Remembering this past summer calls up dozens of images of shimmering overheated days spent working on the details of the barn project. There were light fixtures and hardware to install. There were shelves and a deck to be built, and a floor to be put down.
I found myself growing accustomed to the intense heat, from being outside in it every day, and hardly ran the air conditioner at all, once back inside. When it was time to lay the floor, Jose and I pulled out all the dusty original boards that had been the barn floor since 1890, milled originally in my great grandfather’s saw mill. My friend and neighbor, Rodney Readling, a real Renaissance man who can make almost anything, agreed to plane the old barn boards for me and to serve as my floor supervisor.
Rodney sent me to an exterminator supply company for the appropriate chemicals for treating historic lumber, and I mixed it up and sprayed both sides of the newly planed boards. Once run through the planer their million worm holes showed up. The heartwood, full of 122 year old resin, was, of course, bug free, but the soft wood was riddled with tiny tunnels. It doesn’t matter how old heart pine is, when you sand it or plane it or cut it, it smells like wind blowing through a pine forest.
Rodney gave me a wonderful concise tutorial on how to lay this unconventional (today) material as a finished floor. He also showed me how to use a speed square in conjunction with my saw to get straight cuts. As a young girl I attempted to sign up for Industrial Arts at my school, was hauled into the principal’s office and told girls weren’t allowed in Industrial Arts. So every scrap of learning I’m able to get about the workings of wood and tools and metals is precious to me.
Jose, my helper, and I started off a little on the rough side, trying to understand the natural curvature of the wood, and its reluctance to butt tightly up against its neighbor. Our first couple of rows went slowly. But we persisted. Things got better when I realized that Jose knew more about carpentry than I’d suspected and that I should follow his lead. He learned that I could be trusted to measure and cut the wood accurately and we developed a floor team that was pretty professional by the time we got half way through the space.
Stewart came out to help me with the floor finishing, which involved hand sanding the wood. The job was complicated by our allergies, and by the boric acid which the wood had been treated with. The resins in the dense old wood also clogged and coated the sandpaper within seconds of contact. It was brutal. But Stewart stepped up to the plate and we took turns being beaten up by the very heavy , violent floor sander we were using. Rodney sent me to a wooden floor company to research finishes, and the varnish went down, revealing the beauty of the tiger striped heartwood.
Paul Hollar, recovering from his chemotherapy and radiation, agreed to be my shadetree foreman, and instruct me in how to get my deck built. He arrived with his folding chair, parked it under a big pecan tree, and proceeded to never sit in it. He showed us– the laborers, what had to be done, and usually moved in to do a lot of it himself. Like any job, I learned this summer, a rhythm develops as the job proceeds, among the people working on it. Paul, so sure of what he was doing, pretty much dismissed my help, and proceeded with Jose, to build the deck. I worried about his working in the heat, but it seemed that every day, as he worked, he forgot about being ill, and his spirit lightened a little. He would pick up his hammer and swing it with the grace of a true carpenter, from the whole body, not just the arm, in a way that seemed effortless.
Frank Cheney, the architect who made the space coherent and poetic, came back and drew the plan for finishing the entrances, and is advising me on a canopy for the front door. It’s almost time to warm this barn with a gathering of friends. I treasure the hard work, the talents, the altruism and kindness, the level of engagement each person has brought to the Cotton Barn project. It has been a labor of love, and for me of learning. My brother and I like to imagine our father and mother, our grandparents and great grandparents looking on the little barn with pleasure from some place, we hope, not too far away.