My best gift this year? The beloved husband mended my favorite stocking cap. (His favorite gift this year, by the way? Not the fancy new "dental care system," aka electric toothbrush I bought him, but the vintage plastic lunchbox and matching thermos my mother sent him. He's been wanting one of those.) He didn't give me the cap, you understand. I bought it from a vendor at the Castro Street Fair in San Francisco some time in the nineteen-eighties. In fact, I bought half a dozen different such hats from that talented lady. "Martha Made It/San Francisco," the tag says. I still have three of these. Lost the rest at Christmas parties or they fell out of coat pockets or were inadvertently left under under theater seats. Don't know. Miss the missing ones still. Of the three surviving hats, this is my favorite. It is black with white pinstripes and I wear it like a skullcap with the brim rolled. (A friend calls these my "house turbans" which is not inaccurate, though I do wear them in the streets as well. Slattern.) The rolled edge at the back has frayed away and was threatening to unravel after it came last out of the wash. The beloved husband noticed this and all unprompted stitched up up for me. The stitching was the gift, though he would not think to call it that. I do. He is quicker than I to mend things and often without saying. His mother taught him to sew, as my mother taught me.
We were taught to sew, at least so far as to fix a hole in the heel of a sock, put a button back on, or hem a pillowcase as just a useful thing to know. Backstitch, running, and basting, in my case, nothing artful or fancy, but still, better than helplessness. Helplessness is natural in small children and it seems still all too common in most grown men. As in so many things including cooking, talking to service providers and repair persons, and keeping his temper, the beloved husband has the better of me, and much the more sure and lighter touch. I have less patience generally and the quicker temper, typically enough. Rather a shock I should think, anyone meeting us for the first time that in some things I'm the more stereotypical male. I am all too easily frustrated, particularly in practical matters, and fat peasant fingers on me, better suited to ditch-digging than to making invisibles stitches. He has hands like a pianist.
We were both lucky in our mothers. Not every mother asks much of her sons in domestic matters. Perhaps better say in my generation and before, sons were not taught a tenth of what their mothers knew, not even something so simple and necessary as sewing on a button. Would that more of us had been taught more, or had listened. That sounds smug, but trust me when I tell you I did not listen much myself. Amazing I learned the little I did, but then in my case the woman in question was and is formidable in her way. Wouldn't know it to look at her. Helplessness was not an option in her sons.
That men do not listen to women generally is I think still broadly true. The evidence of this is everywhere. (Note Angela Merkel in every photo from every g20 conference, to pick just the one obvious example. Patience of a saint, that woman. Imagine sitting next to Putin for a decade, or worse! Enjoy your retirement, Chancellor.)
Few of the domestic sciences have a more storied history in literature than needlework, and less respect in the wider, man-spreading world. For three years Penelope works and reworks that wretched shroud before Odysseus finally wanders home and hardly a word of praise does she get for it -- or anything even from Homer but the requisite admiration of her fidelity. (I'll bet that when she was done that winding sheet was exquisite as Austen's prose.) Women's work, to use an antique and condescending tag, never gets its due, except of course from other women. Of all the somewhat scant displays in the Jane Austen House museum, none is now more treasured that the coverlet Jane sewed and signed in stitching, now I think of it. I looked it up. In a letter to her sister Cassandra, of what was Jane Austen proudest? Writing Sense and Sensibility? No. Of that she worries it might prove, "too clever." Instead it is her needlework of which she boasts, "I am proud to say I am the neatest worker in the party." Note that she was writing to her sister. If she was going to brag, who better to? And yet it is the quilt not the novel that in the author's opinion recommends her even to Cassandra.
Mother tells me she never minded sewing. The domestic chore my mother likes least is ironing. Remember that in her youth this was a far more cumbersome business than now; what with starch-bottles, water for sprinkling, hot irons and cold. It was hard work. Yet it was not the onerous nature the task itself so much as all the time spent -- and entirely too much of that in ironing her older brother's shirts. For much of the time described he was a college student and then a seminarian. He required clean white shirts and sometimes more than one a day. That side of the family always ran hot and tended to damp and my uncle, even as a young man was a substantial, if unathletic figure. In those days, it would have occurred to no one other than my mother that the man might have ironed his own damned shirts.
When the day came that I left my father's house for good and all, my mother made sure that I knew how feed myself, clean my own clothes and linens, and that should the need arise I might iron my own shirt. No woman would ever have to "do for" me as she had done for three generations of men and boys. By then of course we both knew just how right she was, no woman ever would, but the principle was sound. In my abbreviated college career I instructed half a dozen boys in operating the washing machines, explained to at least one that a fitted sheet was not "part of" the mattress, taught a grown man how and when to turn a fried egg, and explained to another what shoe-polish was for and how it worked. I remember a conversation with someone I barely knew about why one end of the ironing-board was rounded.
