It looked old. It looked like something that was ready for retirement, though it still worked, still functioned. The oak handles, once varnished and glossy, had bleached into a permanent washed-out gray with deep cracks in them. The heavy steel tray had corroded, leaving a small, crescent-shaped hole at its front edge, but the rolled steel rim was still intact.
I bought it, in 1973 – an 8 cubic foot mason’s wheelbarrow - to mix concrete and mortar for my foundation and chimney. It was bright red, with white steel support flanges. I think I paid fifty dollars for it, a princely sum in those days. But I was in the first flush of building my first house and I was determined not to skimp on quality or durability.
When I first started using the wheelbarrow, I carefully cleaned it out after each use, removing the last speck of concrete from its large metal tray. But after a while I grew less and less particular about this and some gray concrete stains began to accumulate on the tray’s surface, spreading and thickening over time.
After the foundation and chimney were finished, I used the wheelbarrow now and again for various other chores and activities. When my kids were little I gave them rides in it. When I put in a garden I took the wheelbarrow down to the beach to load marsh grass for mulch. In the fall, I used it to collect and dump pine needles raked from the driveway. And in winter I wheeled firewood in it from the woodshed up to the front porch.
Somewhere in its long and useful life it developed a slow leak in its wide pneumatic tire. In retrospect, I can see I should have replaced the tire then, but it didn’t seem that onerous a task to blow up the tire with my bicycle pump each time I needed to use it. The leak, however, got slowly worse. It wouldn’t hold a pressure more than a few hours, and the valve got more and more difficult to seat into the pump. By the time I realized it would make sense to replace the tire, the bolts on the wheel axle had rusted irretrievably onto the frame. It was clear that I could either continue to put up with an increasingly annoying situation, or accept the fact that it was time to replace the wheelbarrow itself.
One of the things that made that decision difficult was that over 4 ½ decades, it had acquired a history with me. When I looked at it I saw not just a battered tool, but a partner in my life here, a reliable friend that had grown old and somewhat diminished. When I lifted it by its bleached oak handles, it had a familiar heft, flawed now but still useful. The grey concrete stains on the inside of the tray – some nearly a half-century old - reflected the greying of my own scalp.
But no, I was not giving into easy anthropomorphizing. I had never been tempted to give my wheelbarrow a name. It was just that, over the years, through repeated and varied use, it had slowly transformed itself from an object into an experience. I had personal, tactile knowledge of it, so that it had a value beyond its functional life.
The last time I used it, to bring in some firewood, it took me nearly ten minutes to inflate the tire to a useable pressure, and when I lifted the loaded barrow, I realized that it was much heavier than I remembered. It was time to divest and adapt. So I drove to the nearest Ace Hardware store and bought a shiny new, thin steel, forest-green 6 cubic-foot wheelbarrow with oak handles. It cost $69, 95, which, adjusting for inflation, was less than I had paid for my original wheelbarrow in 1973. I don’t expect it will last as long as the original one, but then I don’t expect I will, either. As a Newfoundland friend of mine said when he had finished rebuilding his wharf, “There, that’ll do me!"