Month: December 2019

Loving Hands

Mom’s hands, skin already roughened by daily chores at our house or someone else’s, became etched with chlorophyll as they danced to the tune of the approach of Christmas.   Her sturdy stooping figure plucked ‘feather pine’ from favored patches as she rhythmically fed the bags at her side.  My two brothers and I sporadically stuffed the greenery from the woodland floor into our shared black garbage bag as we romped amongst naked trees and fallen leaves.  Sometimes the early lake effect snows covered the precious raw material that mom transformed into the paper greenery that provided the extras, by way of the North Pole, for three small children.  We were fortunate to know only full tummies, warm clothing and a consistent roof for shelter; innocently unaware of the importance of her winter craft in facilitating Santa’s arrival.

Mom was often missing from the evening ritual of John Wayne westerns or Walt Disney specials during the weeks before Christmas.  Busy days left only evenings to craft her magic in the quiet of the basement, perched on her stool nestled between the wringer washer and shelves of glass jars filled with our winter nourishment.  Sometimes I watched as she twisted wire coat hangers into perfect circles and proceeded to arrange and secure plump green bundles around them.   Sight and touch were the only tools used to gauge fullness and consistency.  The process was repeated, and sometimes redone, until the results pleased her.  Lengths of black wire snipped from a red wooden spool secured the greenery, but also added to the stains on her hands as cracks and crevices deepened through the season.  No amount of soap or lotion could disguise the signs of the work that lead to her creations.  I never heard her complain of the extra work or the weathered skin.  Instead, I felt her focus and energy, witnessed the effort required to produce a quality product, and observed her face settle into a satisfied smile after each sale.

A parade of wreaths, some decorated with a simple bright red plastic bow and others with shiny bells or balls from the local five and dime, marched on and off the wooden display rack to the beat of tires pulling in and out of our gravel driveway.   Others were sent to market.  An extra large one was displayed, with particular pride, on the door of the local bank in our small town of just over 600 residents.   Mom’s hands were kept busy supplying the small steady demand, producing hundreds of these symbols of the season across the years. 

The speed and agility of her practiced fingers and trained eye made the results appear with apparent ease.   The truth quickly became evident as I tried to mimic her movements but ended with more abstract results.  My attempts were hung with the others and often disappeared in the day’s sales while I was away at school, the profits placed in my hands.  I tried to improve my technique on occasion but never achieved the quality of my model, lacking not only the expertise but the drive to hone the craft for anything more than the desire to buy candy at the local store.  

              During the weeks before Christmas dad scouted out a tree from the limited selection offered in the hardwood forest that surrounded the four sides of our home.  When weather and time opened a window we followed in the footprints made by his big felt lined rubber boots.  Wide eyed and breathless we watched his expertly angled ax release the trunk from its roots.  Three pairs of small mittened hands helped drag it home.   Trees varied in size and symmetry through the years.   Trimmings included: decorations made by our growing hands, inexpensive store bought baubles, strings of fat rainbow lights, and the precious red glass ornaments that marked the first Christmas following mom and dad’s vows before the Justice of the Peace.   Santa’s surprises varied, attuned to the year’s yield of lumber and availability of seasonal jobs that required his big truck or their hard working hands.   I never remember feeling disappointed as my brothers and I scampered from our beds in our shared room after falling to sleep listening for the clop of hooves on the roof.

A deeply ingrained work ethic led me through an array of jobs between classes to help fund a higher education.  Small amounts of extra greenery often found its way through the mail during those weeks preceding Christmas.   I went on to establish a career, marry and add my own children to the family.  Holiday gifts often overflowed under our perfectly shaped purchased tree.  Despite the fullness of Santa’s sleigh, each Christmas I created handmade items as part of my own tradition.  One year I worked into the night, after my day job, making a beaded trinket to sell at a craft fair.   Potential customers drifted by but did more looking than buying.  Hope was rapidly replaced with recognition that monetary return does not always equal the hours of unseen labor behind a handcrafted product.  However, the sense of accomplishment and empowerment traveled across the generational space, past the time of innocence.   Along with the realization that experiencing the pride and satisfaction gained through hard working hands and creative and loving hearts was the most valuable gift of all.

