Whoa Mama

Sunday, April 17, 2005


My grandfather was a dairy farmer. He was, in my eyes, 6’ 18”, with the shaggy beard of a sea captain and the jovial tone of a man without a care in the world. He was the father of 5, married for over thirty-five years to the same woman, my grandma. When I was 14, I strode down the stairs of their house and found them kissing the way only two people in love kiss. At the time, he was 58, dying of malignant melanoma. Grampa Barber was also a scrimshander. He carved on ivory; whale, elephant or mastodon. He crafted the most breath-taking, awe-inspiring pieces of art, mostly clipper ships in action or an occasional nonsensical dolphin for an adoring granddaughter.

One of my most favorite memories of Grampa was standing, chin-high to his folding table where he worked. He would start by lighting a match to drip beeswax candle into the dug-out well of an old slab of wood. He would next nestle the ivory into its secure place. Then the skill began. Grampa would lick the end of a lead pencil and sketch the outline of a ship. The untrained, ten-year old eye could distinguish the ghost ship, three masts and the hull. Unimpressive. But he smelled like pipe smoke and musk and gave me his undivided attention without glancing my way. The exacto knife carefully slid over its guidelines, making short order of the pencil lines. What was he still doing drawing? All the trace marks were gone. He continued to carve. I continued to watch, careful not to move or talk.

Finally, he would blow on the piece, rub his thumb across to examine and move along to the next step. He would reach for the tube of ink, half squished and smush out a glob. Grampa would take his rough, calloused farmer’s thumb and work in the ink. This inky, yucky mess went from bad to worse with the ink smearing his thumb and making a huge mess of this formerly pristine piece of ivory. As if that wasn’t bad enough, he’d then reach for the stained, smelly handkerchief he kept in his pocket, spit on it and then put that on the piece and rub. And rub.

Like magic, that foul cloth would unveil a breath-taking masterpiece of miniature proportions. The same hands that aided in extracting a calf at birth moved in excruciating detail to carve, without the benefit of seeing his lines, a 2 inch clipper ship. This was just one of the countless ways that my grampa was magic.


At 9:51 AM , Blogger Scott said...


You are the wife of an engineer. You shame me with your frivolous measurements.


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home