Old Tools, Old Men, and Legacy

Old Tools, Old Men, and Legacy May 28, 2017

I thought about you a lot today. It was a pretty grueling yardwork day at my house. There was a big job to do and nobody capable of doing it but me. Sure, I could have hired someone to do it, but that’s not what you taught me or my dad. You taught us that, when there is a job to do, you grab your tools and get after it. You stay with it until you figure out a way to get it done. You instilled that into my dad and you both tried to instill it in me. I don’t think it ever took hold in me to the level you and dad had it but, now and then, when I get involved in a project that challenges me mentally and physically, beyond what I am comfortable with, I am able to draw upon what you taught me. Today was such a day.

My wife and I took advantage of a sunny Saturday to do our annual Spring yard day, putting down bag after bag of mulch, pruning shrubs and trees, planting our raised bed gardens, repairing bad spots in the lawn with new turf sod, just whatever was needing done. This year, the job became much more difficult because one of our large sand cherry shrubs had died. The task of removing that dead behemoth fell upon me. I went to the garage to fetch what tools I thought I’d need. There in my collection of gardening tools were two that I hadn’t had a chance to use yet, a narrow spade and a cutting mattock. I had only just gotten them this past winter. They were not new, far from it. I had saved them from the sale pile at my Aunt’s house in Tennessee after her death severed the last direct ties of our family to that place I loved so well. Your daughter had been the keeper of those tools since you died, at age 90, in 2011. Their metallic business ends had the patina of age and their long hickory handles had been worn smooth from years of use. Tough, strong hands had polished the wood as effectively as fine grained sandpaper. I had watched those hands doing that work many times. Those hands were your hands, Grandpa. As I picked up those tools, memories of days I spent with you on your East Tennessee mountain farm came flooding back to me. I studied the tools and understood that they were as good now as ever, in fact, probably better. That’s the thing about fine tools, they seem to get better with age. You always kept such good care of those tools, keeping them clean and honing their cutting edges to razor sharpness. They, in turn, kept good care of you, for decades.

I wish I took as good care of my tools as you tried to teach me through your example. I see you in the way my dad honors his tools with great care. Now that I have some of your tools, I vow to learn that lesson, too.

As I looked at that dead sand cherry shrub, I saw right off that it was going to be a challenge. It had grown quite large and, from the shoots of growth it had sent up far from its base, I knew the root system would be thick and extensive. Looking at the thing as a whole seemed overwhelming. I looked at your tools and asked myself how you would have done the job. My first thought was that you would have done the job! You wouldn’t have had anyone else do it. Then I thought of how you worked. You didn’t rush, you took your time and did a thing systematically, in stages, doing one thing at a time, doing it properly, and then moving to the next. So I used your lessons to begin tackling the job before me. I got my hand saw and began to cut, one by one, the many branches off the dead shrub. It was tough work on a hot day. I had to stop several times to cool down and rehydrate but, like you would have, I stayed with it until I had trimmed everything away but the main parts of the stump. I immediately saw how important putting in that hard preliminary work had been because now I had space to work. I could get all the way around the root ball below. I was soaked through with sweat and knew that the hard part of the job was still before me.

I picked up your spade and set into the task of digging out around the root ball. I was correct that the root system had grown quite extensive, some of the roots were as big around as my wrist. I used your spade as best I could but it wasn’t enough tool to get through those thicker roots. Then, hot, tired, and grumpy, I began to lose sight of your example and got impatient. I  began tugging and yanking on the stump to try to pry it loose, hoping that those roots had rotted enough to break, but that effort was a foolhardy pursuit. Stooping over and yanking on that tough old skeleton of a shrub was a mistake. I was already overheated and this failed physical effort only exacerbated that while putting a tremendous strain on my lower back. I was quickly defeated by this poor decision and stood up so light headed I nearly swooned. Angry at that stubborn shrub stump or, more accurately, myself, I took a break to recover and think about my next steps.

As I sat there, soaking wet from persperation, out of breath, heart pounding twice its normal pace, I slowly recovered. As I did, I began to think about you and how I had watched you countless times attack a chore such as this with patience. That’s where I was failing, I realized, I was being impatient and trying to skip required steps of the job. Sure, the me of 25 years ago might have been able to man-handle that stump and root ball right out of there with a couple of mighty heaves, but that me was long gone. Unlike old tools, old bodies don’t get better with age–but, hopefully, minds do. I looked over at your old mattock lying there. I had watched you swing that thing on many occasions marveling at the precision with which you aimed your blows. You were patient when you worked and didn’t waste any effort. You made every blow count. With those memories as inspiration, I took a deep breath and hoisted myself up from my chair. I grabbed up the mattock and it felt good in my hands. It almost seemed I could feel your hand prints under mine as I held that old tool. I bent the stump of the sand cherry shrub this way and that so that I could get the layout of all the biggest roots, then, one by one, I began to swing your old mattock, bringing the cutting edge down on those tough, subterranean appendages clinging stubbornly to the earth, even in death. I was impressed with myself in the accuracy and precision of my blows. Watching you take your time to preserve an economy of motion must have rubbed off on me after all, I thought. Within a few minutes I had cut through all of the largest root stems and was able to lift the stump out of its hole.

As I sat back down to cool off and catch my breath, I reflected upon the experience, of how an old mountain man had a son who had a son.

Of the legacy left in old tools.

Of the life lessons those old tools can teach.

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