I'd like to think that the rigidity of gender in my mother's generation has relaxed and that the assumptions that condemned my mother to all those steamy hours flattening my uncle's collars and pressing the generous spaces between his many shirt-buttons will never come again. Nonetheless I've known more than one mother of my own generation -- and after -- whose adult sons still bring them dirty laundry as if it were a gift, adult men who have never made a meal more complicated than a sandwich, and at least one fellow with an advanced degree who not all that long ago found he had no idea how to operate the iron in his hotel room. He needed a shirt pressed for the conference he was in town to address. (Evidently no one had ever taught him how to pack a suitcase either.) No idea how an iron worked. His solution? He ordered a new shirt online and had it delivered to the front desk. (Hard not to think that whatever the actual subject of his lecture, it might better have been Unexamined White Male Privilege and the Gig Economy or something like, but not a point I raised.) However evidently slow the progress of my sex, I am proud to say my mother did her part raise her boys from helplessness and sexist assumptions.
Among my personal treasures in a quilt-scrap worked by my grandmother and adapted by my mother as a framed background for a collage of photos of my mother's youngest, meaning me. It is a lovely thing, not because I'm in it and all the more so for representing the kind and artful attentions of the most important women in my life. Not an un-troubling example I'll admit as it is about me ultimately. Again, typical now I think about it.
Now that gifts are very much again in mind, I am thinking of intangibles too, of what lasts, what does and doesn't get passed down through the generations. And I am thinking of mended things. When I was young I was surrounded by mended things: pots, pans, clothes, engines, animals, people.
Women mended all sorts, but men did too. Theirs were the vehicles and engines, windows and doors, pumps and stone walls and fallen fences. Every summer a man with a round stone came to my grandmother's house, just up the road from ours. I do not know his name. He was a knife-grinder and he brought with him a stone wheel that sat in a wooden frame. He operated the wheel with a peddle, not unlike my grandma's Singer sewing machine but also not unlike, his wheel, something from the Middle Ages. It might have been a battle-axe or a broadsword sharpened on that wheel. As it was he sharpened kitchen knives, and hatchets, saws, scythes, and hoes. He carried whetstones of various sizes and meant to varied purposes. He was when last seen already very old. I saw him only the once, if I actually saw him at all. I remember him vividly, but as with so many memories of early childhood, he may have been one of my grandmother's stories that I've adopted as my own. Memory is in part appropriation too, or theft to put it more bluntly.
I'm sure that I don't remember the tinkers, but I know they still came in the summers too, offering to fix things, and to lay new blacktop on driveways. They were not trusted to finish what they started and were not to be employed by any of mine. Their reputation, and our prejudice outlasted their presence, and people back home still describe things as being "not worth a tinker's dam."
I do remember standing with my father in a room that smelled of boots and resin and old wood watching a man mend horse tack and saddlery. I remember he held a length of leather in his mouth while he talked. I marveled at that. I'd seen men all my life talk around the plug in their cheek or with a bobbing cigarette stuck to their lip, but never before had I seen someone stretching leather with one end anchored in his teeth. I wondered at the strength of his teeth, thinking they must be very like a horse's to do that. I was reminded of this while watching an excellent new movie recently and have to wonder, again, how much I actually remember and what I've borrowed from the movie? (Made by a woman, by the way.)
Of course I've seen a horse shoed more than once and thought the moment in no way special.
My grandmother's last gentleman-friend made brooms and raised bees. I knew more than one man who worked wood on a lathe or caned chairs. I've seen many practical things made as well as mended.
Mostly though I preferred the company of women even then because they had actual conversations about more interesting things; like people I might know, rather than dogs or vehicles. What they worked on while they talked was better too, and smelled better too, like food and flowers rather than carburetors and, again, dogs. And women talked indoors. Always better, indoors than out; cooler in the summers and warmer in the winters, and nobody spat. And in their homes, everywhere around me was the evidence of working needles and sewn things: quilts and crochet, doilies and table linens, no curtains but what were measured and made at home, dresses, doll-clothes, sock-monkeys, fascinating, detailed, and artful things. I say that now, but no one then thought of these things as "artisanal" or "folk art" or in anyway superior to store-bought things. "Old timey" was already the phrase for much of this then -- a phrase I still find lovely -- but not yet so unusual as to be sold in boutiques and to tourists of which where I grew up there were none in those days. Quaint was not yet a craze or collectible. The bourgeois women I met later through their children all seemed obsessed at the time with something called "authentic colonial." Being then a junior pedant, I thought this a weird preoccupation as my hometown not founded until more than a decade after the Constitutional Convention. "Authentic colonial" in Western Pennsylvania would be better represented by three legged stools in rough, unvarnished wood and general Augean filth, I should think, but who wants that in one's breakfast nook? So far as I could tell, what these ladies meant by the term, and what they called antique in general were spindle-legged, straight-backed chairs on which no one was allowed to sit, polished spinning wheels no one used, and over-sized copper pots hung above their gas ranges. There was as yet no wider market, or at least none that any of us had heard tell, for anything so practical as a quilt or so old fashioned as a sampler. Fo my grandmothers' generation things were made when they couldn't or needn't be bought. Some things were beautiful, some weren't but even when the look of the thing was not the point there was often craft and great skill in the stitching of it. Barely noticed much of it. In those far off days piles and pounds of the stuff could be had at a rummage sale for a song. Antique shops then were for blue and white china and Queen Anne bureaus and "colonial" whatnots. What did I know? Looking back, I knew no more than that interesting old women lived in old houses full of interesting old things.
