© May 20, 2012
In 1984, late Fall in Evanston, Illinois I was trying to figure out Chanukah.
What could I do about Chanukah?
My twenty-year-old Chicago international magazine store, Bob’s Newsstand, was ten months from closing. I had no income and no way to buy presents to celebrate the two thousand year old, eight-day Jewish holiday, the “Festival of Lights” for my three children. Lisa was nine, David was six and Rachel was four.
I was thirty-four and less than a year from my mid-life crisis and two years of unemployment. No one wanted to hire the formerly self-employed guy. They say we never stay.
What could I do that would charm them?
Sitting in my garage which used to be a barn one hundred years earlier, when the historic house was built in 1882, and which was then converted into two apartments, or coach houses as Evanston called them, now empty and perched above me, I sat among my numerous woodworking tools in the dim light of dusk.
There were pieces of unpainted pine shelves stacked against the walls left over from bookcases I’d built over the years, hinges to make folding displays, hammers, screw drivers, electric drills, handsaws (I never liked power saws) and bits of this and that lying on the tables around me and in boxes on the floor.
That quiet garage workshop was filled with ideas, if I could just grab one. Being a carpenter, even a half-assed one like I was, always made me feel like I could make something out of nothing. Magical wood, speak to me.
It was magic, in a way. The sun shines on a little sapling, it grows, the green leaves turning that sunlight, rain and good earth into plant food and it grows taller, the trunk thicker, the leaves numbering into the tens of thousands and eventually when the sapling-turned-towering tree meets an eager lumberjack, that tree becomes planks, planks derived from sunlight, and those turn into everything.
An idea formed.
I began selecting pieces of old shelves, matching them up for size. It took me an hour, but I had enough wood for what I was going to make for my little ones. Something they could not buy in any store. Something that would make Lisa, David and Rachel smile. I gathered my tools and began to work, a shape gradually coming into being, like sunlight was shining on me, too. I was making something from nothing.
Days went by. I worked a bit every evening when I returned from my quiet store. It cheered me to be productive. To be making something.
The children came to the garage to look at what I was doing, from time to time.
“What’cha making Daddy?” They would ask me.
I answered:”Something that will look just like you” I told each of them and I drilled more holes; screwed more handles into place. Their curiosity fueled me, kept me going.
The many flat pieces of wood became a vertical box with three compartments. I added a wooden Jack-in-the-Box on the top part, which was a smaller head-like box, then two strong 2 by 4 arms on either side of the box holding up a little table. I added eye-hooks screwed in everywhere to hold the arms up, and to keep shut the wooden doors to the three compartments. Each compartment was about a cubic foot. I added a wide flat platform below, with black plastic wheels, so the contraption—I was thinking it was a wooden robot, at that point—could be easily moved when pushed, even by a child.
As a last touch, and to keep my mysterious promise to them, I added little slots on each of the four sides of the “head” of my robot and slid identical rectangular pieces of glass down in each of the slots. Each was a small mirror. Even if all three children looked at the robot’s head by standing on three different sides of it, and looked into the mirrors, the robot would in fact look, “just like them”. There was a fourth side, but no child to look into that mirror. It didn’t matter.
But the robot needed a name. I wanted some kind of name connected to each of the three children so they would feel it was made for them. While I was struggling with this concern, I used a thick black marker to label the top of each little door on the back of the robot, on the opposite side of the adjustable arms.
The top door for the oldest and tallest child, Lisa, went first. Under that went David’s name on the middle door, and the lowest door was for the smallest child, Rachel. I looked at my odd, heavy and clunky creation, in all likelihood much as Doctor Frankenstein looked upon his own scavenged work of art. Plain unpainted wood everywhere and shining mirrors staring out of the top on four sides. My robot’s eyes, I decided.
Lisa-David-Rachel. Rachel-David-Lisa. Hadda be some kinda name in there somewhere. I stared at the names drawn on the wood. Then I saw it. Rachel-David-Lisa. R-D-L…
The wooden robot’s name would be Riddle. Perfect. I was pleased.
So, when Chanukah rolled around, I presented my odd gift to the three of them, encouraging them to look it over, to touch it, to find their separate little compartments to hide their favorite toys and to see their faces in the mirrors.
