A surprising benefit of grief

A surprising benefit of grief

This weekend, I built another bridge between life and death. Between loneliness and memories. Between grief and joy.

I did it by stripping a 150-year-old dresser. Which is exactly what my mother would have done, except she would have stripped the entire dresser and done it perfectly, while I settled for stripping the important parts and painting the rest with chalk paint. But I digress.

My eureka moment had little to do with refurnishing furniture and more to do with what it represented. This weekend, I bridged a gap between missing a loved one and feeling her presence again. It occurred with minimal pain, unlike the many other times I have done something that reminded me of her or used something that previously belonged to her. This weekend, both of those things also occurred, but I mostly gained perspective.

My journey began by taking an antique dresser that had belonged to me as a child, to my mother as a child, and to her Great Aunt Mae, who taught school for over 60 years and became my mother’s inspiration for life. First, I carefully removed the drawers and unscrewed the knobs; this is necessary to point out, as my mother always removed hinges, knobs, etc, at the start of every furniture job, while I typically just paint around them, even though I know better. Then I put on rubber gloves and brushed varnish remover on the damaged surfaces. My mother would have done this in the blazing sun, as she was part pioneer and thought everything of value is best accomplished through the hardest possible labor. Instead, I stripped the dresser in my basement while I watched 4 chick flicks, one of which I’d seen before. Then I scraped off the varnish goo and wiped the surface down with mineral spirits, sanded it, and repeated the process. Last came the poly-urethane, more sanding, more poly. While not perfect, I was proud of myself in an almost-pioneer-sort of way.

Watching wood grain come alive was one of Mom’s favorite things. She would not approve of me chalk-painting the front and sides of the dresser, but that’s a lesson for a different day. This weekend was about enjoying a process my mother enjoyed and feeling her presence with me while I did it. I was after connectivity and restoration of a dresser, not pioneering.

As a child, I never understood Mom’s obsession with refinishing furniture. We had tons of antiques, and Mom was sentimental about all of them. Nearly all our furniture represented someone important–her grandmother, her great aunt, her parents, my father. As my dad died only 7 years into their marriage, everything they had bought together and everything he had built (he was a furniture maker) carried enormous emotional and physical value. I’ve always understood that, but this weekend, a new thought occurred to me:

Maybe Mom’s love for refinishing wasn’t about keeping something looking beautiful and new. Maybe she just loved smelling and being present in the process.

Here’s what I mean. I’ll bet every time Mom sanded, stained, stripped, or turpentined something, she felt my dad close again. I’ll bet during those early married years, she had spent hours standing near his workbench, watching him turn dowels on the lathe or drill holes for fittings. I’m sure he’s the one who had shown her how to bring wood grain to life. How to sand with the grain, how to let the stripper pucker old paint until you grazed across it with a paint scraper or rubbed in the corners with steel wool. I’m guessing that even 20 years later, whenever she unscrewed the cap from a can of mineral spirits, or wiped away sawdust, or dipped a paint brush into the stain, she smelled the presence of my dad, and it comforted her.

I get it now.

I’m doing it, too. I am doing something she loved, and I’m smelling familiar scenes. I can see her in the yard, kneeling on a drop cloth, in her pedal pushers and a sleeveless, white¬†cotton blouse, rubbing a cloth across the surface of something old. She is smiling, even as she wipes sweat from her forehead. Her fingertips are dark brown; her face is smudged and flaming red from the heat. And her mind is someplace far away. I think perhaps she is with him. I’m sorry I never realized that before. Perhaps she wanted it that way. It was her private moment with him. Her escape from time.

Whenever I bake cookies or drink hot tea or read in bed–or refinish furniture–I will not just remember her and feel the pin-pricks to my heart. I will try to escape, just a little, past the longing and into the time we shared where joy lived. Only from this vantage point, I can drink it in and savor the moments for what they were–slices of a life that can be re-visited but not re-lived.

The joy of remembrance surprises me. The pain surprises me, too, but it doesn’t scare me any more. The two are learning to work together to create something nostalgic and delightful. Perhaps that means I’m making progress in this journey of grief. Pain brings growth and perspective, forcing me to learn and expand. I am growing into a different me because I have ventured into another dimension.

That’s a surprising benefit.

**What about you? What smells and sounds take you back to a time you love? What reunites you, however briefly, with someone you loved?

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