s special birthday dinner, she opened her gifts, including the cheeseboard. I explained who made it and what it was. She slowly turned the board over in her hand, studied the colors of the wood, ran her fingers over its smooth surface. Without looking up, she said, heartfelt, “It’s a work of art. Thank you.”

Her father commented that the cheeseboard will probably travel with Carolyn wherever she lives next and will probably be with her another 17 years from now. He wondered aloud how well it would hold up and where Carolyn might be living then. We joked that the cheeseboard will go with her from address to address, weather-worn and scarred but still in tact, reminding her of us.

“What do you think you’ll be doing in another 17 years?” he asks. The question irritates her. First off, it’s unimaginable to think of herself at age 34 and secondly she is not in the mood to talk about the future and its unknowns. She has a hard enough time picturing where she’ll be headed a year from now. “Can we just drop this subject?” she says, all rising-senior angst. “I was having a perfectly nice birthday until you said that.”

But I was glad for the thought. This is the first household item we’ve ever given her, and it seemed to signal acceptance of things to come and a vote of confidence in her future. Yes, we know you’ll be on your own in a few years, and maybe living abroad somewhere. And, wherever you wind up living, you’ll be doing just fine. We expect you’ll be dining on good cheese and crackers and olives.

I called our neighbor to let him know that Carolyn liked her gift, and that she was a little afraid to use it because she didn’t want to mar the surface. He gave us instructions on how to care for it so that the wood would last a lifetime. He also said this project led to his second sale for his new woodworking business. When another neighbor saw the cheeseboard under development, she commissioned him to build a wooden box for several hundred dollars.