What Do You See...from Watson Manor Eventually

At twelve years old I didn’t share the excitement of most the other girls at my school, shopping for training bras and learning to turn boys’ heads with well-placed tissues. I’d have given anything to be working in the garage with my father again, who I’d lost five years earlier to a roadside bomb in Iraq. Not long after, my mother, the greatest person I’ve ever known tried to guide me in the use of my father’s wood working tools. As immensely as she loved me, building a wooden box for holding my rock collection was beyond her skill set.

I was riding my bike home from school one day, when I heard the most wonderful sound coming from behind a house three doors down from ours. I parked my bike behind a car in the driveway and slowly walked toward the most alluring sound to me, a saw blade cutting wood. I squatted down and poked my head around the front of his car. I saw a man, had to be six feet tall working in his garage. I guessed him to be 100 years old then, judging by his white hair, but after a few minutes watching him maneuver around, I decided that maybe he was only 90. I watched him run boards across his table saw for at least 20 minutes.

“So are you going to help me or just watch?” he asked.

I jumped back, surprised at being caught, but stayed silent.

When he finished cutting the last board, he turned the saw off and said, “I’m Henry. What’s your name?”

“Nick,” I told him, as I stood up and moved closer. “What are you making?”

“There are a few fence boards that need replacing. Nick is that short for Nicolas or Nicole?” he asked laughing.

“Nicole, but I like Nick better,” I said smiling.

“Well Nick it is then. Do you want to grab a few of those boards and help me?”

“Sure, that would be great!” I picked up 3 boards and followed him to the fence.

“Do you want to hold the boards or hammer the nails in?”

“I can hammer nails in the bottom, can’t reach the top though,” I said.

He handed me a few nails and the hammer then positioned the fence board. “Do you see that row of nails in the other boards?” he asked me.

“Holding the boards into the 2x4?” I asked.

“Sounds like you are skilled labor.”

“My dad and I built a house for Emily, when I was seven.”

“Who’s Emily?”

“My dog. She’s a mix, but looks like a black snowball”

“Emily’s a nice name. Why didn’t you just name her ‘Dirty Snowball’?” he asked, smiling.

“That would be silly, who wants a dog named that!” I laughed. I took the first nail, held it against the board and hit it with the hammer. The nail bent over and, embarrassed, I looked up at him and muttered, “Sorry.”

He was smiling and said, “That nail doesn’t want to be part of my fence. Try again.”

“Maybe I should hold the boards?” I suggested.

He set the fence board down and went back to his garage. He brought a few scrap boards back with a box of nails.

“Ok watch me, then you can practice. You’re just a little rusty,” he said, showing me how to do it. The third and forth practice nails went in straight. “Now you’ve got it!” he said.

After I had driven 20 nails into the practice boards, he picked the fence board back up and held it in place. The fence went up smoothly, having to only pull out one nail.

“Do you live in the neighborhood?” he asked after we finished.

“Three houses down, the green house.”

“Are you planning to come back again?”

“Yes, if you let me!” I told him excitedly.

“Then I need to go meet your parents, and make sure it’s ok with them,” he said. So I walked my bike and my new shop partner to my house. My mom had just gotten home from work and, after a few minutes chatting, invited Henry to stay for dinner. They talked for a long time. We learned that he had lost his whole family; a wife, daughter and granddaughter, in a car accident ten years ago. Now he was retired at 65. Not far off from my original estimate, I’d decided.

As he was leaving he said, “Ok Nick, we fixed my fence today. Think of what we can build for you tomorrow.”

“I will, thanks!” I said. Though I never knew my grandfathers, it seemed that Henry was everything I thought a grandfather should be: patient, kind, wise, and, of course, white-haired and extremely old. “Can I call you Grandpa Henry?”

“Nicole! This is Mr. Miller,” my mom jumped in.

“It’s alright, Stacy. Actually I would like that,” he said and gave us both a hug. “Thank you for dinner.”

The following weeks we built bird houses, picnic tables, a small work bench, and, finally a box to put my rock collection in. I walked into his shop after school one day and found a long rough-looking board sitting up on saw horses in the middle of the shop.

“What do you see?” he asked me as he looked at the board.

“I see a big board. Not very smooth either,” I told him.

“Yes, right now, what do you think it could be?”

“I don’t know, what do you think it could be?” I retorted.

“It could be the rudder of a ship, taking children safely away from war. It could be part of a bridge that lets families visit each other across a mighty river. It could be part of a hospital or a home for someone to live in,” he said.  “It could also be firewood, warming a house only a few days and then gone.”

“Wow, Grandpa Henry, it could be anything!”

“Now you’ve got it. Come back tomorrow with 10 ideas,” he said.

That night, my head was spinning with ideas of what that board could be.  I had a list of about thirty when I saw him the next day. He listened attentively to each one and even helped develop details for most of them.

“I see a frame for a mirror,” he told me after I had finished. He showed me a sketch he had done. “You see we need four pieces: a top, bottom and two sides. How can we do that with one board?”

“Your table saw,” I answered proudly. “Can I help?”

I did what I could but mostly watched him cut, shape and transform that rough board into the most beautiful mirror I had even seen. The wooden frame was so smooth; it shined to where I could even see myself in it. The following day after school I rushed over to his house but couldn’t find the mirror in his shop. Seeing my confusion, he led me into his home where he’d hung it on the wall. He stood me in front of it.

“It’s just perfect, Grandpa Henry!” I said.

“What do you see?” he asked me.

“Me and my grandpa,” I said.

“Yes, that’s you now, but…”

I realized then what he was asking and I thought about it awhile. “I see the captain of that freedom ship saving the kids. No, I see a pilot flying happy people to Hawaii,” I told him excitedly.

He smiled, put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Now you’ve got it.”

Not long after, my mother accepted a promotion and we were forced to move out of state. I cried for weeks. I hated the idea of leaving Grandpa Henry but, when I did, I left with the ability to make things with my father’s tools but, more importantly, the ability to look for new potential in everything, the gift of imagination.

 He never forgot my birthday and sent Christmas presents every year. As time passed I finally yielded to the training bra. I even got to the point where turning boy’s heads wasn’t so bad. At least once a month, though, I was in the garage making saw dust, remembering both my dad and Grandpa Henry.

It was in my senior year of high school when the package arrived from a law firm. I opened it and found the mirror Grandpa Henry and I had made. There was an envelope taped in the center of the mirror with the hand written words, “I see an architect”. Inside the envelope was a check from his estate for $25,000 and a short note. Warm tears began running down my cheeks as I read his words.

“Dearest Nick,

You are so very special. Thank you for your precious gift to me of family. Whether it’s a rudder, the yoke of an airplane or blueprints in your hands, keep looking beyond the present to what could be.

All my love, Grandpa Henry” 

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