Mom – part 2

Superheroes inhabited our black and white TV on Saturday mornings in the early 1960’s.  Spiderman, Superman, and Wonder Woman evoked awe and satisfaction as the good guys won.  What I did not realize was that surviving in our small rural town required powers that rivaled those on our living room screen.   Disguised as a mild mannered mother of three, with cape and tights swapped for a cotton housedress and apron, mom’s superpowers included creating meals for five on a budget for two.   Her hands magically transformed greenery from the woodland floor into the greenbacks that provided holiday extras as she crafted and sold Christmas wreaths from our driveway.  The Singer sewing machine sang her theme song as she conjured new clothing for us kids from the unworn parts of dad’s pants and shirts; or summoned forth warm colorful quilts from bits of spare fabric.  

              Mom played her part as provider with little ado.  However, her starring role was that of the protector, vigilant and ready to fly into action.  Late summer was blueberry season.    Mom herded us up the road into the neighbor’s berry lot / cow pasture day after day and we filled coffee can buckets with berries to send to market.  Navigating through the well chewed paths between tall bushes, we occasionally met a munching black and white Hereford that glanced our way and then continued on her own mission.  The less docile bull was kept in a different pasture – usually.  One day mom’s hands froze abruptly as she cocked her head to one side.  With barely a word she swept my two brothers and me through the bushes towards the fence, glancing behind as we ran.  She lifted the bottom strand of sharp toothed wire as we scrambled under.   Then rolled her plump body beneath the pointed spines with speed and agility we didn’t know she possessed.  The horned snorting bull arrived just inches away as she gained her feet.    She stood between us and the bull, unmoving except for her heaving chest, staring up at him while he pawed the ground with his hoof, nostrils flared, until he finally turned and sauntered away.   She remained, still and quiet, rooted to that spot for several minutes.  She never took us into the pasture again without confirmation that the bull was where he belonged.

              Summer weekends often included family camping trips to the Adirondack Mountains in our unique olive green mobile home – an old bread van.  Dad had built 2X4 bunks and a fold down bench seat to accommodate sleeping the five of us.  Visiting local dumps in the early evening to watch bears feed was a popular pastime – soon after prohibited and fenced off for safety.  Mom’s steps stuttered along the gravel as her eyes surveyed the area surrounding a small crowd.  As we all watched the bears descend the hill in front of us, stopping to snack on enticing morsels along the way, mom glimpsed movement behind us, and screamed: “BEAR!!”  She seized my arm and bolted towards the camper, my feet barely touching the ground.   My face flushed as the other spectators chuckled and watched the bear lumber past on the way to its evening meal.  We did not return to the show, and though I would later claim I had been held back against my will, I made no move to leave the steel walls and closed door.

              The definition of mom expanded to include the word ‘brave’ one day when a six foot black snake invaded our enclosed back porch.  Upon spotting the snake she immediately pushed us inside the house, slammed the door, grabbed a shovel, knocked it down from the rafters and severed its head.   When she came inside I watched as she sat shaking on the settee, and then listened as she called her sister and choked out the details.   I knew she was holding back tears.  I also knew I did not have to worry about anything slithering my way.

As I grew and craved more freedom mom’s protection became less welcomed, often sucking the air out from under my sprouting wings.  Extreme restrictions cloaked in the guise of safety – no sleepovers, no high school dances, no class trip with the band – fed the growth of my own powers of deception to dodge her wary watch.  Despite obstacles of finances and conflicting expectations I fled her protective grip by escaping to college.   It was a giant step from a sheltered world, not without apprehension.  But thanks to mom I had learned to work hard, to think creatively, to observe my surroundings carefully, and when necessary, to act with bravery and strength despite fear.  I am grateful for the lessons that supported me as I moved into adulthood, taught by my own personal superhero through the greatest power of all – a mother’s love.

