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The Thing about Stone - Part 3 - Creating

For most boys, there comes a time when they look up to their fathers and ask “can I try”, or “will you teach me?” — to fix that engine, drive the tractor, use the stethoscope, repair that clock, or navigate the trawler into harbour. Often, this is just a passing phase, which generally ends with the first growth of hair in embarrassing places and a subsequent rebellious nature. But some boys do end up following in their fathers’ footsteps. Up until the sixties and seventies of the previous century, this was especially true when a family business was involved. In fact, in my neck of the woods called Flanders, there was this strictly adhered to, but unwritten rule, that no matter what, the oldest son of the family must continue the family business, be it a farm, a jeweller’s shop, a bakery, or a scrapyard. My father was one of those ill-fated ‘oldest’, and though his dream had been to study and become an architect, he reluctantly submitted to tradition and became the fourth (and last) in a hundred-year-old line of master stonemasons. All this to explain, that when I finally popped the question “will you teach me?”, my father wasn’t exactly enthusiastic, because in his mind he’d already decided he wouldn’t force the craft onto any of his sons and let us chase our dreams and callings. Still, he didn’t send me packing altogether either, so one fine day, I found myself sitting on a one-pegged stool, leaning over a block of bluestone, mallet and chisel in hand. I was ready, eager to express myself in stone and create a thing of beauty — a flower, perhaps a face, an angel … anything was possible. But my father quickly brought me down to earth. “Start with the basics, son.” So I started with the basics, and never made it past them. It’s not that I didn’t try, but I found the basics boring, and all too quickly the hammer and chisel grew too heavy for my hands and arms. After a few days, cringing at the prospect of yet another tedious hour of bush-hammering, I ignored my father’s instructions and decided to carve a dove instead, which sadly ended up looking more like some undefinable prehistoric cave art, and I finally called it quits and slammed down my mallet in frustration. My father looked up from his own work, turned to me, saw what I’d done and frowned. “Look, son, if you want, you can destroy it and start all over again. It’s easy enough — a few blows from the sledge hammer, that’s all it takes. But remember before you demolish it, good stone comes at a cost, and there comes a time when starting over will no longer be an option. So think before you strike. You don’t want to leave behind nothing but rubble when your time comes.” I ran off, frustrated and crying. I hadn’t listened, I hadn’t understood. That only came ten years later, when my father passed away unexpectedly, and looking back at his fifty-eigth years in this life, I realised he hadn’t left any rubble behind. But when I looked back at my own twenty-two years on this earth, there already was an unexpected pile of debris — things I’d failed to share with him, gratitude and love left unexpressed, and everything I’d started and crushed under the sledge hammer so far. Yes, there comes a time when starting over is no longer an option, even if you yourself still have a lifetime ahead of you. A few months after his death, I graduated from university, magna cum laude, in fields I cherish to this day— literature and languages — because my father had spurned an obsolete tradition that shackled the pursuit of dreams and freedom. He had helped me gather a satchel full of sharpened chisels, with space for more, always more. And I had found my hammer and worn it down to fit my grip and slant of hand. I was ready to create — create beauty out of rough words, the way I’d seen my father craft rough stone. And that’s the thing about stone. Craft it wisely, because it comes at a cost, and it’s all you’ll leave behind.

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