Whatever each child was feeling, when each of them looked into robot’s eyes, Riddle’s eyes would reflect that emotion.
They looked amazed. It was so odd, so special, so unexpected—and so connected to each of them. Best of all, none of their more prosperous friends would have anything like it. And when they unhooked the little latch atop Riddle’s head—the Jack-in-the-Box sprang out! They were enchanted.
They played with Riddle alone, together and with their friends. They stored their stuff in their own little lockers. They put stickers on it. They raised the arms up and down and played with toy soldiers and dolls on Riddle’s flat wooden table.
Riddle moved with us from place to place, and became a special part of our lives. The children kept playing with it.
And one day, they all grew up.
Riddle sat in a corner. Then Riddle sat in a garage, in the gloom. Stuff collected on the flat wooden table. The old stickers peeled off. Riddle’s strong 2 by 4 arms sagged, and the four mirrors? They were gradually covered with grime and dust. No one could see themselves in Riddle’s eyes anymore. I covered Riddle with a tarp. He was forgotten.
One day, a baby girl appeared in our lives, in 1996. She was six weeks old. Her name was Sarah.
Four more years passed.
One day, cleaning junk out of my latest garage, I happened upon the old, dusty, tarp-covered Riddle. Riddle was sixteen at that point, but looked much older. I stared at my old ignored creation. I felt some regret.
No one had touched him, played with him in years. Then I realized that in 2000, Sarah was the same age as Rachel was when Rachel first saw the wooden toy. Both were four. Rachel was then twenty.
I hauled Riddle out of the garage, wiped him clean with old rags, polished his mirrored eyes and checked the durability of its 2 by 4 arms. Everything worked.
I wrote Sarah’s name on the top door, right below Lisa’s. Sarah, a very bright child, couldn’t write yet, but she could recognize her name. Time to present the old toy to the new child.
Sarah, like her older siblings, was charmed. She was all over it, looking into the three empty compartments, pulling on the flat table, and amazed to find her face looking back at her in Riddle’s mirrors. The fourth child finally showed up, to complete the four mirrors of Riddle’s soul. Like an invisible circle around the odd wooden toy, finally completed.
Sarah, of course, didn’t have to share Riddle with the other children who were mostly gone by then, so she could use all three of the compartments. She came over to me where I was sitting on a couch, where I’d been watching her examine the newly rediscovered and very strange and wonderful toy she had inherited. I lifted her up and she sat on my lap. She was smiling. Sarah was always smiling. I think she had a bit of sunlight within her.
“So,” I asked her, after explaining how the name, Riddle, came into being “What are we going to call it now?”
Sarah looked up at me; put her little face close to mine, nose to nose, her green eyes looking intently into my brown eyes, a mischievous smile spreading across her face.
A pause, her young brain racing to reply:
“RIDDLES!!!” She cried, laughing and laughing.
How did she figure that out by herself? I have no idea.
Sarah, like the others, played with Riddles and her friends did, too.
One day some months later, alone in our basement while I was upstairs, Sarah was pulling the flat table down to play on it, when unbeknownst to any of us, one of the plastic wheels under the wooden platform holding Riddles up had worked its way loose and had somehow fallen off, weakened from years sitting in garages in constantly changing weather. As Sarah pulled down on the flat table, Riddles fell upon her. Sarah screamed, and I came running.
I freed her from the heavy wooden toy, and immediately saw the small cut on her little face. I carried her to the bathroom, washed her face, saw that it was a scratch and not serious. Putting Bactine on Sarah’s scratch did not improve the situation. Her screaming continued as I held her, and eventually, she fell asleep.
When she awoke, her affection for Riddles had cooled considerably. After some time went by, her feeling of distrust for the wooden robot didn’t change. Sarah had a small scar where the toy had scratched her delicate skin.
Riddles was banished to our garage…again.
There it remained, for years.
Sarah grew up.
Older ourselves now, my wife Joy and I moved to a much smaller house. Sarah, now fifteen, was going into her sophomore year in high school. She was strong, athletic and beautiful, with many friends. Her tiny scar is invisible.
In order to make the downsizing move, we shed many possessions, and furniture, giving away what we could and leaving what no one wanted on the curb, where whatever we left quickly disappeared in our post-recession times.
