Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Family Heirlooms - Cut and Light

Last night Kathe and I sat with family members at the dinner table in my mother's house and 'talked story' about family for hours.  One of the most delightful stories concerned the enormous table that had been the setting for Thanksgiving dinners at my great grandmother's home back when my mom was a little girl. 

There were a hundred people who sat at the table.  It was enormous.  You could walk underneath this magical table, standing upright, and it took forty people on each corner to lift it.

Such is the nature of magical tables at your grandmother's house.

The table now sits in my mother's kitchen in Bluffton, SC.  It is a beautiful table with claw feet and spiral turned legs.  It is roughly four feet by six feet, and there are a couple of additional leaves to extend it. 

It is a fine piece of furniture.  But it is no Arthurian table of legend. 

While we were talking, I looked down and admired the table.  The antiquarian in me always finds it fun to see pieces that have an old connection to me and my family, and this one was cool.  The wood was quarter sawn oak - a beautiful way of cutting red and white oak (well, mostly those two species are used) that shows off an interesting pattern.

I have always been attracted to quarter sawn oak.  I grew up with wood all around me - from the molding manufacturing business to the building supply business - and I love the fact that there is a 'revealed pattern' if the piece is cut a certain way.  The medullary rays and the growth rings combine to show off a fingerprint - unique to each tree. (For those who are curious to see how you make quarter-sawn lumber, there is a neat video here).

Each quarter sawn pattern is unique to the tree, and is only revealed by alternating the cuts the way the video shows.
The color difference increases with age - the light bands stay light, and the dark color deepens, and the beauty of the wood just intensifies over time.  Add to that the patina of old wood, and I can hardly tear my eyes away.

Even if it doesn't seat a hundred people.

After looking up the quarter sawn video, I was talking about the process with my mom, and mentioned a similar lapidary process that I still don't fully understand.  Iris agates are very thinly sliced agates, and when they are lit from behind, display a stunning rainbow.  Not every agate will do it, but some will, when subjected to the hand of a master cutter.

Iris Agate.
As with the oak plank, it requires a specific cut and a specific play of light to bring out beauty that is already there. 

Isn't that the way it is with people, too?  If you get the right light, make the right cut, and show people off at their best angle, they shine in a unique way.  I look around and see people who are really spectacular at one thing or another.  The most amazing biologists, engineering wunderkinds, woodworkers, public speakers....

And then ones that impress me the most.  Parents.  These guys are ones who are cutting, and buffing, and adding patina to their kids, and like the master cutters, shine the light on their kids to make them shine. 

I look at friends like Allie Griffeth, and I see the shine.  I look at Sarah and Craig Williams and find myself loving the display of the pattern that was carefully buffed and polished to a striking beauty.  I see Joshua Adams and the light shining through him is just amazing.  All around me are kids who have been loved and lovingly molded by their parents.

To me, that is what a family heirloom really is. It is something that is passed down from one generation to another, deepening with time, and becoming more beautiful with each passing year. 

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