I was in elementary school when my father hurt his back so badly while working on the farm that his doctor confined him to bed.
My bedroom was immediately down the hall from my parents’, and after school one day I heard disturbing noises – violent banging and rasping – coming from their room. Their door was open a crack, and as I gently pushed my way in, I was surprised, relieved and completely enlightened about my own nature.
My father was lying flat in bed, as per the doctor’s orders. And he was building a small side table in this odd position, without a workbench or his machinery. (In fact, during this convalescence, he completely finished the table, which I still own. He painted a flower on each end and varnished the entire thing. All while on his back.)
Likewise, I’ve never been able to sit still. My dad once offered to give me $5 if I could remain motionless for five minutes. I have never collected on that bet. But after seeing him build a table in bed, at least I know – genetically – where I get my peculiar work habits.
My father’s urge to create was unstoppable. He transformed our house in Fort Smith, Ark., into a delightful English/Japanese garden, learning masonry, fence-building and landscaping on the way. He built a goldfish pond, tended a bamboo garden and installed dramatic lighting. All of this fueled by a remarkable eye for design and unspeakable energy.
When our house in town was perfect, he bought 84 acres outside Hackett, Ark., and proceeded to transform that with his hands and a vision. He bought a drafting table, read a bunch of books and took a class at the Shelter Institute in Maine with my mom. And then bang, we were building the first of two houses without the help of electricity or running water.
He plowed the bottomland and planted strawberries. Then he constructed a second house of his own design that was about 4,000 square feet. We were going to move there as soon as it was complete. I was promised a herd of goats. (Which I have never collected on.) And chickens.
I left for college in 1986, my parents divorced in 1989 and my dad lost heart in the farm.
This man who shaped an Arkansas wilderness of turkeys, rocky soil and armadillos was confined to a tiny apartment in one of those complexes that has a “singles nights” and keno. I thought my dad was done for and was broken in spirit. But I was wrong.
He bought a run-down farmhouse in town and transformed it into another gorgeous estate with a lap pool, workshop and guest cottage. No detail in his house was too small – he hand carved the heating registers with a geometric design I’ve never seen before. He built garden furniture that was so cunningly simple and beautiful that I blatantly ripped it off as a furniture maker. His kitchen was like something in Architectural Digest.
Meanwhile the farm sat dormant and unfinished. We’d go down there to fix walls or hang a new gate, but every visit was depressing.
During one visit, my father told me that the urge to create things every day had vanished. In some ways it seemed a relief to him. He didn’t have to judge himself on his daily labor. He began to take a deeper interest in music and singing (and piano and later cello).
Again, I thought he had reached the end of his creative life. Again, I was wrong.
He sold the farm and bought an old house in the historic district of Charleston, S.C. And again, he set to work rebuilding the garage, workshop and guest cottage. He transformed the interior of the house, and once more he created a perfect human terrarium where he was surrounded by beautiful objects he had collected or made during his entire life, from his time during the Vietnam war to multiple trips to Europe and Mexico.
And here he lies tonight. Flat on his back and dying from cancer he was diagnosed with in 2003. He’s leaving us far too early.
This time, he doesn’t have the parts or tools to build another side table. This time I’m sure we’re at the end.
Or are we?
Without my father’s example, his unstoppable work ethic and his eye for beautiful objects, I’d be a sorry woodworker. Luckily, I grew up in a house where we unapologetically made things. And when dad found beautiful objects made by others, he bought them. He sat them next to his own work and saw how his measured up. Or if it didn’t. And when the next day came, he kept building.
That’s where I come from. I might tell people I come from Arkansas (where I grew up) or Missouri (where I was born). But I really come from a home where our job is to make the world a little more beautiful each day.
And when he leaves us, which could be any minute now, the world is going to be a little less beautiful without him.
— Christopher Schwarz