Monday, January 11, 2010

My Father's Desk

I grew up with my father's oak roll-top desk.  It was HUGE - just bigger than you can imagine!  In fact, it seemed like it was not just a desk, but a presence in our home.  I cannot look at the desk without thinking of my father, and if I think of my father, I usually think of the desk.  Of all the work my father did around our house -- and he did a lot because he repaired everything and could do anything -- I most remember Dad working at the desk.
My father was a foreman at a steel mill.  He worked turns so his hours changed every 5 days.  As a side business he repaired watches and clocks and was a jeweler.  He used this desk for that work.  It was a perfect workspace because the desk had a key.  Dad would unlock the desk and roll it open, leaving the key in the keyhole.  When he closed the desk, he turned the key to lock it, then laid the key on top of the desk.  I guess the key was really only security against little investigative hands.

Such memories I have of this desk!  Dad sat at a short, round piano stool that put his face - and eyes - very close to the work surface of the desk.  He also used jeweler's loupes until he eventually purchased little magnifiers that he attached to the frames of his glasses.  With those, he could move one or two of them down to get proper magnification to see the tiny parts.

In the center of the desk sat a white enamel tray with raised, curved edges where the timepiece he was working on and all its parts laid.  On the sides of the desk were hooks where he hung work to be done and finished work.  There were also slots below those where he could stand some tools, tweezers and such.  To either side of the tray were tools that he couldn't hang, some in stands with holes where he put tiny screwdrivers and pliers.  Sometimes he used a little alcohol burner with flat, triangular sides so that he could rest it on its flat bottom or on one of the sides so the flame would be angled.

Some of the parts for watches were very, very tiny.  I occasionally remember him asking us to help him look for some piece that had dropped.  We really needed to use our x-ray eyes to find some of the pieces - tiny screws a 64th of an inch long or little gears not much larger.

The lower part of the desk had 3 drawers on each side and at the top of the drawers were flat pull-out "trays" (they must have a name but I don't know what it is).  We were to keep out of the drawers - except the middle drawer on the right.  In that drawer my dad kept a cash box, tags, and envelopes.  When we were old enough to help people coming to pick up their items, we opened that drawer to place their money and to make change.  If a person came to drop off repair work, we took out a tag and on the tag we wrote the person's name and phone number, then tied the tag to the item and put it on the desk.  When the item was repaired, Dad put it in one of the envelopes, which also had a space for name and phone number.

There was a regular drawer in the center of the desk.  It was wide and several inches deep.  I think Dad kept tools in it.  He'd also added another drawer below that one which was a wooden frame to which he'd attached fabric around the edges to make a kind of loose, droopy surface.  He used that for larger, lighter weight tools.
On top of the desk in the center was a lamp.  On either side of the lamp were sets of drawers where Dad kept small watch parts.  Except in the lower drawer on the right side chest of drawers he kept a package of Sen-Sen, which he occasionally offered to us, and a nail clipper in a little leather case with a snap on it.  Mom never got out the Sen-Sen (perhaps she didn't like it) but she opened the drawer to get the nail clippers.

The desk was so large that it dwarfed the room in which it sat.  The room was narrow and long and I think the desk took up a quarter or a sixth of the room!

When it came time to move furniture out of my parents' home, my brother and sister announced that the desk would be mine.  I didn't refuse it, but I didn't have a clue where we would put it in our own home.  It was so large - and my husband's and my house was smaller than either of my siblings' homes.  I drove it home in two trips, first the top, then the bottom.  We rearranged furniture and found a home for it.  A few years later we moved to a larger home and the desk now sits in our living room.

When my brother and sister come to visit, we always look at the desk -- and marvel how small it looks.  Was the room where it sat in my parents' home just very small?  Or does our memory of the desk's size stop before we grew to adulthood?

My most recent measurement of the desk indicates that it is 30" deep by 48" wide by 40" high.  How did it get so small?!  And how did it become such a presence?!

You might also enjoy From Inside My Father's Desk.



  1. I enjoyed reading about your Father's desk-and the love you have for it. Funny how things do seem to change in size as we grow older : )

  2. Wonderful memories! I have three large pieces of family history but no memories to go with them.

  3. Nancy, what a great job you have done in describing our Dad's desk and how if impacted you and Bob and me, as well. I remember him sitting for hours, much of the time before he went out to work the midnight shift at Copperweld. Having worked nights, I certainly appreciate the effort he made, and how he really did want to open a small jewelry store in the Ridge. Do you remember when he had space in the bank building for awhile? Then he did his work at home, which would have been more convenient, but must have had many interruptions, as well. I do miss him and Mom, as well, and now wonder what it would be like to have them back for a week or two, and what they would think of the great-grandchildren... Holly had a tape of when she went "camping" with them in their RV, and Dad sang, on a Truth or Dare game with Holly, "I Wish I Was 16 Again". He always said he couldn't sing, however he sounds mighty fine, and in tune on that tape. love, marsha

  4. I'm glad you commented, Marsha. I remember hearing about Dad's wanting to have a jewelry store - and I think he tried one in Niles, right? But it didn't work out? When I think about how hard Dad worked - long hours at the mill, then all the repairs/upkeep on our home and whatever other houses they own, and repairing watches - I'm amazed. I really don't know how he did it. He must have been so exhausted.

    I would love to hear Holly's recording. Do you think she would let me put it here? I couldn't find the song you mentioned, but I did find George Burns singing "I Wish I Was 18 Again", which is probably the one you meant. You can watch it here: It seems such a sad song. I'd never heard it before.

    Thanks again for commenting.

  5. What a desk! I absolutely love the black and white photo of it...I can see so many stories; your imagination just runs wild in that image. Thank you for sharing. He is remembered.

  6. A lovely post and it is strange how items from our childhood always seems so big and have such a formidable presence. Lovely that you still have the desk in your home filled with happy memories and less watch pieces!

    1. I agree about the sizes we remember from our childhood. I think it must be because we were so small by comparison. Thanks for visiting and leaving a comment, Julie. I appreciate it.


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