by Rhonda Loucks
“One hundred and thirty thousand”, I said. “I paid $130,000 for this staircase…My husband bought the rest of the house for $7,000…But this stair case, this room, is mine.” People often laughed as they stood in the middle of the Grand Hall of the old house we had just bought and admired the beauty of the staircase that led to the upper floor sitting area and bedrooms. And I was not joking. It was that staircase that had won my heart and convinced me to ask my husband to buy the old house. Every one of the 28 rooms had been stripped of their elegant fixtures and details…all except the wood; 14-inch solid oak foot-moldings and trim, beautiful window seals and decorative ornamentation in the panes and frames. But nothing, nothing I had ever seen compared to the breath taking beauty of the 27 stairs, two landings, three turns and 117-spindle rail, solid oak, hand-carved staircase.
We didn’t know that the whole thing was carved by hand…never even really considered it. It wasn’t until three years later when my oldest boy was moving some very heavy plaster sheets to the top floor that we discovered the real beauty of the stairs. My son is as strong as an ox. And even though he was only 15 at the time, he was moving the 4×8 sheets alone. He could. He was tall enough to keep them off the ground and strong enough to keep them under control. But on his last trip up the stairs and around the two landings, the two sheets he was carrying somehow tripped him up. There was no loud cry for help, no loud crash of accident. From the other room we were only startled by the sound of rain. The rain was so strange and unfamiliar that we just stood there trying to assess what was happening. We heard an endless repetition of “tinking… tink, tink, tink, tink, tinking,” almost like the sound of someone playing Pick-Up-Sticks on a wooden floor. And then, I knew what the sound was.
I ran to the Grand Hall to see the final display of playfully bouncing sticks falling from the second floor walkway. Some were turning over and over, bounding off each step as they came. Others were falling directly from the top, like cliff divers falling long distances from the heights above. When the sound finally stopped, there was a pile of chaos on the main level floor. Two of the spindles were broken. The other 24 lay on the floor in disarray but were unharmed.
“At least I didn’t hit the big rail,” came the voice from our son above.
“That is good,” I replied as I picked up the spindles like uncared-for children. He was right. The stairs had three rails; the upper, which now lay at my feet, the lower, which was only three feet long and attached to the finial post on the first landing, and the middle, which was curved and long and stood there so eloquently that I couldn’t even imagine disrespecting her with such an incident. He had lost his balance and bumped into the already loose handrail of the upper part of the staircase. Things didn’t look so bleak. It could have been much worse. I knew we could fix this and get back to work on the plaster project.
And we did but not that day. In fact it took all of us the rest of the afternoon and the evening to sort out, stand up and then secure the 10.5-foot top railing. The handrail was heavy…almost 12 feet long, if you included its vertical connecting post, which protruded from the floor. But that wasn’t what took so long. What took us hours to figure out is the perfect placement of the spindles. One hundred and four years earlier someone, or a team of “someones,” had hand carved and spun each of the oak spindles to fit an exact spot in that exact rail. I know it is hard to believe but each of the spindles, though looking almost mirror in perfection at a distance, was actually very unique.
Half the spindles were a twisted rope design and half were spun with beautiful mounds and valleys. Each then was finished with a square top and bottom bringing their length to about three feet. And on the underside of each square was a peg…carved from the center of the original stock of wood that had begun the project to make it a spindle. Some of the pegs were round and some were square. Some had eight sides and some were really hard to distinguish. And the hand-carved pegs were initialed with some sort of alphabet code. We never did discover if that code was the markings of each carver, the spindle carved or the size and shape of the peg. And, each spindle had a top and a bottom peg that were not the same.
So with half information, and excited underestimation, we began the task of rebuilding. We found what appeared to be the first spindle and poked it gently into the first hole in the floor part of the railing. One of the kids held it in place. Then we found a second and the third spindle with pegs to match the holes. This didn’t seem to be so hard. We had made it about half the way across the length when things got complicated. The pattern was rope, then curved… rope, then curved…that, of course, was an absolute. And each of the bottom pegs had to fit into one of the appropriately patterned holes on the floor railing. Yet, we were running out of options. So we turned them over to see if that offered us better options. Needless to say, it did. Then we ran out of those options. So we started looking at the tops of the spindles that we had already placed. Every time we borrowed one of those tops to fit in the next bottom hole, then we had to find a new peg to replace the one we had taken.