With our own financial restraints requiring it, I moved whatever I could myself with my old van, and Joy and Sarah both helped to carry the endless boxes. Our family friend Bruce, a carpenter among his other talents, offered his larger van for the few items I could not take in my smaller van. This punishing labor continued for seven weeks, day and night. I am now 62.
By the end of May, 2012, on Joy’s 62nd birthday, I was down to my last van-load. One of the lingering items was Riddles.
None of the now married-with-children three older kids wanted the old wooden toy injected into their busy lives. I had to make a decision. Riddles was now twenty-eight. With trepidation, I approached Sarah, whose new room had space for it, like a kind of cabinet, I suggested.
Sarah looked at me, unsmiling or sentimental in any way toward her old tormentor.
“That big thing fell on me. I still have the scar. No thanks.”
But I still cared. Too late. Time and space had run out on the old wooden toy.
I went back to the nearly empty old house. Riddles sat near the door, his mirrored eyes watching me as I carried still more boxes of things out to my van. I imagined it was waiting, expectantly, for its own turn to be loaded into my van to go to its new home, or garage.
I propped open the screen door, and wrestled the heavy wooden robot over the door’s step and onto the sidewalk, then awkwardly tipping it left, then right, I “waltzed” it over to the curb where all the other pieces of cast off furniture had been left to be taken by strangers driving by in cars. I tried to stand it up straight facing traffic, but the ground was slanted upward, and it would fall over. Couldn’t have that.
I went back into my now nearly barren old garage, found a long thin piece of wood and broke it into smaller pieces. Then I went back over to Riddles and placed the pieces under its front platform to give it stability, to shim it up, so it would make a nice impression…on strangers.
This was so hard for me, knowing the history of the toy, knowing why it existed at all, aware of the mysterious way all four sides of its mirrored eyes eventually had a child looking into them over a twenty year period. The agony of letting go.
I unhooked and opened all three compartments to look at them. Then, I lifted the flat tray up, hooking more hooks into place for the last time, so its strong 2 by 4 arms would come into play one more time. The Jack-in-the-Box on the top had long since disappeared, after its delicate fabric rotted away. But the little painted wooden box it hid inside still remained.
I took a long look at it from several angles, feeling about as low as a toymaker could, I suppose.
Not all of us garage Geppeto’s can make a wooden toy that turns into a “real boy” like Pinocchio or even create something that anyone wants to keep playing with, anymore.
Then, impulsively, irrationally, but with choked-up emotion, I slid the four mirrored eyes of Riddles out of their old slots, blinding it. I placed the four pieces of glass in the recycled box with other debris, covering them up with crumpled paper.
I didn’t want Riddles to be able to see me driving away, and leaving it behind.
Even if no one else remembers how much you meant to me when I had nothing else to give, I will always remember you.
Completely Unexpected Epilogue
After 3 days, no one claimed poor Riddles from the curb. I drove by each night to see about that, and saw the thin grass growing taller over his wooden base. The sense of unfeeling abandonment was too much for me.
Ironic maybe, but I, too, was someone who was left standing shivering on a curb, in 1964, at the age of fourteen, waiting for someone to come get me in the middle of the night.
That may have been an unconscious motivator for what I had to do for what to anyone else, was just an old tricked-up wooden box. That may also be the answer to this particular seemingly irrational ‘riddle’.
The third night after leaving my old the wooden robot on the curb, I pulled into the driveway of where I no longer lived, unhooked Riddles arms so they’d hang down flat to allow me to slide him into my van, fished through the recycled box to find his mirrored eyes, laid them on the empty passenger seat, drove back to my tiny new house, dragged him out of the van, carved some space for him in my packed garage (yes, filled with those same tools that made him, years ago), carefully positioned him in the small space, slid his eyes back in their slots and, looking both at Riddles and myself at the same time, said simply:
“Riddles, I don’t want to talk about it”.
Then I patted his 2 by 4 arm, walked out of the garage, turned out the light and locked the door. And as I walked into my tiny new home, I mused to myself,
“Well, maybe those grandkids might want to know the story of Riddles, someday…”
About the writer and his other life in Skokie, Illinois:
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