July 22, 2016

The Word Carpenter

By Julie Saffrin

I grew up in a three-bedroom rambler in Bloomington, Minnesota. When I was twelve, Dad built himself a workshop. Pegboards surrounded it. Mounted hooks held sawdust-topped tools. Baby jars held screws, nuts, bolts, and nails. On the floor, an old toy box housed wood scraps. The whole place was filled with possibility.

Dad decided to make me a desk. I watched him at his drafting board as he sketched out plans. Once finished, we went to the lumber store. He lifted a two-by-four to his eye. “Try to pick straight boards, Julie. The warped ones are worthless.” If the board was straight, he looked for knots. “They’re tough to drill and hard to hide under paint.”

I loved to work with Dad. I think he liked spending time with me and the chance to polish his daughter’s grammar. One Sunday after church while in his shop, he cut angles with his radio arm saw and I sanded boards.

The Vikings game was on. “Which team are you voting for, Dad? The Vikings or the Packers?”

My father, who minored in English at Stout College in Menomonie, Wisconsin, replied, “One roots in football, Julie.”

Lesson learned.

I wrote many stories for school on that desk. Life moved on.

In my thirties, I turned serious about writing, and Alzheimer’s began its twelve-year war with Dad. His workshop door stayed closed. I took creative writing classes and he went to doctors’ appointments. Day after day he lost his wallet while I discovered my writing voice. I watched his love of wood diminish to a paper sack, into which he’d placed receipts and a deck of cards, as he wandered, confused, in the house.

The disparity between what he’d lost and I gained crushed me at times. Medications failed to bore into the twisted tangles of Dad’s mind, his chisel, now worthless on brain plaque. When the disease stripped away his vocabulary, I used the still lessons of being in his presence to read him my latest revision, which he seemed to enjoy.

For I had a purpose to write. I wrote about life because he was prevented from living it.

And that is why I’ve kept the desk, currently stocked with books, board games and photo albums, in the basement.

Dad now shares space with Heaven’s other carpenters. But my desk is his visible signature. It affirms he was once fully here. It tells me, I too, must leave my mark, through writing, in this world.

Today as I write, I look at the words on the page, and I hear Dad whisper, “Choose the best boards, Julie.” His carpentry skills taught me well. I outline a story, plane away extra words, let shavings of prepositional phrases pile up around my feet.

As for knots, I’ve grown to like them. A challenge, yes, but I find tough characters are sometimes the best to know.

And when I finally see my published words, I catch the sawdust scent of a proud carpenter, and smile.
Julie Saffrin is the author of the popular gratitude book, BlessBack(r): Thank Those Who Shaped Your Life, Kissing the Shoreline: Quotes and Reflections to Live By, as well as published articles and essays. She received her bachelor's degree in Print Journalism and English from the University of St. Thomas. Julie divides her time between Minneapolis and Ottertail County in Minnesota with her husband Rick,  a golden retriever named Mick, and their three sons and their families. She blogs at
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