At the top of the stairs, in a room lined with wooden drawers, my mom would sit in a paint-spattered shirt and jeans, with her hair in a bandana and a bright light on. Coming into the room, I was coming into a secret, because she was making a gift for my sister.
Under the light, on a strip of pumpkin pine or bass wood, she painted a brilliant yellow duckling with an orange bill and a brown downy stripe. Later she would draw borders on the back with pencil and cut them out with a jig saw.
I have two wooden jig-saw puzzles she made me. The red and blue ball has three curved pieces, all much too large for a toddler to swallow, and it now belongs to my year-old nephew. The painted turtle and the tiger cat came later, and they have more intricate pieces, some with their own shapes: a scottie dog, a flying gull, a cat-tail.
When I remember her painting her downy duck, my mother was a young woman with young children, building a new psychology practice and working with my father to rebuild the old saltbox house that was crumbling when they bought it, after they both finished grad school. And she took time to paint and shape those bright puzzles in the evenings.
I think of her when the stories begin, this time of year, of a workshop with northern lights outside the window and elfin footprints in the sawdust.
Workshops and workbenches have a lure, among the lathes and clamps and spatters and smell of resin. With time and care and a little mischief, they yield up talismans and artifacts. And the night is gentle when you sit quietly, shaping a gift with your hands and thinking of the ones you make it for.
I’ve never met the elves at the North Pole, and I’ve never wandered their aisles and leaned among their table saws and leather reindeer harness with my notebook open, sharpening a pencil with a pocket knife to write down where they come from, what they love, or what child belongs to that carved hedgehog or that wooden drum.
But I have sat in the corners of a lot of workshops and asked questions.
More than 10 years ago, in a studio on North Street, Storefront artists prepared for another Christmas. A Japanese ink-brush painter showed me how he could create, in a few sure strokes, a songbird alighting on a bamboo shoot.
He called the painting ‘A bright, noisy day’ — and he gave it to me.
Around me now, in many workshops smelling of new wood, many artists are whittling and sanding and wedging clay and cleaning paint brushes. Come out and meet the elves.
This post first ran as a By the Way column in Berkshires Week the Berkshire Eagle in my time as editor of the magazine, and I have adapted it here. My thanks to Eagle VP of News Kevin Moran.