“Surprise”

by

The problem with giving my husband too much credit for a job well done is that he takes over my project. After I found this sad little kitchen cabinet on the porch of a local antique shop and Bruce talked the owner down a hundred dollars from the asking price, I guess he felt like his bartering skills gave him special privileges.

We stopped off at the hardware store on our way home with the cupboard to pick up some sandpaper blocks and a putty knife I wanted. I planned to scrape the curling peels of paint and sand down the finish to a “distressed” look. I saw the end result in my imagination. Sometimes I don’t have the words to describe what I want. It takes action to reveal my intention.

“You want to do what?” Bruce asked.

“I want to feather out the bare spots, elongate them, flatten the edges of the paint so they don’t look chipped.”

“Why don’t we just refinish it?” Bruce asked.

“I don’t think I want to do that,” I said. “Do you have any idea how many coats of paint are on this cupboard?”  From what I could see of the layers, there were at least four different colors and probably some varnish to boot. “It would take weeks to scrape all that paint off and you don’t even know what’s under all that mess. It could be some ugly-grained wood. Besides, if I don’t like the way it turns out, I can always slather it with a fresh coat of white paint.” 

Bruce and I have refinished our share of furniture. It’s hard work, scraping, sanding, applying chemicals that burn your hands and your nose, that ruin your favorite knock-around clothes.  I have a love for primitive pieces though, and we have rebuilt jelly cupboards, lingerie chests, dressers, wardrobes, and farm tables.  My favorites are the pine pieces we’ve refinished with their warm tiger stripe grain glowing a soft golden brown when rubbed with tung or linseed oil.  With this project, I didn’t feel up to the intensive labor involved in stripping it. Besides, this was the cabinet I fell in love with, not some undressed version in Bruce’s imagination.

He bent down and looked under one of the shelves. “Might be pine,” he said, plying me with possibility, but I was trying to stand firm in my conviction. I really liked the distressed look of the kitchen cabinet, and that weary façade enhanced the chicken wire covering the areas where there was once glass.

I ran my hand across the cupboard door. I turned the wooden spool knob. I wondered about the family who first owned this piece and how proud they must have been to have it standing in their kitchen. “Look at it,” I said. “It’s charming just like it is. All it needs is a little TLC, just some touch-ups, a little scraping and sanding, that’s all.”

“It needs a whole lot more than that,” Bruce mumbled under his breath. Louder, he argued, “I don’t think it would be so hard to strip it,” as he scraped at the peeling paint with his chisel, sending little chips flying toward me and raining down on my head. He wiped away the paint dust with his hand. “See,” he said, “not hard at all.”

Once the man gets an idea into his head, it’s there. He doesn’t listen.  I tried again. “Do you see how the front of the cabinet looks?” I asked, pointing to the areas of worn paint with wood grain showing through. “That’s how I want the whole thing to look.”

“Let’s see what the wood looks like underneath,” Bruce pushed. “Here, I’ll turn it over and scrape a section that’s not so noticeable.”

“No, that’s alright. I’m going to work on scraping and sanding. You go ahead and work on that lawnmower carburetor over there.” Bruce shrugged his shoulders and turned to his workbench, picked up the carburetor, his screwdriver, and began working on the hunk of metal in his hand.

I took up my putty knife and began scraping the curls of paint. When all the loose paint was chipped off, I took the coarse sandpaper block and started the back and forth rubbing that softens the edges of chipped paint. The emerging hints of wood beneath shone gray under the paint. A fine white dust powdered the floor under my ministrations.

After three hours of sanding, the bottom of the cabinet was looking like I wanted it. I stood back, pushed my hair off my forehead with the back of my hand, rolled the tension out of my shoulders, and wiped my dusty hands down the front of my jeans. I turned to Bruce who was putting the carburetor back on the lawnmower. “What do you think?” I asked.

“Can’t see a whole lot of difference from here,” he said, getting up and walking over.  He reached out and ran his hand over the sanded areas. “Ok, I see what you’re doing. And you like the way this looks?” He asked with a frown.

