I never seem to have enough shelves for books and am constantly looking for spaces in my house to install another bookcase. Last month, I decided I needed one in my bedroom. I scoured new and used furniture stores to find a solid wood bookcase. None seemed to be the right height and width for a reasonable price.
Then I spied an old bookcase in the garage, lined with paint cans and gardening supplies. It was in our house in Castroville in the 1960’s when our fish aquarium stood on the top shelf. It must have been in our house in Salinas, too. My grandmother thought my dad made it in the 1950’s and my sister thought it was a family friend that made it. I don’t remember how it ended up in my garage but as I took the measurements, it was the right width, height and depth to fit in the sliver of space in my bedroom.
I emptied the shelves and inspected the case. It was solid wood, with no particle board or veneer. There were cobwebs and rust from the paint cans but the underlying wood was smooth. I sought advice from my neighbors. “You can sand away the stains,” said one. “It looks like a solid bookcase.” Another neighbor lent me his orbital sander and told me what grit of sand paper to use.
For two weeks, without the pressure of work or responsibilities of caregiving, I worked on the bookcase. I hoisted it onto saw horses and scraped off the existing walnut finish with varnish remover. I learned how to use an orbital sander, my first power tool, and was thrilled to see the grain of the pine emerge from the layers of grime and old varnish. I bought a special hand tool for sanding corners. Finally, the bookcase was stripped down to bare wood and I thought it looked lovely in its pale form.
The cheap brushes I bought for the stain made blotchy brush strokes on the shelves and left specks of mahogany color on my shorts. I re-sanded areas where I thought I had misapplied stain then discovered that they were flaws in the wood. I consulted my neighbors on a daily basis. I made countless trips to the hardware store to buy finer grained sand paper and high quality brushes. In the end, the bookcase took on a new life, stained darker to match my bedroom furniture and perfectly functional.
As I worked in the summer heat, sweating and sanding, I thought of how the entire process was so similar to what I went through when my husband suffered a brain injury 15 years ago. Our lives were stripped down to its bare essence and we had reapply a new exterior, exposing the flaws and defects of life with disability. Along the way, I made lots of mistakes and asked for help repeatedly but we created a new life.
I think of that now, as I search for a new path forward, without my husband.