All of which sounds terribly charming and folksy now, doesn't it? That is very much my fault.
I am reminded of Michael Pollan, journalist, food-activist, and ayahuasca enthusiast. Admirable writer, admirable fellow in his way, but also representative of a generation nearly my own and a class still pretty alien to mine that seems intent on a Rousseauian reclamation of simplicity, of fading rustic skills, the locally sourced, and bitter greens. The best part of this movement has reproduced lost apples, fought the insanity of single-use plastics, and proved objectively that we are a danger to ourselves and to life in general. The less attractive aspect of all this enthusiasm for "authenticity," the bit that sticks is the assumption of infinite leisure. How comes it that anyone has time to raise chickens in the city?
I heard Pollan on a panel in some online something. He was blithely telling an audience of bourgeois white women that home-canning was really the way to go; the product so superior in every way to tinned peaches or frozen peas, healthier, better for the planet, etc., etc. Delighted smiles all around and applause. SO true. So very true.
What no one on that panel pointed out was that the only reason my grandmother, who canned all her long life, had the time to read a book or watch her Wheel of Fortune was because she'd lived to see affordable tinned peaches and frozen peas. The reason she was able to live respectably as a widow for forty years was because she was able to find respectable work that didn't break her back and cripple her hands. No one mentioned that the hideous vinyl flooring in her kitchen meant she needn't scrub and polish the "authentic" wood floors underneath.
In my experience the dignity of work is most often mentioned by those that needn't hold a brush or a broom, raise anything other than their voices, people who've never needed to mend anything, make a meal they weren't pleased to eat, or teach a child to work for anything better than the lesson of it.
The word abandoned by the modern disciples of Rousseau is "savage." Ugly word, too often used to demean other human beings, but a good word to remember when discussing this reclaimed nobility in humble things and tasks. The lives of my people, of most people, poor people were and are savage. Poverty is savage. The physical requirements of daily survival the world over remain savage. It is not character or genetics that the word "savage" describes. It is the state of people's hands, the pain in their knees, the work required to raise and preserve their food. Life is savage. Want is savage. Necessity is savage, not people.
Are we all really so far from savagery now that the little things people did and do to make sweetness where they could find it, beauty in practical objects, comfort against the cold or the equatorial heat, that these things they made for want of better are valued now for their authenticity, collected and appraised for their delightful simplicity, aesthetically pleasing despite the sweat they represent? Yes, a quilt can be art. I will grant you, but I would remind the collector that it was made from scraps because scraps were what were to be had. People carved because they had a sharp knife and just time enough of an evening to add detail to something needed.
I am no better than the people whose new enthusiasm for old things and simplicity I disdain. My house -- and yes, I have a house -- is full to the rafters with things, many of them old as I grow more so every day. I've no more need of most of the things I possess than of a third ear. I collect canes and carved staffs, books and ornaments and weathered toys. I eat fruit out of season and meat when I want it. I recognize the luxury in which I live, undreamt of by my ancestors no more than two generations back. I see the value in these things, I invest value in them exactly as the rich might and do. I reckon only that I needn't learn the superior taste of a home-canned tomato because I ate them at one time because that was what we had. I know the work involved, and the cost, because I saw it. That's all. It makes me angry to think a man might lecture women about how little it costs to can a peach. Does he know? What was the state of his grandmother's hands? How hard did his father's heart work to feed him? Absolutes and abstractions are a privilege -- and there at last is a newly dirty word I feel comfortable using as such myself. I am myself privileged in using words just this way. I have the time. I was taught the value of that.
Mended things may be the best gifts. Twelve little stitches made with affection and strong nylon thread can save a hat more than a quarter of a century old. Don't know that sewing can save the world, or even the past. For that I think we need less canning, fewer seminars and instructional videos and online "package-openings," and maybe more labor unions, income and inheritance taxes, fewer dilettante in space, more billionaires in fear of eternal Hell, and more bankers in jail.
I am minded now this Christmas day of another quote about mending things. "Least said, soonest mended," as Betsey Trotwood says -- having spent a long, hilarious, and most confusing paragraph explaining in the third person the loss of all her money. Again it seems I have met with a wise woman and failed to listen or learn my lesson. "'Which was injudicious, Trot,' said my Aunt, 'but well meant.'" Best that can be said of me, mostly, and of this.
And now I should go and give my good husband a kiss for mending my cap.