When my son, Noah, entered seventh grade, his voice deepened and his personality changed. Gone was my chatty sidekick. In his place was a sullen recluse.
Moms with older sons assured me this was normal. “It will pass,” they promised.
It took five years. And even though the new Noah laughed freely and didn’t flee the dinner table before he finished chewing his last mouthful, there was still a distance between us. My hope that we might close that gap grew more remote two years ago, shortly after he turned 20 and slid into a depression so dark that he spent three months in a psychiatric hospital.
The first time he was released, he tried to kill himself within three days, leading to six more weeks as an inpatient. The next time he was released, I was terrified to let him out of my sight.
I stopped longing for the chatty boy he had once been and thanked God daily for what I had: a son who was alive. A son who no longer appeared to believe that if he couldn’t be perfect, he might as well be dead. He made it through college while living at our family home in Alberta, Canada.
Then came Covid. The job Noah was to start in May was postponed and he suddenly had six weeks with no plans.
“Why don’t you build the cedar strip canoe you’ve been talking about?” I suggested.
“Maybe,” he said. “But I’d need tools — a router and a table saw. They’re expensive.”
“We haven’t bought you a graduation present,” I reminded him.
Soon he was visiting lumberyards and hardware stores, which remained open as essential businesses during the coronavirus shutdown.
He turned our garage into a workshop and enlisted his fellow unemployed engineering classmates to help, usually about four at a time, working with the garage door open for ventilation. Eventually the work force expanded to include childhood friends, family friends, high school friends, and a friend from his time in the psychiatric hospital. Every day a different group came over to saw, mill, rout, sand, glue and plane, all things I’ve always wanted to learn, but never had the chance.
I took breaks from work to help. I held cedar strips in place. I glued. I picked up pizza and baked cookies for the kids I’d dubbed the Covid Canoe Crew. One drizzly day, I joined Noah under a table on our deck (the only dry, dust-free and ventilated space we could find) to varnish the seats he’d crafted from strips of ash.
When packages of rattan arrived in the mail, he taught himself to cane the seats, and then taught me. At night, side-by-side on the living room couch, we wove the strands into an intricate pattern. Sometimes we talked. Other times we sat in companionable silence.
For the paddles, Noah and the crew cut strips of ash, cherry and maple and laminated them. They spent hours hand-planing them. As the shavings fell away, what had once resembled planks at the end of a broom handle were transformed. Like the canoe, the paddles were works of art. Unlike the canoe, they reminded me of the cutting board that my cousin, a shop teacher, had made my husband and me for a wedding gift 28 years ago. I’ve always wanted to make something that beautiful, but didn’t know how.
“Do you think you could help me make a cutting board?” I asked Noah.
“Sure,” he replied.
After a trip to the local lumberyard for maple, cherry, walnut and a wood I’d never heard of — purple heart, which Noah rightly suggested I would like — we got to work. After calling my cousin for advice, I told Noah how wide to cut the boards. Then we glued and clamped the newly sawed strips together.
When the glue dried and I noticed slight gaps between some of the strips, my cousin advised me to pull the board apart and use a planer to clean up the edges. At the rate I worked with Noah’s hand planer, that would have taken years. I was lamenting my lack of progress to a friend, unaware that he had a workshop full of power tools. He gave me a key.
Noah and I began going at night, coming home well past bedtime, sweaty and coated with sawdust. As we pulled dried glue off our fingers, we’d plan our next visit. Since mid-June, we’ve spent hours together, in the garage, at the workshop, or at the hardware store or lumberyard. We’ve made more than two dozen cutting boards.
Without trying, we’ve found synergy and a rhythm: Noah enjoys measuring, sawing and jointing, none of which particularly interest me. I like figuring out patterns, gluing, clamping, sanding and finishing, none of which particularly interest him. We both like planing. He’s happy to help when I ask, and he’s full of useful suggestions. When what I thought was an excellent piece of bloodwood turned out to be warped, he figured out how to salvage it.
Also — and this is something I really appreciate — he usually sweeps up the sawdust before I get around to it. The mess we generate continues to surprise me, but the bigger surprise has been the effect that woodworking has had on our relationship. When I asked Noah to help me make a cutting board, I figured it would be a one-time experience. I never expected that we would discover a shared passion.
For me, it’s a chance to be creative in a different way than I am in my day job as a writer and editor. For Noah, who likes making things with his hands, it’s a chance to use high-end power tools he’d have no access to otherwise.
Two years ago, when Noah came home from the hospital after multiple suicide attempts, my husband, daughter and I debated what to do with the kitchen knives. Ultimately, we decided not to hide them: We wanted Noah to know we trusted him with his life.
Now, he’s the one protecting me. When he taught me to use a jointer the first night in the workshop, he scolded me when I put my hands too close to the blade.
It seems trite to affix a silver lining to the cloud that is Covid-19, but my relationship with my son is anything but trivial.
None of us have any idea how or when Covid Time will end. Nor do I have unrealistic illusions about mental health: as the daughter of a man who died by suicide and the mother of a son who wanted to, I believe that good mental health is something to be grateful for, to tend to and nurture. And Noah is open about his experience; he gave me his blessing to tell this story.
The boards that Noah and I make are only as strong as the materials we use and the time and care we put into each project. The gaps in that first board formed because two strips of wood didn’t fit together properly. Before they could form a lasting bond, we had to change them.
The same can be said of me and Noah. When my friends insisted 11 years ago that he wasn’t gone for good, that he was merely growing up, I clung to the hope that they were right. I wanted the change to happen quickly. If a power tool existed to speed up the process, I would have used it.
It had not occurred to me that I would change too — and that Noah would be the catalyst, by opening my eyes to what I could do, and what we could accomplish together. The little boy that he was lives in a special place in my memory. The young man he has become, who is enriching my life in ways I had always hoped but never dared expect — he’s the one I’m delighting in now.
Debby Waldman is an author, editor and aspiring woodworker. An ex-pat American, she has lived in Edmonton, Alberta, for 28 years.