“I think so, but I’m not finished yet.  I won’t really know until I get more of it done. I’m a little worried about the shelf here though,” I said, running my fingers over the work surface of the cabinet. It had suffered the most damage from years of being used as a cutting board or chopping block. “It has some places that are really gouged out.”

Bruce bent down and lifted his glasses to peer under them. “Look, the paint’s a lot thicker on this part. I don’t think it’s going to feather like you want it to,” he said, chipping at a small crater with the putty knife.

“We’ll see,” I said. “Anyway, I think I’m done with it for today. I have the funeral to go to in South Hill tomorrow. I’ll work on it again Monday.” My best friend Trisha’s mother had died and the service was three hours away.

I left for the funeral the next morning and didn’t think much about my little cabinet in the garage until I pulled back into the driveway late that evening. The light was on in the garage, and the door was open. I smelled the high-inducing fumes of lacquer thinner. I felt my stomach drop as the realization and dread filled me.  I took a deep breath and looked through the door.

There was my cabinet, turned on its side with my husband bent over it, covered in paint dust. He looked up at me and grinned with his excitement.  I stood there stunned, absolutely stunned. It was like coming home to a room whose walls had been a familiar white to find them painted purple. I couldn’t speak. All I could do was stare.

Bruce called out a hearty, “Surprise!”

Yep, I was surprised.

“ I’d have gotten more done, but I thought you were going to be gone longer,” he said.

“Oh,” I said with a weak smile. “You’ve been busy.”

“Worked on it all day long for you. What do you think?”

What could I tell him? That I wanted to cry? That I wanted to ask him what in the heck he thought he was doing? That I wished he’d stuck to repairing his lawnmowers and left my cabinet alone? That I wanted to turn back time and give his free day back to him again? That I hated what he’d done?

Half of the cabinet was down to its natural wood.  All the chicken wire had been pulled loose and was in a tangle on the garage floor, and Bruce had worked the whole day on the cabinet…for me. He was happy. He thought I’d be happy. “I’ve been thinking,” Bruce said.

From the looks of it, he’d been doing more than thinking. “Yeah?” I asked.

“Are you OK?” he asked, looking at me and frowning.

“I’m OK, just tired. It was a long trip and just such a sad day,” I said.

“Oh shoot, I didn’t think,” he said, straightening up and coming over to put an arm around me. “How was the funeral and your trip?”

“Lots of people there,” I said, hugging him and staring over his shoulder at my half naked cabinet. “She was loved. Trisha did alright. I didn’t stay for the meal afterward. I wanted to get home before dark, thought I might work on the cabinet a little before I went to bed.”

Bruce isn’t one for funerals or emotion. He doesn’t talk about his feelings or ask me about mine much. He does tangible things to show his love and support, like refinishing a piece of furniture.

“So, what I was thinking,” he went on after his brief assessment of my emotional state. “We could put glass back into the top where that god-awful chicken wire was, or do you remember the tin my Daddy put in the pie safe he made? He got a pattern from a book and punched the tin himself with a hammer and nail. We could do that.”

“I really hadn’t thought beyond sanding it,” I said.

“Well, let’s sleep on it,” Bruce offered. “We’ll figure it out tomorrow.”

Yep, tomorrow, I thought. We’ll have to figure this mess out tomorrow.

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7 Responses to ““Surprise””

  1. stephanie Says:

    Of course I loooove the story but I also am in love with the cabinet!

  2. train-whistle Says:

    Me too Steph. This is part two. There’s more!

  3. Jim Cantwell Says:

    You told your story so well, that this is EXACTLY how I saw this cabinet in my mind when I read your original post.
    I cant wait to see this after it is restored

    • train-whistle Says:

      Hey thanks Jim. Glad I did it justice! We’re still working on it, one of those projects that just goes on and on. 🙂 Glad you dropped by to read and leave feedback too!

  4. Jim Cantwell Says:

    My pleasure, glad we found each others blogs due to serendipity 🙂

  5. ceciliaandhersisters Says:

    This is too funny. Reminds me of my husband whom I liketo call Clark Griswold.

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