On and on the switching and measuring and patterning went. Replacing one here, borrowing one there, turning one over…and then it was done. My husband and I stood there laughing at the sight. All of our kids laying on their bellies holding one or two or as many as they could…spindles in the right pegs of the floor railing. All the spindles were standing straight in the air and waiting for the handrail to crown them and sturdy their positions. At a 45-degree angle the long, heavy top handrail was lowered onto the first spindle. Underneath and at a very strange angle I tried to look up into the top rail and position the top pegs to accept its corresponding hole in the underneath of the top railing. We were not even a handful of spindles into the crowning when it was apparent that things were not in order. The next spindle would not fit its corresponding hole. It was square and although the hole was square as well, it was a square facing like a diamond. We tried to rotate it, but the bottom peg was a rectangle and would not adjust. So, we had to re-organize.
Now, things were not so cute. The little ones on their bellies were tired of holding the spindles up straight. And one had to go to the bathroom…again. And, the big ones were just tired. They had been holding that heavy railing in just the right position for almost an hour. Aches and pains and moaning and complaining filled the silence. My husband looked at me with the same sort of expression as I felt inside. This was a much bigger deal than we had underestimated and neither of us knew a solution. So, we laid everything down very carefully and took a break.
When the mac and cheese was done and every plate was cleaned, we began again. This time we aligned the top and bottom rails and while our oldest held the heavy wood in place, my husband and I placed every spindle with ‘correct’ tops and bottoms that we could find. We counted over and over to make sure we were still on pattern. Every time we were ready to insert a new spindle, the top rail had to be lifted and all of the other spindles were released from their top secure position. The younger kids steadied these spindles. And then we reset them…but at least we knew they were in the right spots. And, again…and, again…and, again. At one point, we thought about hiring help. But, who does this kind of work anymore?
“Everybody be careful. Hold on just a little longer,” sounded the reassuring voice of my husband.
“Daddy, I have to go potty, and can we have ice-cream?” came the inattentive reply from one of the young ones.
“Okay boys, lift again,” and then I made sure to tell them that we only had three pieces left to fit into this amazing and exhausting puzzle. They looked at me with those eyes…the ones that say they want to believe me, but experience tells them that something always happens to elongate their chore.
“Now just two,” I said with excitement that even surprised me. And my husband threw me a grin. And then, just one was left. One singly beautiful piece of oak…spun into the perfect balance of elegance and strength was placed into its exact spot. Of course it fit. And then a loud roar of excitement and laughter filled the air as my husband ran one long screw from the underneath of the top railing to the wall. One fastener and the whole thing stood amazingly sturdy.
Lying in bed that night, my husband and I talked about the fastener and how much the whole thing would have been different that day if we would have examined why the railing was so loose when we moved in, found the fastener and tightened its hold. We also talked about the work and craftsmanship it took to design and carve and build such an amazing staircase. We had spent hours working on the smaller part of the railing. We could not imagine what must have gone into the planning of the beautiful under-stair-archway or the three-person-bench that was also part of the same staircase. The totality of the whole unit was just massively impressive. But to know that each single piece was carved specifically as part of that staircase, was even more impressive and made us appreciate its beauty even the more. But the thing that my husband and I could never get beyond…the thing that now impressed us way beyond its beauty, is that the entire staircase was originally held together by just one square nail.
Each of us was designed and then carved to be such a piece in such a beautiful masterpiece. Great time and care was taken to create us and breathe life into us and to give us the perfect individual shape. Then we were marked by Him, with His image, so that we would always know where we belonged. And although sometimes after a huge rain we find ourselves at the bottom of a pile of chaos, He recognizes His work and tenderly picks us up and asks if we are ready to begin the work of rebuilding.
He sees the greater masterpiece and knows our exact place. With patience He works to bring us back to where we belong. He shows us that although we are singularly beautiful and strong, that it is nothing in comparison to the project He wants us to be part of. He reminds us that we were designed for a unique purpose; that our lives matter. That He needs us to stand in the gap for Him. That no one and nothing else can fit that exact place.
And while some of us have been in the right place for quite a while, others are still coming. And when they arrive we will all be crowned with a beautiful top piece that will make us into one magnificent masterpiece…secured by one fastener…Him.
Rhonda Loucks is a member of Wichita First Church of the Nazarene and contributes regularly to the church’s Women’s Ministry newsletters.