I just have a lot to say.
June 17th, 2017 by

Character Marks

“Character marks are part of the dappled beauty and authenticity of natural materials that are unrepeatable in man-made surfaces. Often, marks highly desired by some are considered defects by others. For many designers the natural appeal of veneer is in its irregularity—the marks that tell the tree’s unique history over decades. The general appearance of the veneer and its character are considered in the grading process which can be somewhat subjective.” (

Phillip graduated from high school at 7:00 pm Friday May 19, 2017. He moved his tassel with one hand and picked up his welding torch with the other. He walked off the stage and straight to the local community college, where he began welding classes at 7:00 am Monday morning, May 22nd.

He was so excited about going to school and working with his hands. He cannot imagine ever sitting behind a desk again for the remainder of his life. He wants to learn all the trades. He wants to take things apart and put them back together. He wants to fix things and sweat.

But, if you ask him what he wants to do MOST, he will say, “I want to build things with wood.”

His response scores a point for Nature over Nurture.

Phillip’s daddy is a businessman. Phillip’s daddy loves the art of the deal and the rush of the sale. MY daddy fixed things and built things with wood. MY daddy sanded and stained. My daddy, named Phillip, never met his grandchildren. He never taught them the things he loved. Little Phillip never toddled in the shop of his maternal grandfather nor played in the sawdust pile in the backyard.

The summer before his 11th grade year, Phillip’s guidance counselor advised me to put him in agriscience (basically carpentry class).

She said, “That’s where I’d put my boys.”
I said, “Then, that’s where he’s going.”
He said, “I don’t think I want to take that class.”
I said, “Give it a semester. If you don’t like it, you can change after Christmas.”

After the first day of school, he said, “I think I’m going to like that class.”
After the first week of class, he said, “Mama, please email my counselor and tell her thank you for putting me in agriscience.”
After about a month, he said, “I’m going to build furniture for a living.”

For four semesters, he learned.

And he learned.

And he learned.

And he learned.

On the first Wednesday in May of his senior year, I began to think about decorating his table at the senior luncheon at our church. It’s tradition for the mamas to set the tables to honor their child. I pillaged Phillip’s room for treasures to display to represent the boy he was and the young man he had become. It was easy. But I needed one more thing . . . .

Hmm . . . .

I saw some tree rounds at Walmart for $15 each. I texted him a picture.

“Can you make me some of these by Sunday?”
“Maybe. How many?”
“No way.”

On Thursday morning, he texted, “Coach says we can get them done.”

He coated and coated and coated and coated the cherry tree slices in polyurethane. He applied one last coat Saturday evening. His table was handsomer than I’d imagined.

Later, I set our dining room table in preparation for a post-graduation brunch with family. We talked about giving the tree rounds as party gifts to the ones who’d shaped him most:

one for him to keep
one for Chuck and me
one for each of his sisters
one for each of my sisters
one for Papa Chuck
one for Miss Jordan.

The night before graduation, he noticed they had begun to split. In all that quick polyurethaning, he had not covered the backsides. The moisture had to escape. Like an ice cube tray in hot water, each tree round cracked, almost identically.

He was furious at himself. He wanted to trash them. He wanted to start over. He wanted them to be perfect.

Of course, I had a story to tell him.


It was warm outside. 1976, 77, or early 78.

Daddy had taken the front doors down to refinish them. He put them on sawhorses in the driveway. He sanded and sanded and sanded and sanded. I be-bopped up and uttered the phrase that sends shivers down the spines of parents on a mission.

“Can I help?”

“Sure,” he answered. “But you have to be very careful. You have to sand along the grain of the wood. If you sand across the grain, you will ruin the door.”


I picked up the sandpaper and sanded across the grain.



“Only the good die young,” crooned Billy Joel in 1977.

I think folks who’ve lost Beloveds too young—parents or friends and especially children—want to believe this is true. Maybe it is. It seems unfair, but maybe the not-as-good get a little longer to straighten up, like Mr. Scrooge. Tiny Tim’s life was better in the end, because Uncle Ebenezer lived long enough to confront his ghosts.

That’s preposterous pondering, but my point is that 40 years gives a dead man’s family enough time to turn him into a saint. And Daddy wasn’t. But he was a good man. This is the only time that I remember him yelling at me. I remember lots of cross looks when I had just said something I shouldn’t have—or was about to. But not yelling. Not many times.


Daddy took a deep breath. He showed me what I had done. He made me watch him sand and sand and sand and sand to remove the blemish I had carelessly created.

Then, he let me help him again.

I did it right a few times. ~~ Oops. ~~ I quickly glanced at him to see if he had noticed. He hadn’t. I tossed my sandpaper and hopped on my bike to go find Becky and/or Evelyn. I didn’t tell him what I had done. I didn’t want to be yelled at again. He’d never notice anyway. He’d way overreacted, I thought.

I’m sure he was thrilled to see me go.

He stained the doors and hung them back up. I came home. He said, “Come here.”

Uh oh.

He pointed to the scratch, much darker than the rest of the door, clearly visible, seemingly screaming, “Look at this shoddy workmanship!!!”

He said, “When you grow up and don’t live here anymore, I will think of you every time I see this scratch. I will remember all of the life you brought to this house. And I will miss you. I am so glad to be your daddy.”

He didn’t live much longer. I am the one who lives in the house. And it is me who misses him.

At some point, the doors needed redoing again. Mama chose to have them painted. It was the 80s. I guess that’s what folks did.


Standing at the front door, holding a cracked tree round, I told Phillip my story. I told him the scratch is there underneath the paint. He promised to find it for me one day, and to not fix it.


Chuck has three scars on his right shoulder from three surgeries. They form a Z. He claims he was slashed by Zorro. Emma’s TMJ Disorder is outwardly visible along either side of her jawline.

It’s the scars that refine us. It’s the struggle through the hard class—even if it’s merely for a passing grade—that makes us proud of ourselves, not the easy A, as much fun as those are to get. Exercise strengthens us, not eating ice cream, as giddy as that makes us at the moment.

Phillip will be a better builder the next time, because of those cracks in my tree rounds.

I hope he makes eight more for my dining room table. I hope they are shiny and perfect and just like he wants them. But in a few years, check underneath his groom’s cake at his wedding reception, and then a few years after that, look under the floral centerpiece, surrounded by casseroles, at the dinner on the ground after my funeral. You’ll find a tree round with a great big crack in it.



One Response to “Character Marks”
  1. Wayne L. Carter says

    Wondered why I have not seen any posts by you on Facebook and
    can’t locate you there. However, I’m glad to know you’re
    still blabbering.

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