Our newest Journal series highlights our personal heirlooms – things that hold special value and meaning to us personally, regardless of their monetary value. Alabama Chanin wants to honor things that last and things that we choose to keep in our lives and our homes as reminders of family, friends, or important moments.
This week, our graphic designer, Maggie, shares memories of her grandfather and his special talent for woodworking. Her story reminds me of the words of William Morris: “History has remembered the kings and warriors, because they destroyed; art has remembered the people, because they created.”
My grandfather, who we all called Papa, was an extremely smart and talented man – a skilled artist and craftsman. He really could draw, do, or make anything. He was a gunner on a B-17 during World War II. His plane was shot down over Belgium, where he was captured and held in a few different POW camps for 15 months. He had grown up watching his mother crochet, but he was never formally taught. It was freezing some of the months that he was in Austria and Germany, so he whittled down a stick into a crochet hook so that he could crochet a warm hat and mittens out of holey sweaters he’d found and taken apart. He ended up not only making some for himself, but also for the other prisoners so they could be a little warmer. He was a very caring and thoughtful man.
He came home from the war, got married, and had three daughters. When he retired after years as a chemical engineer at TVA, he loved to relax in his favorite recliner, watch Hee-Haw (which I watched with him frequently), and carve. I think it was therapeutic for him. He was diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder after WWII and I think working with wood kept his mind busy. He used to carve little wooden ducks, geese, howling dogs, coin banks shaped like old boots, and owls. He carved little critters until he literally couldn’t carve anymore; he was diagnosed with cancer, which eventually paralyzed him. These wooden figurines are left to remind us of his talent.
To this day, I don’t know how many things he carved. There’s a whole collection of them at my parents’ house, but I only managed to end up with one – a wooden owl that I’ve had since I was a child. It used to have a red ribbon tied through the metal loop so that I could hang it on the Christmas tree. I now wear it on a long cord as a necklace.
For years, I thought only members of our family had these figurines. But, a stranger who was curious about my owl necklace once approached me; apparently, she had a similar one. I found out that she was the daughter of one of Papa’s close friends and that he had made one for her as well. It moved me to know that my grandfather’s work had brought joy to the wider world. Each day that I wear my owl necklace, I feel like I have piece of him with me.
Thank you to Maggie for sharing her heirloom and memories with us.