Expression Through Furniture
Dad’s not the most expressive guy, but the things he creates aren’t just a hobby — they’re articulations of his caring and love.
The red, one-room schoolhouse I’ve lived in for the last couple years has quite a bit of lifeless furniture — stuff I bought when I was a single guy living in a much bigger place. My old house had three stories asking to be filled, and I filled them with cheap things that I unboxed and assembled without joy. The joyless furniture is a lot more condensed now.
But there are also some nice pieces: A beautiful trestle table, a king-size mission-style bed, and an oak blanket chest among them. As I tell visitors, anything in here that looks good, my father made for me.
And while it’s not the prettiest thing to look at, there’s one other piece that I like — a plywood shelf unit. Dad helped me make it after I shocked him and my mom with the news that I’d enlisted in the Army.
I had a little time before shipping to boot camp, and he offered up his wood shop and guidance to help fill that time with something productive. I decided to make a knock-down shelf system for CDs. I had a sizeable music collection and, until then, it was a mess of piles. Dad spent about three years in the Navy during Vietnam, and it wasn’t much fun for him. But to this day, he folds his t-shirts the way they taught him in basic training in the late ’60s. If there’s one thing the military instills, it’s a sense of order. To some small extent, the shelf was an attempt to get some aspect of my life organized on my own terms.
Dad is a retired electrician, but also a skilled hobbyist furniture maker with a shop of good tools and machines. I came up with a general idea for what I wanted, and he helped me figure out how to make it. We went to the store where he helped me pick out the materials (the beginning of my education into the world of plywood). He helped me fabricate the parts and supplied and milled the cherry to hide the plywood edges. If I’m honest, the effort that went into the project broke down to probably 80% Dad, 20% me. But assembling the thing (the one part I did myself) felt like a big accomplishment.
My CD collection outgrew the shelf, and then I outgrew the CDs. But the shelf has always had a purpose. Now it sits on the counter holding glassware and spices and coffee mugs. It’s one of the first things I see in the morning after I roll out of bed and walk by the half-dozen pieces of furniture Dad has crafted for me over the years.
When I went back to school a couple years ago to get a formal education in building stuff – the reason I moved, appropriately it seems, into the little red schoolhouse – Dad spent untold hours at yard sales and auctions getting me all the things I’d need for the endeavor. He likes tools as much as he likes making nice things, so I imagine he enjoyed it. But his generosity – then and always – left a lump in my throat.
Now that I have a better understanding of what goes into woodworking, I have a heightened appreciation of the meaning of the things he’s made for me. Dad’s not the most expressive guy, but the things he creates aren’t just a hobby; often they’re symbols of his caring and love for his family. Thanks, Dad, for all of the advice, encouragement and, of course, the furniture. It means a lot. I’m lucky to have you.
Photo: Matthew Millham. My father, Robert “Bob” Millham, sits in “Arthur’s Seat” at Lake Mohonk in his hometown of New Paltz, N.Y., in 2011.