One rainy Saturday afternoon in early September, I tackled cleaning out the kids’ closets. I spent a couple of hours creating a pile of old art projects and clothes two sizes too small in the middle of their bedroom floors, taking inventory of the storage I needed to purchase and the new clothes to buy before the weather turned cooler.
While attacking the top of my son Nathan’s closet, I uncovered a rather dusty set of wooden blocks. I carefully lifted them down from the shelf—six blocks in all, with photos of Nathan from the newborn phase to age one glued on the sides. The pictures had puckered in places; I tried in vain to smooth out the air bubbles with my thumb, but it’s about seven years too late. Nathan walked in as I balanced them in my hands and his brow furrowed.
“Where did you get those, Mom?”
I smiled, knowing my answer would surprise him. “Buddy, I made these for you. They were for your first birthday.”
Nathan did not disappoint. His mouth dropped open and his eyebrows shot up as he stepped closer to study the blocks more carefully. His finger traced the photo of him at three months, when he still had one blue eye and one brown. He looked up at me; his face a mixture of surprise and confusion.
“You made them? But Mom, you don’t really ... make stuff.”
I laughed and told him he’s right; I don’t.
“Except for you, bud. I’ll do just about anything for you.”
Twelve weeks to the day after Nathan was born, I went back to work. He rolled over for the first time at my mom’s (she had the grace not to tell me until much later and feigned enthusiasm when I reported the “first” time two days later). He became mobile at daycare, scooting across the floor on his bottom instead of a more conventional crawl. I forced a laugh when his teacher described it in animated detail, but I cried half the drive home. I was missing everything.
To assuage my guilt, I tried to be the perfect mom everywhere else. When Nathan refused to nurse because he found it easier to drink from a bottle, I became an exclusive pumper, hooking myself up to that miserable machine three times during my workday. I bought developmentally appropriate toys and researched the best order for introducing solid foods.
When I started making plans for Nathan’s first birthday, I knew I wanted to get him something special. Something made by me, an investment of my time and creativity. Pinterest led me to the seemingly perfect idea: a set of custom wooden blocks, with pictures from his first year glued onto the sides.
I made a note to stop at Michael’s after work the next day to pick up blocks and Modge Podge. I could order the photo prints online from Walgreens on my lunch break. I smiled. It was the perfect, homemade birthday gift for my baby boy.
At 5:27 p.m. the next day, I’m not smiling anymore. Michaels doesn’t sell precut wooden blocks. Neither does Hobby Lobby. Or JoAnn’s. Or any other craft store. I move on to Plan B, which is getting them cut at Home Depot … except they won’t cut anything to a length shorter than 12 inches, and I need these blocks to be four inch cubes.
After dinner and running low on options, I do what any Mom in 2011 would do: I turn to Facebook. A friend (and I use this word only in Facebook terms; we knew each other tangentially growing up but never really ran in the same circles and haven’t laid real-life eyes on one another in 15 years. I’m talking raise-an-eyebrow-in-mild-surprise-if-they-like-your-post level of friendship here.) sends me a message saying her husband is a carpenter and he can probably cut the blocks for me.
I immediately email the husband I definitely don’t know of the woman I barely know. Normally I’m the kind of person who goes out of the way in my daily life to not have conversations with strangers, but it’s desperate times, folks. Luckily he responds quickly and tells me he’d be glad to help me out the next day. I just need to purchase a 4x4 of pine from a lumber yard (and, bless his soul, he even gives me the name and address of the lumber yard to use). He’ll saw the blocks for me free of charge if he can keep the rest of the wood.
Pine’s not cheap, he tells me.
I take a half day off work to complete the mission, and by noon I’m turning into the gravel parking lot of the aforementioned lumber yard. My Nissan Rogue stands out in a sea of pickup trucks— the huge, hemi-engine kind. I park and find the counter of what appears to be the main building and ask for a 4x4 of pine, trying to sound like I know what I’m talking about.