Mom – part 1

My parents were private people, or at least my father was, and mom followed his lead.  It was easier to control the world if it was kept very small.  Control offered many things: mastery, power, and a sense of safety from the evils ‘out there’.  Socializing was not part of our landscape, but the sense of safety within the boundaries of that small world was as solid as a tree trunk.

             The surrounding 37 acres of woods was my father’s territory, but the house was where mom took control.  The interior of our small home went through as many changes as she could accomplish with her own hands, using whatever materials were within reach.   Closets had been deemed a waste of space by dad as they built the house – a few hooks sufficed his needs.   Mom felt otherwise and proceeded to turn empty corners and hallways into closets by adding 2X4 frames, stray pieces of sheetrock or plywood for walls and broom handles for rods.  It didn’t end there.  Changes were as routine as flipping a page on the calendar – rearranged furniture, new paint, a new throw rug, curtains – depending on whatever was on sale, found at garage sales or manufactured through her own creativity.   An electric drill appeared under the Christmas tree one year and a circular saw on another.   I am certain Santa’s hands looked very similar to her own! 

            The basement was dark and damp through most of the year and I hesitated to descend those stairs unless mom was nearby.  I remember the day a new washer arrived, with an automatic wringer to replace the hand wringer I had watched her crank as she feed it pants and shirts and sheets and towels. She was as excited as I had ever seen her.  Bushel baskets of wet laundry were trudged up the back basement stairs to the clotheslines strung between two study posts where the lawn met the trees.  Branches cut with a ‘Y’ at the top were used to prop up the lines of heavy wet laundry to keep them suspended above the ground.  When rain and snow prevailed lines strung from the beams in the basement were used instead.  It could take days for heavy clothes to dry completely.  

            Under the basement stairs were sturdy wooden shelves filled with a rainbow of labor in glass canning jars.  Early fall found them laden with vegetables: green beans, beets, corn, peas and, of course, tomatoes in every form – whole, stewed, sauced, and juiced.  And then there were pickles, all kinds of pickles: bread and butter, dill, sweet and my favorite made from watermelon rinds.  Blueberries, blackberries and cherries were ready and waiting for winter pies and peaches, pears, applesauce and plums filled in the fruit section.  Each glass jar marched in the parade from the giant blue speckled enamel pot on the kitchen stove, to the basement shelves, and eventually to the Syracuse china on our yellow Formica table in the center of the kitchen.   

.           The multitude of tasks mom executed to keep our home functioning did not generate an income, but without her efforts the money earned through my father’s hard work would not have been able to support us with the necessities – that sometimes felt like luxuries compared to others around us.  I never remember feeling as if something material was missing from our simple life.  The things that were in short supply were not up for purchase.

            Mom’s refrain of: “Don’t tell your father!” seemed to accompany every action outside of his presence:  “ Don’t tell your father I bought this, …we went here, …I let  you do that, …wear that, …see that …”   Secrecy and fear became synonymous with keeping the peace.  Dad was predisposed to grunts and grumbles and sometimes louder explosions, but was her fear of his dissatisfaction actually related to the secrets so carefully guarded?   Or was this a fear carried in her heart from her own childhood she rarely talked about?  She was born in the middle of a line of six children.  Occasionally she dropped a detail about her early life like a pebble into murky water, sinking out of sight quickly and never reappearing for discussion or elaboration.  The fragmented scenario included that she did not get along with her father and left home at fourteen to work as live-in help; and that she was a tom boy when young – an image in stark contrast to the fearful woman controlled by my father’s grumbles that I knew.  Photos showed her as slim and pretty, with the latest hairdo – and her older sister’s hard earned clothes that she confessed to sneaking despite the fight it provoked.  She never talked about boyfriends other than my father.  They had met in her mid teens.  He was five years her senior.  She acknowledged that she had little interest in school, and daydreamed about getting married.  They became engaged before he left to serve in WWII, when she was barely sixteen.  Her graduation picture captures her pride in the ring on her outturned left hand with fingers spread wide to be sure it was visible.  They ran away to get married when he returned.  Photos of the two of them together looking into each other’s eyes and tales of their early years together suggested deep passion and love – another image hard to bring into focus through the lens of conflict, underlying anger and fear that seemed to have been built into the walls of our home.                                                                                                                           Mom often seemed to be afraid of everything outside our constricted little corner in the woods.   But as I look back I think her fears were for the safety of her children, in what she had experienced as an unsafe world; fear that grew from her need to protect in a way she had perhaps never experienced herself.  So she did it in the only way she knew how.

