Friday, December 26, 2014


It seems as if every Christmas season it becomes more and more difficult to think of unique and clever gifts to buy for my friends and relatives. I usually spend countless hours leafing through catalogs or searching through online stores, and then walking 20 miles through malls, only to end up empty-handed.
I can remember one year, however, when every gift I gave was one-of-a-kind, unique, and a potential family heirloom. It was the year I enrolled in a ceramics class.  I made steins with dogs on them, coffee mugs with unicorns on them, and for my uncle, the jokester, I even made a set of ceramic turtles that, when flipped over, were anatomically correct. I spent a good deal of time painstakingly painting those anatomical parts in fine detail.
Little did I know, however, that my uncle would open my gift in front of a priest, who had stopped by to bless his house for Christmas.
Anyway, my passion for ceramics began quite unexpectedly. My cousin’s husband, Dave, whose hobby was making furniture, gifted my husband and me with a beautiful, handmade solid-pine coffee table. It was crafted from a single slab of wood that must have weighed 50 pounds. And into that slab, Dave had hand carved a chessboard. His wife then had stained each square in alternating shades of light and dark walnut.
My husband and I didn't know the first thing about chess, but we loved that table.  So at the risk of herniating a few disks, we lugged it into the house and carefully positioned it in front of our sofa.  Then, because it looked kind of naked, I set a basket of silk flowers right in the middle of the chessboard.
For some reason, that bothered people.
"What on earth are flowers doing on a chessboard?" One of our friends asked us when we showed him the table. "You should have a nice chess set on there to enhance it, not hide it!"
"I wouldn't even know how to set up a chess set," I told him. "I don't know a rookie from a prawn."
He rolled his eyes. "That's a rook and pawn.  I thought everyone knew how to play chess.  Heck, I learned when I was about seven!"
I raised my chin indignantly. "I don't have the time or patience for chess.  If I wanted to spend hours sitting and staring at someone, waiting for him to make a move, I'd just stare at my husband snoring in his recliner!"
Still, I couldn't shake our friend's words.  I began to think he might be right. Maybe it was an insult to the chess players of the world for me to conceal a beautiful chessboard beneath a basket of flowers.  So, reluctantly I set out to buy a “pretty” chess set.
I never realized just how many different shapes and sizes of chess sets there were (probably because I couldn't have cared less about them before that day).  I found cheap plastic ones and fancy pewter ones.  I also found some unusual sets, such as one with Mickey and Minnie Mouse on horseback, and another with monkeys dressed in armor.  I must have looked at 100 different sets, but nothing seemed just right for my coffee table.  The fact I had only $19.36 to spend probably didn't help matters much, either.
A few days later, when I happened to mention my futile chess-set search to my friend Linda, her eyes brightened. "I've just started teaching a ceramics class!" she said. "I have my own kiln and everything.  And I have a beautiful chess set you can make for only about $20.  The best part is you can stain it in the exact shades to match your coffee table."
Fool that I was, I figured that making a chess set simply involved painting a bunch of pieces and then having Linda fire them in the kiln.  I was wrong.  The first night of ceramics class, she set an army of soft clay figures in front of me, then handed me a knife-like tool and a bowl of water.  "Here, start cleaning them," she said.
I eyed the pieces. "They really don't look all that dirty.  What do you want me to do with this water? Dunk them in it and give them a bath?”
She laughed. "No, you have to take the knife and scrape off all the seams that were made when the pieces came out of the molds.  Then you wet your finger and smooth down the clay, so there are no bumps or ridges visible anywhere."
Before me sat 32 chess pieces.  Sixteen of them were little guys holding swords or those long-handled axes that knights in armor used to carry.  I knew I had my work cut out for me.  I picked up the knife and set to work.  Within five minutes, I had hacked off two heads and three swords.
"No problem," Linda said brightly. "Just put the broken pieces back where they belong, and then with a wet finger, smooth the clay back over the cracks to fill them in.  The wet clay will act like cement to reattach them."
I wasn't all that great at repositioning heads and swords, so my pawns ended up looking as if they'd fought a few battles...and lost.  It took me about a month to get all of those pieces cleaned.  Believe me, I was so excited when Linda finally said they were ready for the kiln, I nearly threw a party to celebrate.  My happiness was short-lived, however, when I realized I still had to stain my precious little chess army.
I found stains in shades of walnut to match my coffee table, then I daintily applied them to every little sword and ax; every tiny eyeball and nose. When I was finished, the pieces looked as if they were made of wood instead of fragile, breakable ceramic.
I have to admit the chess set looked stunning on the coffee table...even though I set up all of the pieces in the wrong positions. This, I might add, was long before anyone had home computers or access to the Internet, so I couldn’t just look up “chess” and see illustrations of the game.
Not surprisingly, our friend, the chess player, noticed the pieces weren't set up correctly the minute he set foot in the door. "The queen doesn't go there!  And why on earth do you have the rooks right next to each other?"
"Because they looked prettier that way," I said.
"Here, let me fix them for you," he offered. "Then maybe I can teach you a little about the game."
He reached for the queen, and when he did, his arm hit a couple of the pawns (the little guys with the swords).  In a flash, the whole row of them toppled over as if they were dominoes. When they finally stopped falling, the table was littered with tiny disembodied ceramic heads and axes. It took me a week to glue them back together.
That’s when my dog decided to play with her ball and fling it into the air. I don’t suppose I have to tell you where it landed. Let’s just say that if she had been bowling, she’d have gotten a strike.
You know, after that, the coffee table really did look nice with a big doily covering the chessboard and a basket of flowers on top of it. 
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