My Mother’s Desk

Four Generations of Service

When my mother was in junior high, her father built a desk for her. It was simple, with a wide, shallow center drawer and three deep drawers down the left side. It was very typical for the time. He gave it a coat of stain and some wooden knobs and they put it in her room. She added a Boston pencil sharpener to one corner and used it until she went off to art school.

Five years later, with a kid in tow and divorce looming, my mother moved back home. The desk went into her little apartment at the front of the house upstairs. In my first recollections, she had a lighted makeup mirror and hot curlers on the top of the desk.

When I started school, it became my desk. It had gotten a bit shopworn, so my mother sanded it and gave it a coat of white paint. While I had it, my favorite thing about it was the pencil sharpener. It was just like the one at school, a Boston brand, now made by X-Acto, another of my favorite companies.

It was still white when we moved to Clinton, and I recall doing many things at that desk. Homework, of course. But I remember having a rock tumbler. I loved polished rocks and even went to shows when rock collecting was a popular hobby in the early 1970s. The tumbler would sit there and roll the rocks around in a plastic container for days. I had no problem sleeping with it going, but my step-father cursed it several times.

At about age eleven, I began building styrene models. My attempts were crude, but I did some small airplanes and a tenth scale model of the mummy, with glow-in-the-dark bits. In those days I gobbed the glue and slapped on the paint impatiently, but I was learning skills and patience for later times.

One day, after working with Testor’s paint, I put my brush in the paint thinner jar to soak while I admired my paint job. Turning back, I knocked the thinner over on the top of the desk and instantly stripped off the paint in an oval about 5×7”. Panicking like any normal kid, I sopped up the mess and quickly set at covering the bare spot with white model paint.

It was an ugly job. When it dried, I covered the desk with a book and went on my way. That was about the only time I can recall that my mother didn’t quickly catch on to my shenanigans. A few years later, after she gave me her old drafting table for my desk, she wanted to repaint it for my sister to use when she started school. It was then that I told her about the spill and pointed out the paint job. We laughed about it then. I had truly gotten away with it.

For the next several years the desk was green. The paint label said Grass Green, but I swear it was Kawasaki green. It looked like a dirt bike and stood out like a huge wart in my sister’s pink and purple bedroom, but she loved it and used it like that until long after I moved out of the house.

I think it was about the time my sister went to college that my mother refinished the desk again. By that time it had gained a lot of sentimental value as something her father had made. She stripped it down to bare wood, removing green and white and the original shellac. It took a few tries to get the white and out of the grain of the wood on the sides and back, which my grandfather never sealed. You can still see a little in the cracks.

Then she did it up Colonial style with a dark stain and shiny polyurethane, all applied by hand. It took weeks of sessions. Instead of knobs she purchased bale and escutcheon hardware in an antique finish. The crowning touch was to re-mount the Boston sharpener. It was mostly beautiful. I say mostly because the top was still a piece of 3/4” plywood with the plies exposed on the edges. It is darker, but it looks much like it did when I first recall it in the late 1960s. 

Here is where things get fuzzy. I don’t recall the circumstances, but the next owner was my daughter. But I don’t remember if my mother gave it to her, if it went to her when my mom died, or if it came back to me before going to her. But it is now in regular use by the great-granddaughter of the builder, an old-fashioned girl with an appreciation for family heirlooms. A perfect fit.

To me it is still my mother’s desk. I remember her, young and older, working or crafting at that desk. And writing lists. She made wonderful lists in her loopy cursive. Today, when I looked at it, it was still stalwart in serving the fourth generation. The only thing missing is my mother. And the pencil sharpener. I need to find that… 

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