To be continued……….

Shadows in the woods

The isolation imposed by both location and restrictions allowed only my two brothers as playmates.  In our early years we were in each other’s constant company – playing and fighting and name calling and poking to get some kind of reaction.  The three of us shared one small bedroom until childhood began to creep towards adolescence and an upstairs room was finished off for my brothers.   The front yard hosted our three-player wiffle ball games that usually ended with shouts of: “cheater” or  an angry “I quit!”.  We often trekked through the open unmowed area on the far side of grandma’s trailer looking for milkweed pods to crack open, releasing the sticky white liquid along with the white fluff inside.   Sometimes we stripped pigweed seeds from long beckoning heads to fill pint size canning jars, racing to see whose reached the rim first – always my younger brother with his huge hands and determined nimble fingers.  We sometimes set up a table by the road and tried to sell them to the few cars that passed by.  Occasionally someone stopped and looked at our strange offering, but no one seemed to want seeds for the invasive weeds! 

              One summer mom rescued some old lumber and plywood and surprised us with a tree house – an open platform with 2X4 railings wedged between several small trees about five feet off the ground.  It stood at the edge of the woods, where I gazed from above at the dense growth beyond, but never stepped more than a few yards into.  The tractor trail my father used regularly cut through the thick green growth that blocked sight and sun.   Even this rutted path was not enough to entice me to risk exploring the creaking branches, rustling leaves, and squawks and squeals that populated the shadows.  I always had a sense of being watched from above and below, of a presence, waiting.  Fear can be a good thing, an instinctual alertness to signal trouble and maintain safety.  But this was the same woods my father entered each day and returned from, unscathed, each evening.   Was I afraid of getting lost?  Or hurt?  Did the apparent safety of our cocooned existence end at the tree line?  Had warnings of the dangers of the world from my overcautious mother – communicated through both words and actions – conditioned the depth of my dread?   Strict rules for safety limited not only potential danger but also the experience required to build a sense of competence and confidence in my own ability to handle what came my way.  I never remember exploring and learning about the secrets of the life that lived in the woods with my father or mother.  I felt too vulnerable to venture in on my own – even with my brothers nearby.  Is courage built on the back of encouragement?  Of lessons learned to become familiar with the unknown?

              When the leaves began to fall and light slipped between the naked limbs I felt greater ease at the edge of the woods, although I still did not enter.  Snow forts took the place of the tree house when cold air picked up warmer moisture as it passed over nearby Lake Ontario; transforming it into the crystalline flakes that fell in such quantity the bulldozer needed to be engaged to clear it.   Days when the sun bounced off branches glistening with layers of ice edged fear towards fantasy.  When the snow sat lightly on limbs, encasing the forest in a soft silence I could almost hear the trees whisper: “welcome…”  I did accompany my father and brothers into the woods in search of evergreens to decorate for Christmas.  I did join my brothers to play between the snow covered trees as my mother bent to pick the feather pine she used to make wreaths.  I did help stomp a path along the tractor trail to lengthen sled rides from the top of the mountain of plowed snow.   

              The fresh buds of May returned year after year and shadows always grew with the greenery, as did the restraint of my steps into the woods.  Today I still love unadorned limbs that reveal shapes and angles against the sky.  I still love the muted peacefulness of a walk on a snow covered day.  I still hesitate – but then continue on – as I enter the shadows of the woods