I refinished a farmhouse medicine cabinet for my parents decades ago. It came from their barn museum of auction prizes. The inside backing looked like ragged slats pried off of a pallet and reused before bothering to smooth the rough sawn stubble down first. Concentrating on the exterior, I removed crud hiding its plain jane, pine charm.
Sandpaper erased a lot. Coarse grit paper scuffed away ugliness in the same manner that a bear rubs hibernation off with rough bark. Ogee wood trim was the trickiest part to get clean because dirty paint clung to every swoop. The medium grit anticipated the timing of a finer grit’s finesse. The finer grit led to the “very fine” stage and that’s exactly what I was going for. Relatives in Mom’s and Dad’s family adored antique furnishings way more than brand new stuff. They talked about household pieces having character, in the same way that an old Sailor’s crevassed face conveyed resilience.
I discovered Orange Shellac during that project. Not knowing anyone that had used it before only made it a more intriguing wood finish option. Made from female Lac Beetle secretions collected in the Indies, it leaves a deeply hued, waxy sheen. The finished product almost glowed as it hung in their master bathroom. I realized much later that it wasn’t ideal for a steamy shower area when Dad complained the cabinet door was peeling. He applied clear polyurethane over it but nothing sticks well to wax.
My parents moved all over the country. I’d forgotten about the medicine cabinet until one of my siblings handed it back to me from their estate. My name was written on a masking tape label. Raised post-Depression, neither of them easily threw anything away. It reeked from an overwhelming Iodine bottle spill, a persistent reminder of an older antiseptic era. A kid’s tears caused by an accidental cut melded right in with the tears from the inevitable first aid prescribed. Not meant to be barbaric, its chemical sting still hurt hurts. Intense vapors nauseated me in the car during the long drive home with it and then commandeered my garage. The reemergence was a weird boomerang. Given away then given back, the unexpected inheritance reminded me of yet another relative’s med cabinet. At the mirror above my mother-in-law’s bathroom sink, I belatedly noticed, after she died, a taller mirror on the wall behind me. A surreal visual effect appeared with indirect glances. It was a very odd sensation to be staring into an endless cascade of my own stares; each image appearing a little bit smaller yet hypnotically multiplying itself beyond count. How many others had noticed that quiet insight?
The strong odor wafted around emotional wounds. Why did core beliefs about life clash so intensely between people? My self-assurance grew after marriage but unintentionally morphed into familial abandon when I chose different priorities than my parents. Political disagreements between us especially became a no man’s land scattered with landmines apt to detonate without being directly stepped upon. Blue and Red notions (among other colors) became incendiary whither you tip-toed or sprinted around them. Clumsy comments and indignant swipes seemed beyond any dosage of medicine to heal. Instead of deliberately slow debates, argument competitions rapidly stalked us. We couldn’t seem to help ourselves see beyond raw strife.
Amputation is a brutal response to perceived esteem injuries. Joseph Rael wrote, in House of Shattering Light, “I think stress leads to struggle, struggle takes us to effort, and effort culminates with accomplishments that lead us forward.” Every accomplishment of the US at large literally depends upon the accomplishments of the smallest of us.