Three weeks ago I received a gift that left me speechless.
Today I finally have some words to put to it, so here’s the story:
In November 2013, I randomly posted a 20-year-old photo of an antique Limbert desk and chair to my Facebook wall and wrote this:
When Todd and I were broke newlyweds, both working for nonprofits and making our ages in salary, we went to Grove Park Inn for the National Arts & Crafts Conference. A huge antiques show was part of the deal. We bought the most exquisite, perfect little desk and chair and then, walking around the show, got complete buyer’s remorse, knowing that paying for it was going to kill us. We returned to the seller to take it away and they sensed our change in mood. They said they were sure they could sell it 20 times over (in that setting) if we weren’t thrilled with the purchase. So we gratefully let them let us off the hook.
The desk sold that weekend and we snapped a picture of it as it was being packed off. Now I need a new desk in my dining area and I’m still killing myself for letting that perfect little desk get away. Look at this little desk with the exposed tenons at the bottom. Check out the chair, how simple and elegant. We blew it 20 years ago. We should have just eaten Ramen noodles for a month.Jim Ramsay, my writing mentor who I had the good fortune of befriending 14 years ago, commented, “Wendy May — rather like “We’re getting the band back together,” now that I have a basement again, I got my woodshop back together from its diaspora to Brooklyn, Columbus, and Cleveland. So I could build a replica of the desk fairly easily. The chair would be much harder, because of the curved shape of the back leg/uprights. Send me the dimensions, if you want to consider it.”
So it turns out Popular Woodworking publishes a book of plans for select pieces of Limbert furniture. And it turns out that Limbert Writing Desk No. 736 is in that book. And… so… from February through May of this year, Jim Ramsay built me this beautiful, fawn-like desk with his own two hands … out of gorgeous quarter sawn oak.
All along the way, he sent me updates and photos. And these winged missives flew to me at a time when I was nursing a deep sadness as well as approaching an emotional milestone in my life – the precise age my mom had been when she died.
Knowing he was making this for me – the kindness of that – was so heart healing. But it wasn’t until I drove 350 miles to pick up the desk that things became more clear to me.
Jim is the exact age my mom would be. He lives in Nyack, New York, blocks from the house where my mother was conceived and less than a mile from her high school. And he regularly lifts me up and encourages me and praises me and I don’t really even know why or what I’ve done to deserve him. But three weeks ago, driving to his home, past the cemetery where so many of my own ancestors are buried, it occurred to me that my mom, of course, placed him in my path. The coincidences are too great. His love for me is too big. And I’m so stupid to have not realized it earlier.
To be honest, this has been a hard gift to accept because it’s one that I can’t possibly return. I tried, repeatedly, to get him to keep it. I pleaded with him, in fact, to gift it to his kids as an heirloom, to find someone – anyone – more worthy of it.
It’s exquisite. It took hours upon hours. He first spent months building a pine prototype to work out all the kinks before executing mine in oak.
His email about that read:
I am SO glad I decided to make the prototype first, because (I’ve probably said this ten times before) I am learning so much, and especially learning from mistakes. The prototype is filled with mistakes. Each one a puzzle to be solved. I love puzzles.
His search for quarter sawn oak went this way:
There it was, across the Bridge, seventeen minutes from my house, at Condon Co. in White Plains. Couldn’t resist. Great people. Incredible price. I’m very excited, feel like we’re really on the way. The flecking and rays almost look like Arabic writing, they’re so pronounced.
I couldn’t believe I found [the thinner wood needed for the shelves]. It was one 11-foot long board buried under a bunch of 10 foot long boards that were 13/16″ thick. I just tripped over it. Stone luck. Victor, the guy who surfaced the other boards, couldn’t believe I’d found it either. He said, “We NEVER have this thickness in white oak.” He cut the 11 ft. board in half for me so I could fit it in my car. It was meant to be.
I didn’t get wood for the legs. Will go back and do that. They’ll cut and mill the blanks from 2″ thick boards. It’s amazing. They have the milling equipment right there, and they just do what you ask for, happily and perfectly. It’s a good day.
The desk’s three graceful arches required the construction of two grand, homemade compasses. Here’s an excerpt of his email about that:
I spent the first part of the day figuring out how to draw the curve that’s cut into the bottom edge of the desk’s sides. Only you will appreciate this.
I went on line and asked The Oracle (what Anita and I call Google search) about chords of a circle and their relation to the circle’s radius. That’s because I figured that the side curve of the desk was a segment of a large circle, so I only had to figure out how big the circle was and I could make a really big compass and draw it.
I knew from the plans given in the book that the bottom of the desk side was 17 inches long, front to back. And that the curve rose 1 and 1/4 inches at its highest point. My search took me immediately to a web page that gave a formula for finding the radius of a circle given the length of a chord of the circle (our 17 inches) and the distance from the chord to the circle (our 1 1/4 inches). I did the math and found that the curve was part of a circle with a 29.52 inch radius.
So I built a compass 29.52 inches long with a strip of wood with blocks glued to each end. Drilled a hole in one block and jammed a pencil through it. Pounded a long, sharp finishing nail through the block at the other end. Drew the curve. It worked.
… I had been thinking about how to figure out where this curve came from, and how to draw it, for about three months. It took me about 10 minutes to come up with the right circle, and (not counting the time it took the glue to dry) about 10 minutes to build the compass and draw the curve.
I love it when a plan comes together.
Another lovely, poetic email reads:
… I had this gestalt insight while I was fitting the parts together. Limbert established a furniture “factory” in Grand Rapids, Michigan in the late 1800’s, then moved the factory to Holland, Michigan in the early 1900’s, but kept the show room in Grand Rapids.
The key word here is factory. The furniture fits so beautifully (and sequentially) together. The back fits into the back legs, the sides fit into the legs, the desk top slides into grooves to the back legs, the stretchers provide their classic support. And I realized: Limbert was the IKEA OF THE LATE 19TH AND EARLY 20TH CENTURY! That is, the designs are not only beautiful, but wonderfully functional from an assembly point of view.
Once you have the exact measurements for one side tenon, you can make a thousand of them for 500 desks. Yes, the materials are classic — quarter sawn oak — as is the Mission/Arts & Crafts mortise/tenon/slot joinery (no screws, no metal brackets, no metal period, except maybe drawer pulls), but the way these classic materials and techniques were combined is very modern. I’m sure Limbert had milling machines that could cut 100 mortises an hour. I love that he engineered this desk to fit so simply and perfectly together, AND that the resulting piece has the feel of simplicity and elegance — to the point that it transcends furniture and become an objet d’art.Just putting it all together required him to host a “gluing party” in his home. It was quite complicated to make. It’s a labor of love. And I’m not, and could never possibly be, deserving of it. The truth of that brings me to tears, just typing it.
There’s a lesson in here, no doubt, about how a person might best accept a gift of such overwhelming kindness — a gift one might never be able to repay. I don’t quite know what it is yet. But whenever I gaze upon this desk or run my hand over its surface, the phrase “such a gift as this” leaps to mind. I don’t where I’ve heard that before. Google offers no definitive solution. But it seems like a “thing” to me – age-old words from some epic story, maybe even the Bible, that describe some great, timeless gift. It’s what I think when I ponder this desk: “How ever did I come to deserve ‘such a gift as this?’”
I’ll never really know. But here are two things I know for sure: This gift says far more about its giver than it does about its recipient. And love is – without question – the greatest gift you can give or receive.