The summer before my younger sister was born I was eight years old. My parents bought a house that summer, not far from the one we had rented since the time I was born. This new house was surrounded by woods and water. On one side of us was a popular apple orchard, which brought in plenty of traffic during the autumn months; and down the street was a cross-country skiing spot.
In the summer months I spent a lot of time roaming those ski trails.
The Actons were our new neighbors who owned the skiing business, and they invited our family to their Halloween party that first year. It was 1984. The party was held in the main lodge area; kind of a big cozy barn atmosphere with plenty of room and a bar that was serving hot drinks and snacks. Skis lined the wall behind the counter, and there were stoves circled with seating where one could warm their hands after a long day in the snow.
Although it was kid friendly, this was the first party I went to that felt like a grown up party. I don’t know if my parents knew anyone or had any fun, but me and my older sister spent most of the evening up in the loft drinking hot chocolate by a stove. We dreamed of what we would do with a loft like that, and it felt like we were on vacation.
Mr. Acton told us we could come down and ski any time we liked that winter and he would set us up with free ski rentals. For some reason we didn’t take him up on the offer very often. I brought a friend there once during winter break, but the skiing was cold and exhausting- and I was only there for the part where we warmed up with hot chocolate in the loft.
A season or two after we moved in the Actons closed their ski business. Mr. Acton turned the main building into a gym. He was around the age of sixty then, and I knew he ran marathons. I also knew he had a large workshop where he made things, and that their home was the nicest one on our street. His sculptures were scattered across the property, and the house and buildings were set back behind the trees to create their own little hideaway.
When I was a teenager he hired me to do some work for him. I thought he was retired, so I had no idea what was in store for me. That first day I walked down the street and knocked on their door was the first time I had been inside the main house. I was greeted by Mrs. Acton, who I never spent much time with. She proudly gave me a tour. It felt impressive, but some of it was confusing. An odd mix of art and design that I imagined was over my head in some way. Mr. Acton arrived and set me up at a large table outside of his office. He had brochures that needed to be stapled together and mailed, and maybe I would need to answer the phone if it rang.
They were designs for retail racks. I specifically remember a shoe rack that looked like a Christmas tree. He had plenty of orders to fill, mostly from major department stores. I wondered how on earth he had gotten in the door with these places and found this little career, but I didn’t ask. Did he tell me? Possibly, but it didn’t mean much to me at the time I guess. And so it was that for several months I regularly walked down the street and completed office tasks for Mr. Acton.
After the Christmas season, he no longer required my help. Eventually I graduated from high school and left the state of Michigan entirely. My parents sold our house and moved into town, and our family lost all contact with the Actons.
Recently I was looking at a set of handmade goblets in our cupboard that I have always been fond of. They were a wedding gift from the Actons, and I realized that maybe I hadn’t thought of them since receiving the gift back in 1996. I started wondering what ever happened to Mr. Acton and decided to Google him. It turns out that all these years later, he is right where I left him. But I also discovered that I never knew anything about him.
Hugh Acton made his career as a successful furniture designer. You can find some of his mid-century modern pieces from the fifties and sixties being auctioned off for more money than I can afford; and American Seating is still producing the “Acton Stacker” Hugh designed in 1976. We have all sat in an Acton Stacker, but now I recognize it when I see it. I can even flip it over, read the Acton name and know that I actually knew that guy- for what it’s worth. Nostalgia, I suppose. Or it may come in handy as a conversation starter some day at a business meeting or something.
I also stumbled across a short interview with Hugh at his home that brought back a lot of memories. He shows us his stacking chairs around the same table I once stapled brochures at. He explains how he smashes copper with a tractor to make sculptures, saying “I don’t see how anyone can have any fun without a tractor.” He’s probably right, and I am going to look into that if I ever have the money or room for a tractor in my life.
He says something else in that video that rings true for me, and it is something I have heard my husband say a thousand times. “Well, if I don’t make something every day I feel my day is wasted.” Now there is a sentence that either means nothing to you, or it means everything about life.
The things I admire about Hugh Acton are the same things I admire in my husband, and represent the things I aspire to in my own life. I don’t make something every day, but I see the value in it. Most of us spend more time thinking than doing. Aren’t we always told that successful people just move forward in spite of imperfections and their nagging ego? Is it because they know that doing it, even if it is wrong, will get them to the finish line faster? Or maybe it’s that doing something even half way feels more like an accomplishment than simply thinking about what we hope to do.
I think it applies to a million things. And truly, if no one ever sees it, I am trying to create something every day. Not all of us are naturals at it, so I’m not as successful as I mean to be. But there is happiness in even the smallest success. Just a project that has meaning. I get more out of writing or creating music, but how many days was I thrilled to make breakthroughs in a genealogy project? Or even a work project? Then there are the days or weeks that slip by and I never have that feeling at all. That’s entirely my own fault and within my control, which only makes it more disappointing.
I believe this is what we should be teaching our kids. It’s a manual for how to be happy, and it can be tailored to anyone. Sound too good to be true? For some it will be obvious, and for others it will elude them for a lifetime unless someone shows them. Sure it would be great for my daughter to know some history and science, but what is going to bring her contentment every day? I want her to go to bed most nights pleased with what she has accomplished, no matter how insignificant it might seem to anyone else.
It’s easier for kids. I remember one summer when I was about thirteen I decided to write a song a day. Just melody and lyrics- but one song every single day. The songs were so terrible that I tossed the notebook out a few years later, but now I think that is the part I am most proud of. I was willing to put it on paper every day, flaws and all, and I was extremely satisfied with my accomplishments at the time. It was a good summer. Could I do that now? The fact that I am not sure shows how much time has changed me.
And time can change me again.
I imagine when the Actons sent us that wedding gift they never imagined that almost nineteen years later it would lead my brain down this road, but here I am. I’d like to save up enough money to track down and buy that 1955 Hugh Acton couch that clearly belongs in our home. In the meantime I might settle with some quality vintage stackers. I’m glad I took the time to learn something about someone I once knew but knew so little about. It makes more sense of my memories, and it gives me a reason to write down the complete story. But more importantly….today was not wasted.