Leaving our mark in the world

We all want to leave our mark, to make a statement, to indelibly proclaim, I was here right now. I got through this spot, and I can prove it.

I left one mark on a January morning in 1985 while running a screaming circular saw in the upstairs bedroom of a house on a quiet village street. Part of a construction crew that was remodeling the place, I was young and sleep deprived (my new son shrieked all night) and so when my boss asked me to finish cutting a door in half while he went into another room and put a new belt on a sander, I just mumbled “sure.” I drowsily stepped over to the sawhorse, pulled the trigger on the circular saw, and let fly.

When the severing was complete, I put the saw on the floor without waiting for its still-spinning blade to stop (I knew there was a guard on it, after all). So imagine my shock when, instead of hearing the familiar jet-engine-winding-down sound, I heard the splintery growl of the saw plowing through newly-refinished hardwood flooring. After a graceful arc, the saw wanged off a radiator and fell over, the blade making metallic pinging sounds as it slowly stopped its destructive orbits.

“I taped the guard up on that saw,” my boss yelled from the other room “So don’t put it down on the floor.”

“Okay, I won’t do that,” I said. Then, after a dramatic pause, I added, “ever again.”

When I think back about the next few moments all I hear are racing footsteps, and then, mysteriously, my mind just goes blank. (I bet a therapist would dig up a lot of yelling, hand-waving, threats, and promises.) I do remember a sullen pall of impending misery hanging over the place for the rest of the day. And when the owner’s BMW finally pulled into the driveway, my boss just looked out the window and said, “Oh, boy.”

The owners were actually pretty gracious about the whole thing. “We were going to put a rug there, anyway,” the husband said, slapping my boss consolingly on the back and raising a small cloud of sawdust. And so, I lived.

I was reminded of this raspy little tic mark in my life just the other day as I cleared off our dining room table so I could spread out all my receipts, reports, and assorted IRS-related junk and finish my taxes. It’s a beautiful cherry table that I bought and refinished when the kids were little, and as I rubbed in the furniture polish (it smelled of oranges) the spring light slanted across the meadow and in the window and threw every imperfection and mar into bright relief — the history of our young family etched in scratches, divots, nicks and dings.

Almost a decade of home schooling had taken place on that table, and the evidence was everywhere: the pinpoint drill-holes of a compass spike spinning circles during geometry, the impatient little cluster of dots made by a pencil tapped in frustration (why in the world will I ever need to remember anything about the Louisiana Purchase?), the fine scratches made by the raw wiry ends of countless spiral notebook bindings, and (most delightfully) the whorls of a symmetrical little galaxy scored deeply into the wood by a spinning Spirograph (likely made during a morning break in second grade).

Our kids are grown and gone now, and they sit with us at that old table only during college breaks and holidays. Sure, I could refinish the table so that nary a blemish remained, but I won’t. I like the fact that the spring light and a little furniture polish can bring the giggles back into our dining room. And if I can’t sleep at night, it’s comforting to know that I can sit at that old table in the dark, run my fingers across that scored cherry wood, and remember when our children were little and they were right there with us.

Sometimes, it seems, it’s the imperfections in our lives — the nicks and dings, the points where we stumbled and recovered, the dents and gouges we left as we learned how to grow up, the scratches we left to say for better or worse, I was right here — that tell the best stories. If our days were always perfectly smooth, we might not be able to look back and see where we’ve been.

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