After my mother died, I went to the bank to clean out her safe deposit box. When I raised the lid on that narrow steel drawer, it looked like it was full of things a squirrel might bring to back to the nest. Some inexpensive rings, a few coins, some old soup spoons wrapped in grey velvet. Things with the faint rosewater smell of death on them. Things that found their own coffin years before she did.
If you take any object and try and make it yours–dust it, polish it, keep it for decades, stand it up in the hall or move it from favorite drawer to drawer as the houses and years go by. After a while, it will gain a patina of you-ness. Then one day it calls out to your lost-dog heart or your seven-year mean streak. And you reach for it and your hand passes through.
Once I took some hand-planed walnut bed rails my grandfather made and used them to make a mandolin. I spent long winter nights in a cabin in the mountains steaming thin strips of wood and bending them over a form while I held my breath. Most of them broke. But just enough were able to hold the compound curve I needed. As winter turned into spring, I became impatient to complete it and I put the wrong kind of wood finish on. I started to sand it off but noticed I was sanding through the beautiful crisp bevel joints that made the bowl of the lute-shaped back. I stopped working on it. It looked terrible. I had ruined my grandfather’s gift to me. But almost as an afterthought, I put strings on it. The tone of the instrument was incredibly beautiful. Like a coronet in a stone house by the sea. I played that mandolin for years, carrying it around in a sack. I think, if I had gotten the finish right, it would have quickly found its own graveyard, on a high shelf in my living room, next to my grandmother’s mandolin.