The rush to produce in the shop has ended as Christmas is almost here, and New Year is when I usually work on designs and new projects. So this is the natural time that I turn my mind loose thinking about projects I might attempt. Looking at my calendar book this morning, I saw that the first evening of Channukah is tomorrow at sundown, and I was reminded of a winter long ago.
The very end of the seventies was a rough time for me. I had left grad school and was back to work in the operating room. As winter set in, my soul felt like it was about to break. My cat and I were living in an apartment that was a converted porch with an attached bathroom and tiny kitchen. We could hear the wind whistling beneath the porch floorboards, and staying warm was a question of many layers. My upstairs neighbor was a young woman named Ellen, and we frequently pooled resources to create better meals and maybe just a festive moment. My cat, Clancy, was friendly with her black cat Samantha and watching them play together was an entertainment we could afford. Unfortunately, this was the most extravagant we could get on minimal resources.
One night we wound up discussing holiday traditions. I talked about how my family decorated the Christmas tree with tinsel and colorful ornaments. And Ellen told me about the old Menorah her family lit at Channukah. I had a Charlie Brown Christmas Tree in my place that a friend had given to me, and her Menorah would be some votive candles in a row.
One Saturday, I was shopping in Boston’s North End and found some small metal cups that I realized could work as candle holders. In the garage behind our apartments was an assorted pile of wood that I figured I could scrounge through for something that could work as the menorah base.
I was fortunate to find two pieces of walnut that had once been part of a cabinet. Gluing these together, I had a piece that could be drilled for the candle holders. This was the most challenging part because all I had was an old-fashioned egg-beater drill and a few very tired bits. Once the holes were drilled, I fitted the cups and began working with my gouges to shape the wood into a sculptural form. I had no way of smoothing the piece beside a pattern of fine and small gouge cuts. The old walnut had a dense grain, and the patterning looked perfect. A rubdown with some wax finished the Menorah.
Ellen had made me about a dozen tiny folded paper ornaments for my tree, which the cats promptly began to play with, and I gave her the walnut menorah.
Not too many months later, the landlord renovated the entire building, and we all moved away with no regrets. I never saw Ellen again.
But I’ve thought about that Menorah. Sometimes the simplest things are not only the most sophisticated but are the most elegant. As I move into a January full of design notes and sample pieces, I might draw up a Menorah design as a carving project in cherry. The Shamash, or servant candle in the middle, and the others ranged to either side around it. Brass candle cups sunk into a blackened, charred wood for contrast. And the form of the Menorah itself looks like a range of gently folded hills surmounting the rubbed varnish of the natural cherry wood.