Bittersweet Mystery Boxes

I think I’ve mentioned before that I’m a stamp collector.  The collecting bug ebbs and flows within me; over my life I’ve collected records, books, hockey cards, Panini stickers and football scarves.  But postage stamps have been a consistent joy.  I collected as a boy and got back into it around the time Ben was born in 1995.

The problem with saying I’m a stamp collector (aside from denting my public persona as a rough and rugged outdoorsman) is that people often ask me what areas I collect.  That’s a tough question for me.

What I really love about collecting is going through mystery boxes.  These are random envelopes, cigar boxes, or Rubbermaid tubs full of stamps, album pages and old envelopes. Quite often, these boxes are sold more by weight than a detailed assessment of what’s inside.

I love sorting through these boxes and discovering what’s inside.  It’s the anticipation that’s the fun for me.

I mention all this because I spent my Sunday with Cindy and her sisters, cleaning out her parent’s garage.  I got the same weird thrill even though no stamps were involved.

But this time the experience was a little sad too.

Chris and Carol have lived in their house for 47 years and they’ll be there for several years yet.  But as Chris gets older, he can no longer do the things he used to, so his cluttered garage is no longer the treasured work space I’ve come to know.

In his prime, Chris could make anything.  He’s a great mechanic.  He used to work on the trains for CN.  He owned a concrete company and could fix anything in the yard, from the loaders to the concrete plant to the trucks.  In the winter, when the plant was closed, he would rebuild the huge round drums of the concrete trucks, sometimes building a new drum from scratch.

Chris could fix any car and was especially talented at body work.  He’s incredibly, infuriatingly patient, so that a new paint job would take forever but would be 100% perfect.

He was also an accomplished woodworker, carpenter and cabinet maker.  Since I’ve known Cindy, he rebuilt his kitchen once and his cabinet fronts twice.  Gutted and rebuilt our kitchen too.  He added two new rooms to his house, completely renovated the Rectory at the Cathedral, did a ton of work on the Girl Guides building, drove our garage to our yard in one piece like a parade float, and also built several ‘Reapers Inn’ haunted houses for Halloween back in the ’90s.

He could make pretty much anything out of wood, metal or concrete, including the tools needed to make other things. He made his own table saw out of steel and a lathe out of railway ties.  Very stable machines, those.

But over the past few years, Chris has lost his legendary powers of concentration, so he can’t do the detailed work any more.  Which frustrated him to no end.  So it’s time to clean out the garage and move the tools on to new homes.

Cleaning the garage is a huge undertaking.  The sisters have been at it two days and there’s likely two more days to go.  We’ve been finding box after box of all kinds of things.  Could be a brand new set of cabinet router bits.  A set of impact wrench sockets.  Wood turning gouges.  Pail after pail of wrenches, screwdrivers and tin snips.

We even found a car differential in a black plastic garbage bag.  Could be from a Ford, or possible a Dodge.

The collector in me had a huge amount of fun.  I was seeking out the strangest of the boxes to go through. What’s that tiny blue metal box?  The larger red plastic one?  What’s in the metal canister that originally held 4 lbs of chicken soup stock?  Delightful!

But it was bittersweet too.  Chris was there, helping us go through everything and explaining what the stranger tools were used for.  As powerful as it was to relive a lifetime worth of projects and accomplishments, it was so sad to see the projects that were still unfinished or in the planning stages and now wouldn’t be started.  If only the tools were still in his hands, rebuilding a ’55 Tbird or building a set of cabinets.

But that’s the cycle of life, eh?  Tools get passed on and new people build new things (and while it’s a lame parallel, so do stamps.) We don’t really own anything, we just get to use them for a little while.  Heck, there will come a time (hopefully in the very distant future) when someone else will be using the brick oven.

So let’s celebrate whatever it is we can do today, whether it’s art or music or teaching or cooking or strategic planning, and do the heck out of it.

I know I’ll be fully in tune while I’m baking this week, using my tools to the fullest.