I received a gift from my father today, almost 36 years after we lost him.
Luke Buttry was a carpenter who served the most famous carpenter ever. He spent his career as an Air Force chaplain, then an American Baptist pastor. He died of prostate cancer in 1978, just a little over two years into his second civilian pastorate, at First Baptist Church in Kankakee.
Wherever we lived, whether in government-owned base housing, a parsonage or our own home, Dad was building things. If the home didn’t have room for a workshop in the basement, Dad would spend time at the base hobby shop working on his projects.
My bedroom and my brother Dan’s were in our basements in Utah and Ohio, partitioned from the rest of the basement by floor-to-ceiling shelf and cabinet combinations built by Dad. When we lived in England, he built an indoor slide that sat in the corner, with a hideaway built underneath the platform. Our backyard in Utah attracted kids from throughout the neighborhood because it featured the best playhouse ever, more of Dad’s handiwork.
I’m not sure exactly where Dad learned carpentry. Grandpa Buttry died in the 1950s and I have no memory of him. My cousin, Dolores Buttry, who used to visit our grandparents in Chenoa, Ill., doesn’t remember Grandpa being a carpenter.
Maybe Dad paid better attention in shop class when he was a kid than I did. Maybe he taught himself carpentry. Maybe he learned working for someone when he was a kid. Looking through some old photos of Dad, I see him smiling by a truck that says “Buttry Roofing” on the side. Maybe that was a business of Grandpa’s or some other relative’s at sometime. Or maybe Dad’s. I wish I knew.
Dad built a couple of houses in Illinois when he was a young man. One he gave to a sister. The other he traded to a car dealer for a 1960 Chevrolet Impala when we came back from England (I presume the house carried a mortgage, or Dad got some cash, too).
Our tiny government quarters in Japan didn’t have much room for Dad’s handiwork, but the community did. He led the men of the chapel in building a dairy bar and a dormitory for the ministry of a tiny Episcopal church pastored by a Japanese priest who became a lifelong friend.
But most of Dad’s handiwork stayed behind when we moved — built for someone else, too big to move or sold as part of the house.
After his retirement from the Air Force, Dad turned his woodwork to smaller items: wooden toolboxes and rubber-band guns. He had entrepreneurial dreams of selling them under the brand “Grandfather’s Rough Crafts.” (By then, he had two grandchildren, including my son Mike.)
One of those toolboxes has long been the only piece of Dad’s carpentry I had. It doesn’t get much use. I didn’t inherit or acquire either Dad’s interest in carpentry or his skill for it. I struggled through shop class in eighth grade and barely completed an Eagle Scout project that involved carpentry.
I helped Dad on many a project, but I was always better at holding something steady while Dad did the work than at actually wielding a tool. Dad could drive a nail straight into a couple boards in a few thumps of the hammer. I bent the nail in half most of the time.
Dad was an artist as well as a carpenter. When we lived in Sunset, Utah, he would spend evenings in our back yard, painting the glorious sunsets shimmering off the Great Salt Lake. I have a sunset painting and a collage of Buttry family history, family treasures reminding us of Dad’s creativity. I’ve passed other pieces of Dad’s artwork on to our sons.
For the past three decades and longer, I’ve used computer passwords associated with Dad’s life to keep his memory fresh, giving me reasons to think of him several times a day. I’ve scanned old photos to save them digitally, smiling each time I see his stiff smile (Dad could never relax if he knew a camera was pointing at him). But the fact is that he’s sliding further and further into my past. I knew Dad for less than 24 years and I’ve been trying to retain the memories now for nearly 36.
A letter in January from my cousin Dolores suddenly brought Dad’s handiwork back to the front of my mind. She told me she had a nightstand Dad had made and she wanted to return it to her Uncle Luke’s family.
Dolores’ father, Pleasant Buttry, was my father’s brother and my Uncle Pleas. Dad had made the small table and given it to Uncle Pleas more than 60 years ago. Dolores remembered having the nightstand beside her bed when she was a little girl.
After Uncle Pleas died in 2010, his daughter Linda hired a firm to haul away the furniture and other items that none of his kids wanted. But first she invited Dolores to look things over to see if she wanted to save anything. She rescued her Uncle Luke’s nightstand. After a few years with Dad’s handiwork in her homes, she decided she wanted one of his kids to have it. I had connected with Dolores and her two surviving sisters on Facebook in recent years, so she wrote me offering the nightstand.
My brothers Dan and Don share Dad’s interest and skill in carpentry. My sister Carol married a theatrical designer who builds fabulous furniture. One of them should probably have this piece. They might have greater appreciation — and certainly greater understanding — for the craft that went into making it.
But Dolores lives in Richmond, Va., and I live in Herndon, Va. We could connect easily to pass on this heirloom. So we did that today. We met for the first time in decades. Mimi and I drove to Fredericksburg, Va., today for lunch with Dolores. After a pleasant conversation about lots of members of our extended family, Dolores gave me the nightstand.
She told me how much she admired Dad’s craftmanship, the beveled edges of the top, the curve of the leg, the sturdiness of the stand after all these years. As soon as I saw it, I admired all that and more.
The nightstand sits in the corner of our bedroom now. It’s old, yet it’s new. A newfound family treasure — a piece of Dad’s craft and creativity to cherish a while then pass on to one of his grandsons.
Update: I normally awaken a few times during the night, check the time on my bedside clock, located on a shelf that’s part of the headboard, then go back to sleep. With my glasses off in the darkened room, the nightstand and the photo of Dad that sits on it were a dim, blurry image beyond the clock. And I smiled each time I saw them, before drifting back to sleep.