The man behind the counter says nothing as he looks at my heels and pencil skirt. I square my shoulders and lift my chin as I brace myself for whatever is coming next—condescension, derision, something not-so-vaguely suggestive. But instead he meets my eyes and smiles.
“Yes, ma’am. Go ahead and pull yer car around back, and Jimmy’ll meet ya there and get ya all taken care of.”
It takes me five minutes to figure out where exactly “around back” is, but I finally locate a man who looks like a Jimmy—sawdust-covered jeans with the outline of a Skoal can imprinted on the back pocket, white t-shirt, ropey arm wrapped around a 12-foot long beam. Jimmy takes one look at my car and says, “I’m sorry, ma’am, but there ain’t no way this here 4x4’s gonna fit in there.”
The hell it ain’t, I tell Jimmy. I move Nathan’s car seat to the front passenger side and clear out the assortment of toys strewn across my back seat. I lean across to hit the release that will lay down the back seat. Jimmy doesn’t offer to help but seems to enjoy the view. When I’m done, I’m disheveled and sweaty, but my work is rewarded when Jimmy guides the beam into the car and it rests four inches from my windshield. Success. I just can’t so much as tap my brakes, or my very expensive beam of pine will end up right through the windshield.
I drive slowly, cautiously, to the carpenter and have to circle the block three times before I finally identify the correct door in the low row of buildings. I step into the workshop and the smell of sawdust mixed with lacquer and stain assaults me. A wall of a man with a lumberjack’s beard is deep in conversation with a smaller, wiry man. I wait. Finally, the Wall notices me and turns. He, too, looks askance at my outfit—heels were a poor choice in hindsight—but smiles with recognition and reaches out his hand to shake mine firmly.
“You must be Jennifer,” he says. “I’m Chris. My wife said you’d be coming by. Let’s get your blocks cut.”
I lead him to my car and he deftly retrieves the 4x4, throwing it over his shoulder like a half-full bag of laundry. A few quick passes of a saw three times the size of my head, and I have six perfectly-shaped blocks.
I thank Chris no fewer than five times, but he waves me off with a “glad to do it.” He asks what the blocks are for, and, whether it’s his gentle-giant demeanor or just the stress of the past couple of days, the whole story comes pouring out of me. I tell him about Michaels and Home Depot and Jimmy and how I never dreamed it would be so hard to complete this simple little project. I tell him I feel a little ridiculous about the lengths to which I’ve taken my quest, especially since Nathan is still a baby who would show exactly zero appreciation for all my effort but I just didn’t feel like I could stop now.
To my utter embarrassment, I hear my voice start to get shaky and feel tears prick my eyes; I quit talking immediately, but Chris seems unfazed by my emotional outburst. Instead, he tells me that he also has two kids—in fact, his son is only three days younger than Nathan. He smiles as he shakes my hand before I go. With his sawdust-coated hand still covering mine, he offers one last word of validation.
“Hey, I get it. Being a parent makes us do some crazy stuff, doesn’t it? There’s just something about loving somebody that much.” He turns to leave as I climb back in my car and right before I shut my door he calls over his shoulder, “and thanks for the pine!”
That night, I ruin our kitchen table with the sandpaper I use to smooth the cut edges of each block. The Modge Podge I paint on each side drips and pools on the tabletop, and the only thing that will get it off is a box cutter. I have to get the pictures printed twice, because I didn’t size them correctly the first time. It’s 1 a.m. the night before Nathan’s party when I am finally done.
The next day, they are the centerpiece of the table. Everyone smiles and compliments them.
“Were they hard to make?” my sister-in-law asks.
I shrug. “A little.”
I spent four days and $96 dollars on those damn blocks. They enjoyed an hour of glory at a birthday party, then were relegated to a shelf in the playroom. When we moved, they never made it out of the packing box and spent the past four years on the top shelf of my son’s closet, collecting dust. Forgotten.
But not anymore. After rediscovering them, Nathan insisted they belonged somewhere he could see them every day. Now they’re on a shelf in his room—in all their imperfect glory—as a daily reminder of the crazy things we do for the people we love the most.
Words and photo by Jennifer Batchelor.