Sunday, March 25, 2012

Raking the Ashes for Nails

The line went something like this: "Remember when we raked the ashes to find nails?"

I read that line maybe 45 years ago in a Reader's Digest article about a young couple building their first home with love, ingenuity, and very little money in post-war America. It has stuck with me all these years. In recent days, that line about raking the ashes has been knocking at my mind's door.

It took me a long time originally to figure out that line in context. Why were they raking the ashes for nails? Were they using a lawn rake? Who put the nails in the ashes to begin with? Why didn't they just go buy more nails? It was a long time before I realized the couple was so strapped for cash that, as they built a fire with scrap lumber each night, they realized they could procure a few more nails the next morning if they were careful.

As I got older (I was 10 when I read this article, as I explain in the footnote below), I replaced my image of the bamboo lawn rake with one of a sand rake. Much later, I realized they were probably combing through the ashes with their fingers. I eventually came to understand it was not mere frugality that drove them to this measure, but also a hearty dose of desperation.

Raking the ashes to find nails.

Sometimes we have to rake through our personal ashes for those nails: to rebuild a relationship, to find the courage to make a fresh start, to build a bridge to the next phase of life. Lately, I have been raking through my own long-cold ashes of the past, hoping, praying for just one nail.

Remember when we raked the ashes to find nails?

I still am.

Okay, a lighthearted note on why I know I was about 10 when I first read this article. This particular article, about the young couple in Vermont building their first home, stuck with me for a long time in part because it was the first time I had come across the World War II slogan "Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without." I was so taken with that slogan that I tucked it (and the story) away in long-term memory. The memory of this article was so powerful that when I was a student at Ohio State briefly in the mid-1970s, I spent an hour in the magazine archives searching through the bound copies of Reader's Digest to find the original article. (I know what you are thinking and yes, I am the queen of the geeks.) I concentrated on the volumes for 1966 and 1967. The article indeed ran during those years; I found it, photocopied it, and may still have the photocopy around somewhere. In case you are wondering, the couple survived the hard winter, the house got built, and life was good. For many years, though, I was seized with a desire to move to a mountaintop in Vermont and build a house by hand in the late fall with winter breathing down my neck. I'm over that now.


Anonymous said...

Though I've never heard this phrase, my husband often salvages palettes both for their wood and their nails. He has reminisced to me about pulling nails from boards on demolition projects and given a member of the crew the task of pounding them straight again.

BTW, I am the same kind of geek!

Sharon said...

LOVE this story, April. I would love to see that article!

see you there! said...

What a wonderful image. Adversity so often brings out the best, the most beautiful, in people. I'll be thinking of this phrase often I'm sure.


Aidyl Ewoh said...

It’s amazing how some things stay with us for a long time.