My Carved Memory
My father had two trunks with him when he returned home from the mission he served in Tahiti and Hawaii from 1939 to 1941. He started his mission in Tahiti, and then he finished his mission in Hawaii when France’s involvement in WWII created a political environment that was unsafe for missionaries in Tahiti. One of the trunks was nearly full of oyster shells. The inside of each shell had the multi colored iridescent quality of mother of pearl, which is also called nacre and is used in jewelry. The same material also forms the outside of pearls. He must have had a plan to use these beautiful shells for something, but his untimely death at the age of 33 from polio when I was seven years old nixed whatever plans he had. A few of the other items he brought home in the trunks must have been used as intended, but much of what he brought home still sits in those trunks. The last time I saw the trunks they were stacked in a bedroom in a house my ex-wife acquired when we divorced.
My mother found some of the contents of the trunks interesting enough to remove them, and those items were distributed among my two sisters and I when my mother died. I was not present when my sisters decided who would get what, so I was left with whatever neither one of them wanted. I got some shark’s jaws, which were smaller versions of those displayed in Quint’s workshop in the movie Jaws. There was also a whale’s tooth, some model outrigger canoes, straw hats, beads, sea shells, hula skirts, and some vanilla beans inside a couple of bottles. Some of these items have come in handy for three generations of grade school show-and-tell days.
There is one item, however, that I took possession of shortly after my father died. It is a wood carving of a hand holding a fish upright. The mouth of the fish is open at the top, which hints at an intended use of the carving other than just art. It could be an ashtray or it could hold a small vase. The carving is slender and top-heavy which makes either use impractical. The slightest nudge could result in either ashes, or flowers and water being spilled.
The entire carving is 15 inches high and the size of the hand indicates it is about a one-half scale, so the actual fish would be about 30 inches long. The carving is crude and lacking in detail. The eyes do not line up and the gills and fins on either side of the head are dissimilar in shape and size. The fins are essentially the same on the top and bottom and are crudely fashioned. An arc-shaped tool was used to create the fish’s scales. The hand holding the fish lacks the detail of finger nails or knuckle joints.
I am not a connoisseur of wood, so I don’t know what kind of wood was used. It is too light to be hard wood like teak, and it is very difficult to detect any grain in the wood partly due to the nature of wood, and partly due to all the nicks and scratched that have occurred over decades in my toy boxes or other casual storage media.
A cross section of the carving at the bottom clearly reveals two shades of wood in the carving. It is evident that the object was carved from a small log about five inches in diameter. A darker core in the log is surrounded by wood of a lighter tone. The two tones continue throughout the carving since the areas carved deeper into the log are darker in color than the areas nearer the surface of the original log.
The carving is crude and certainly not worthy of an art museum. It was not important enough to my mother to display it, or to keep it out of my toy box when I was young. It is interesting to contemplate what my father saw in this carving, and also, why I have found this item important enough to keep it for more that six decades. I am curious to know how my father acquired the fish. Did a friend in Tahiti or Hawaii give it to him? Or did he purchase it? The object evokes many questions and few answers.
I have never displayed the carving. I have never even shown it to anyone. It has always been in the background of my mind and hidden in the background of my possessions. While Janeen and I have been married, it has been hidden behind some pictures on the top of a bookcase in our home. When I was recently looking for something to stare at for 10 minutes, I saw this fish and brought it to the forefront of my own consciousness and showed it to Janeen. I asked her if she had seen it and she was not sure, but she could not recall ever having seen it.
As I contemplate the carving, I wonder why my father kept it, and then I begin to wonder why I have kept the carving for almost 70 years. I don’t ever remember playing with it as a child. My best explanation is that the interest I have in this obscure piece of art is something I share with my father. When I look at it, I think of my father and tears come to my eyes. It is somehow a connection between the two of us. It seems to be a physical token that represents a shared interest. My symbolic link with this fish is something like Tom Hank’s character’s symbolic link with Wilson in the movie Castaway. The object is significant only in what it represents.
My father held on to this piece and I have also held onto it for all these years. I feel somehow that it represents a physical connections as well as a spiritual connection. As long as I have this carving, I have the feeling that I am connected to and under the protective care of my father. I have never thought about this strange concept before, but now, when I do contemplate the idea, it gives me comfort. It is a carved memory and a carved companion that means more to me than I can understand.