The Oddfellow Bench Comes Out

Eight years it sat in my basement. Eight years not seeing the light of day. It had fit in the old house, but not in this one, so when we moved here, it waited for the outdoor roof now over the old part of the porch. Finally, my bench has a home. Finally, it serves a useful purpose again – a place for Coco the Queen to survey her domain apparently! Between that and my granddaughters’ sweet welcome messages plastered in their style on the door, the entrance to my house evolves more and more to my liking. (Next comes a window above the bench…)

bench and Coco.2mp.jpg

In my mind and in my everyday trot, people are more important than things. But sometimes things tie us to people. Easily more than 200 moons ago, sometime in the 90s, maybe even 80s when we still lived in Vermont, several times a year we would go visit my Aunt Judy and Uncle Richard in southern New Hampshire. They were always warm and welcoming, always made us feel special. They brought out the water toys at the lake or took us all out in the boat or made special meals that I didn’t make at home. Lobster comes to mind, especially Richard saying to my wide-eyed kids, almost in a whisper, just as he was about to plunge them in the boiling water: “If you listen closely, you can almost hear them scream.”

Richard and I used to go garage-saling together on Saturday mornings. As was evident from the wonderful hodge-podge of interesting objects in their house, he liked finding something unique, something you don’t see everywhere. I liked being with him. Richard was funny and respectful and curious and unpretentious. You know how you can be yourself more with some people than with others? Yeah. That’s the way it was with Richard. I miss him so much.

One Saturday, in the days before your GPS told you how to get there, we were tooling around, going from one sale to another. Some people set up their stuff on tables on their front lawn. There were lots of old kitchen items usually – I remember getting a perfect, cake-size, cut glass plate for 10 cents (which unfortunately broke when I stupidly put a hot macaroni pie on it right out of the pan) and a brand-new-in-the-box Atlas pasta maker for $5 that I still have and use. Some people say, “Just go poke around in the garage – you’ll find stuff in there.” Old tools maybe, rusty or obsolete, cracked leather cases, lots of dusty books. This one farmer said, “C’mon with me out t’ the barn.”

On your walk out to the barn, traipsing through grass he probably should have cut some time ago, you wonder what you’ll find in the old barn of an old farmer in southern New Hampshire. This farmer had a barnful of benches – stacks of them. If there was one, there were fifty, maybe more. “From an Oddfellows Hall,” he said.

I should have known. Right then and there, I should have known that a ten-foot-long, solid oak bench in my possession henceforth would have to have come from a place with “ODD” as the main descriptor. It is not a far cry, not even a stone’s throw, hardly a long shot from “odd” to “unboring”!

He wanted $10 for the bench. Thus my association with Oddfellows began. Richard bought one too. We somehow strapped them to the top of the car. He turned around and sold his the following week for $75. I spent time zip-stripping mine, sanding, refinishing, putting a new cover on the seat. We used it in the dining room for years. The navy blue fabric above is second generation under me already, and will change again soon.

For the uninitiated, Oddfellows date back to 18th century England when the major trades like weaving and stonecutting had guilds, kind of an early form of unions. Enter rivalry, pomp and snobbery. The “Masters,” having established successful businesses, wanted/needed to protect themselves from “the lower orders” and set about enforcing new rules about what you had to wear to the meetings – expensive outfits that wage-earning “Fellows” could not afford. Among these Fellows, the more minor trades, the miscellaneous “odd” trades that didn’t have enough people to form a guild of their own, banded together. According to “The Oddfellows: Making Friends, Helping People,” a UK-based website, “In smaller towns and villages Fellows from all trades in a town banded together to form one Guild. The Guildsmen could be called ‘Odd Fellows’ because they were fellow tradesmen from an odd assortment of trades.” Today they call themselves “one of the largest friendly societies in the UK.”

Clearly, Odd Fellows use “odd” in the sense of “varied” rather than in the sense of “weird,” or at least they did back in the day. I have to think that the odder folks among them chuckled at (or even took pride in?) the secondary meaning. Weird works for me!

Who knew? I love that the group of them is not called just “Odd Fellows” but alternatively (no, not Odd Balls!) they use the term “Oddfellowship.” I’m not kidding – this is great stuff! What’s more, its internationally recognized triple-link symbol represents Friendship, Love and Truth. Who can object to that?

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I should probably look into membership. Last night I found out that there’s even a chapter in my area. Let’s hope I can bypass at least one of the undoubtedly rigorous entry criteria on account of having lovingly refinished that bench years ago, enjoyed and protected it all this time and now proudly display and use it once again. That has to count for something.

According to [citation needed] Wikipedia, “To this day, beyond recreational activities, Odd Fellows promote philanthropy, the ethic of reciprocity and charity,” (totally admirable) “albeit with some grand lodges implying Judeo-Christian affiliation.” (fine with me) “Still largest, the American-seated Independent Order of Odd Fellows enrolls some 600,000 members…” (holy cow!) “…divided approximately 10,000 lodges in 30 countries, inter-fraternally recognized by the second-largest, the British-seated Independent Order of Oddfellows Manchester Unity. In total members of all international branches combined are estimated in the millions worldwide.” (millions!) 

Come join us for some oddfellowship, won’t you? Ha! We do an odd assortment of things in my little world. We come from an odd variety of backgrounds, find odd things amusing and interesting, make odd things to eat, have odd experiences continually, wear our hair in odd ways – not that I wear a flag in my hair every day.

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Yes, there is a flag stuck in my ponytail! A barbeque at Westminster on July 4th calls for silly oddity, don’t you think? Anyway it might help me qualify. Right??

7 thoughts on “The Oddfellow Bench Comes Out

  1. And then there’s the Paterson slogan of American poet William Carlos Williams: “No ideas but in things.” In other words, existence in the immanent, with ordinary concrete stuff, is prior to more abstract notions.

    You may argue with it as you like 😉

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    • If I may allow the following interpretation: It all comes down to what’s real. The real bench, the real interactions with Richard back in the day that meant so much to me, the real time we spend with anyone building something solid for the future. More and more, I try to be mindful of what really matters and to push away what doesn’t because the stuff that doesn’t just clogs up the works. Thanks, Rob.

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  2. This bench to me is connected with endless memories. I always loved it in your home in Vermont and can still picture where it was and think of people with whom we sat there. But most of all I am touched by the words you found for Richard. I can second every thought and I am so grateful that I had the privilege to have spent time with Richard and Judy while being with you and your family. The times at the lake and at their home are still vivid in my mind. The emotions that are connected to both Richard and Judy are what makes the memories timeless. Thank you for sharing the story of the bench.

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    • In the end, for us both, even when it’s about a thing, it’s still about people 🙂 I too have sweet memories of those wonderful times together. Without knowing it (probably) Richard and Judy contributed to the ways we ourselves grew up — even though we thought we were already grown up! They both have my eternal admiration and gratitude.

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