Mourning doves and distant trains always make me think of my grandparents. They were snowbirds during my childhood, traveling back and forth between ever more temperate climates and living out a of gleaming silver Airstream trailer. We’d visit them in the summer and my sister and I would sleep on the long thin beds that doubled as tiny couches that tripled as dining room chairs. I’d be lulled to sleep at night by the sounds of the trains, and gently stirred back awake by the coos of the mourning doves.
The train tracks were far across the fields on the opposite side of the road from the campground where my grandparents stayed. But the fields were flat and empty, and the sounds rolled across them unhindered. Except for the campground and small clusters of beach houses and cabins along the lake, the land was green and pure, unmarred by human hands except to farm it. There were wild blackberry bushes at the farthest edge of the fields, free for the gathering if you were willing to make the journey.
The trains were the sort that went on for miles – we’d cross the tracks at two points along our family drive to the campground, a bouncy trek in a big maroon station wagon with wood grain trim. If we got stopped by a train, my dad would turn the car engine off and we’d watch them roll by in rhythmic motion, kechunk kechunk kechunk kechunk. We’d look to one side and there’d be train cars as far as the eye could see. We’d look to the other and watch eternity slowly form before our eyes, the engine drawing a line from us to infinity.
I learned about logarithms in college, how they’d stretch indefinitely to reach a number but never would arrive. They were always approaching zero, coming ever closer and closer and closer… kechunk kechunk kechunk. I didn’t do terribly well in calculus, but I knew those rhythms in my childhood bones and in my soul. I’d hear them deep into the night as I’d lay on the tiny mattress. I’d listen as long as I could, and just as I would drift off to sleep, the trains would let out a long, low whistle, hooooo hooooooo hooooooooooo. It would trail off into an ever softer stream of sound, approaching silence but never arriving.
Then suddenly the morning light would pour into the Airstream windows and I’d blink my eyes open and realign my senses. I’d realize that at some point in the night the train had gone but its sound still lingered, transformed into the gentle cooing of the doves while I was sleeping, hoohooo hoohooo. It had shifted from one being to another like an Escher painting, a seamless transition from a daunting oily black engine to a gentle, tan creature softly poking around the grassy grounds.
My grandfather wore that same color. He referred to it as “that nice tan”. His pants were tan, his shoes were tan, his jacket was tan, and his dapper newsboy cap was, naturally, tan. He’d spice it all up with a brightly colored shirt, but everything else was tan. I thought it a bit funny at the time, that he was so enamored with such a lackluster color. The irony is not lost on me now.
He liked to poke around those same grounds as the mourning doves. I never knew what he did professionally – he was retired by the time I arrived – but he was always whittling or fixing or building something. His hands, working, always. It fascinated me as a young child. I would watch him in awe, soaking in as much of it as my small body could contain. He’d do odd jobs around the campground, running electrical hookups for trailers or building picnic tables out of 2×4’s. Making, building, always.
He’d let me help sometimes. I’d get to hold the c-clamps while he’d tighten them, my tiny hands barely wrapping around them. He told me they were named after me – that’s what the C is for, you know. I was convinced of this for an embarrassingly long amount of time, by the way. It was years before I realized that he’d made it up. But everything else I learned from him was cross-your-heart true.
One year back when I was in elementary school he helped my dad build our garage. Watching it come into existence was like magic to my young mind. Before that moment I didn’t think a human being could build a garage. I guess I just thought it was all too big and daunting. It must be born of machine. But there it was, its simple structure naked and exposed, nothing but sticks and bricks and blocks. They looked like my childhood building blocks, only larger. Simple shapes stacked on top of each other, clad only in that nice tan.
My dad later recounted the precision of it all – the exactness of my grandfather’s measurements, no room for error, and not an ounce of material ever wasted. When no one was watching, my dad would quietly roll his eyes at the meticulousness of it all. Too rigid for his tastes. But I was fascinated – and as an adult, it dawned on me that I do the exact same thing. I calculate out the materials I’ll need, provided they’re cut in precisely the right way. When we built my studio, Alan quickly learned to “let the girl do her thing”. He was just there for the heavy lifting, he said. I was the brains, and he was the brawn. The c-clamp was named for me, after all.
As the studio came to life, new veils were lifted one by one. I learned by reading and looking and doing, by problem-solving and trying. As a child, it never occurred to me that people acquired knowledge, that they learned. I just thought they were born with it, that information was bestowed upon them in some magical sort of way. I assumed my grandfather just knew things. He wore his experience the same way he wore that nice tan – he just pulled it out of some magical closet and put it on.
It’s a misconception that creeps into my professional world at times. When I’m staring at a giant piece of artwork, at layers and chunks of metal that are supposed to all come together to create something beautiful, I beg silently for the answer to magically appear. But it never comes. I have to shift and try and tweak and ply and see what works the best of all the options. Approach perfection, but never arrive. Kechunk kechunk kechunk.
My grandfather embraced perfection, but I’ve found that imperfection is much harder to wrap your arms around. I’ll never know if he felt inside as though he had reached perfection, or if it just appeared so from the outside because he came so close. Did he look at his own work and see the slivers of error among all the order? Was he instantly drawn to the one flaw he hadn’t been able to overcome?
The longer you work, the logarithms say, the closer you come to infinity. Perhaps he came so close over the years that the gaps were indistinguishable, to even a well-trained eye. I’ll never know. I’ll never be able to ask him.
I know that when I hang my finished work on the wall, I stand back and admire it but then zoom like an arrow to the imperfection. There’s always one. There is an Amish quilting tradition to always include one mismatched patch. They put in a flaw on purpose. Only God is perfect, they say. It is vain for mere humans to attempt such things. There is a Japanese practice to break pottery and then repair the cracks with gold. Find beauty in the errant gaps. Embrace the imperfections.
I’ve never been good at embracing my imperfections – my train moves decisively in the opposite direction. But I know they’re there. Over time they may fade into the background like a distant hum, transforming from a daunting driving force into a quiet rhythm of creation. These days I stand in my studio and listen to the distant trains nearing infinity as I spend my days the way my grandfather spent his, making, building, always. Approaching zero, ever closer. Always reaching, never arriving. Kechunk kechunk kechunk.