Oscar: A ‘Shop Tails’ Excerpt and Introduction

Oscar with his birthday hamburgers.

Nancy Hiller’s “Shop Tails,” a companion book of essays to “Making Things Work,” is in the design phase. “Shop Tails” is different from “Making Things Work” in that it is structured around the animals that have come in and out of Nancy’s life, with each chapter focusing on a different one (or several different ones). The animal tales are sandwiched between some serious existential and biographical content provoked by her diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, and all of it is interwoven with true stories about non-human animals, in addition to reflections on how much they have taught her about life, love, illness, expectations, parenting, death and pudding.

In the weeks to come we will be sharing several excerpts from this remarkable book to give you insight into the essays’ depth, humor and the range of topics explored, all from the perspective of a woman who has spent most of her life as a cabinetmaker, period furniture maker and author, making things work while discovering her worth.

Here’s an excerpt from Chapter 6: “Oscar.” Enjoy!

— Kara Gebhart Uhl

Kent was adamant that I should cover the costs of college myself. I wouldn’t have had it any other way; I’ve always been stubborn and independent. I applied for every scholarship, grant and teaching assistantship available and entered essays in every contest. By the time I graduated in 1993, I’d paid for it all, in large part because tuition was still far more affordable than it is today. I had also kept up with the demands of our business: design work, drawing, bookkeeping and helping Kent with installations.    

Living in a wooded part of Brown County made Oscar easy to care for. All we had to do was open the door, and he could take himself up the hill for a quick run, or out to the ravine to do his business. Now that we had a real home, I went into full-on domestic mode in my spare time, building new cabinets with ash faces to replace the generic dark-stained oak ones the previous homeowners had bought from a building-supply store. We tore out the “butcher-block” laminate counters and installed white laminate with a solid ash edge (again, it was the ’90s). While Kent was on a hiking trip out west I pulled out the same generic oak cabinets in the dressing area just off our bedroom and replaced them with a vanity designed after the circa-1815 counter at the Shaker Museum in Old Chatham, N.Y., pictured in June Sprigg’s book “Shaker Design.” I painted it pale blue, added a solid maple top and plumbed in my first sink, following the page of directions that came in the box with the faucet. I made flower beds in front of the house, digging compost and manure into the hard-packed clay while Oscar rolled in the grass and occasionally trotted off to investigate a rustling at the edge of the forest.

Oscar knew he was an integral member of our family. We made him hamburgers with a celebratory candle for his birthday every year and homemade Christmas crackers with Milk Bones inside for the holidays. We took him with us on trips to visit my family in Florida. We took him hiking. On the rare occasions when I joined Kent for a paddle, we put him with us in the canoe. I loved knowing that after so many years of living in small apartments where he had been cooped up alone all day while I was at work, he finally had the perfect home.

Our marriage, though, was less happy. I quickly became so consumed by my studies that Kent felt neglected. I gave him less and less attention as I devoted every available moment to reading and writing. Instead of really listening to his complaints and talking about what might make him feel less lonely, I told him to stop being needy. It didn’t even occur to me at the time that my obsession with excelling in my studies was fueled by a deep-seated urge to prove my own worth.

I had already decided to go on to graduate school and applied for fellowships to fund that project when we got a commission for a large armoire in hard maple. I can’t recall the exact dimensions, but this thing was big – around 42 inches wide and at least 6 feet tall, with a pair of massive doors. When delivery day arrived, we removed the doors and drove it to our clients’ house. “I’m so happy you’re delivering it, and not a moving company,” said the wife. “I know you’ll take more care with the wallpaper on the stairs.”

Kent took the top position, with me below. I have always found it easier to bear weight from below than to be the one on top, leaning over a massive piece of furniture while walking backwards up a flight of stairs. The staircase had a couple of steps at the bottom, then a dog-leg landing before the main flight. After we’d maneuvered the beast around the turn, I repositioned myself for the long haul; to push with my shoulders, I had to bend my head sharply to the left, which immediately felt like a bad idea. “Be careful of the wallpaper!” our client reminded us. I powered through. We re-hung the doors, adjusted the piece so it was level and left with a check.

About a week later I was giving Oscar a bath, something he reluctantly allowed me to do. It was late summer, 1993; my first semester of grad school had begun. I leaned over the tub, wrapped Oscar in a towel and lifted him out. I felt a click in my upper back but thought nothing of it and carried on with the rest of the day.

A burning ache developed in my upper right back, between my shoulder blade and spine. Over-the-counter painkillers took off the edge, but the pain was unrelenting. One night I awoke around 2 a.m. feeling as though a stick was wedged in my esophagus. It hurt like crazy, but more troubling to me was the thought that one of my ribs might somehow have become dislodged and was poking into my throat. (I have a vivid imagination. Anything can happen within the invisible recesses of the body.) I woke Kent up and said I needed to go to the hospital. “You can drive yourself,” he replied. Not wanting to argue – time seemed of the essence – I got up, dressed and headed to town. It was pitch-black out; I was driving myself to the emergency room in tears, terrified about what might have gone wrong in my body and hurt by Kent’s unwillingness to go with me.

An X-ray showed no apparent injury to the ribs or spine, so the doctor prescribed a muscle relaxer and sent me home.

— Nancy Hiller, author of “Kitchen Think” and “Making Things Work.” Read more of Nancy Hiller’s profiles, which we call “Little Acorns,” via this link.

Nancy Hiller’s “Shop Tails,” a companion book of essays to “Making Things Work,” is in the design phase. “Shop Tails” is different from “Making Things Work” in that it is structured around the animals that have come in and out of Nancy’s life, with each chapter focusing on a different one (or several different ones)….Read MoreShop TailsLost Art PressRead More

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