Thursday, February 23, 2006

my mother's tools

When angry, my mother liked to wield a tool. She rarely chose the tools favored by her feminine counterparts: my mother was most comfortable with a hammer. She always said a garden hoe allowed her to survive her first few years of parenting, while she and my father lived in a shack in the middle of nowhere—snapshots of my older brother and I playing near the crank-wringer washing machine in the backyard show a little hint of vegetable garden, well-weeded. She didn’t really care whether there were weeds between rows of beans, but she needed something to swing at.

By the time we were living at the house I remember, in town in Farmland, Indiana, my mother and father ran a part-time upholstery business, and they were good at it. My father handled the skeletal parts of the furniture, the wood and webbing, the springs, and he generally tore the furniture apart in a way my mother could reassemble it—if you have ever taken something apart into it’s elements, you know this orderliness is crucial. They were good at analysis, customer relations, expert craftsmanship. They were not good about charging a fair price, their only real downfall.

If Mom ran out of other peoples’ objects to hammer, she always had a few pieces of our furniture to repair, also. We would watch for her eyes to hone in on a chair or couch when she was restless, and we children would cling to our favorites, begging her not to take them. “It’ll just be a week!” she would say. But then a customer would walk into her shop, see the favorite wing-back chair on the saw horses, and make an offer. Mom would walk into the kitchen counting her new wad of cash, and we would slump into the living room dejectedly. More than once, she actually sold a couch from our living room, and we would arrive home from school to find an empty space and a freshly vacuumed floor.  

My mom probably saw her body as a tool, too, more often than not—something to be swung and wielded until it yielded the desired results. She ignored pain and small injuries, and eventually she ruined her hands and arms by simply using them too hard, yanking the webbing for the chair cushion just a little tighter, adding a little more fierceness to the pull of that button cording, until her hands began to go numb and she had no predictable strength at all. After hand surgery, my mother had to sell most of those upholstery tools because the temptation was too great for her to ruin her hands all over again.

So my mother started a new career—she went to work at the local hardware store in her early fifties, and she went at it the way my mother does, with gusto, her eyes big as saucers with curiosity and a good ear. Mom laughed about the ways the owners, half her age, and the male customers assumed a woman would not have the kind of good sense a man would, regarding plumbing and woodworking and ropes and door locks. She told me she learned something new every day.

When my mother contracted cancer in her final year of life, she moved to a small rental home from the property she had managed for fifteen years. She hated most to give up her tools: two five-foot tall cases on wheels, filled to the brim with every tool a homeowner and landlady could require. She argued bitterly with my brothers over the desire to keep those tools. “They only let me keep one hammer and two screwdrivers!” My brothers chanted in unison, “If it takes more than a hammer or a screwdriver, you need to call the landlord! That’s why you rent!” But somehow she snuck into her rented closet two entire sets of Drimmel tools, in case of any sudden urge to carve designs into wood. It was a little sort of insurance for her, her potential hobby should she find herself cured of cancer and with some time to fill. These toolcases made me sad, and they made me smile at the same time. Two full sets. Excess, until the very end.

I wish I had my mother’s force of will to bend the world into place, to hammer and hoe and carve it into what I need it to be. I wish I had her deep love for tools. In some small ways, I echo this—I love art supplies, office supplies, all kinds of fiber arts and all the sets of tools to manipulate wax, dye, fabric, paper. I have just a hint of my brother’s love for cooking tools—a handcrank pasta maker, an apple peeler, just the best food processer, the best camping grill. But my toolbox is small and easily carried, and I suspect, a bit sadly, that it will stay that way.

Friday, February 17, 2006

wisdom from a young Lithuanian sage

“You are not like these other people,” the young man says in his heavy accent.

Great, I say in my head. Another day, another sage. I put on my best anthropologist face and respond, “Now, tell me what you mean by that. I’m a traveler, just like all the other people at the Orlando airport. And you are not from here, so tell me what you see that makes you say that.” We are hustling with the rest of the line, to the baggage claim, and we need to ride the train-like shuttle between points at the airport.

“Lithuania. I am from Lithuania. But I live on Nantucket, and you remind me of people from there. What you are wearing,” he raises his hands in a shrug, as if what he is saying is evident. I am wearing a nice black skirt, a little long but very practical, and my favorite nice-ish shirt—it’s made by Grimicci, a climbing company, but it’s stylish, interesting. “What?” I say, shaking my head. He’s right, though, it’s neither office wear, as some travelers are wearing, nor jeans, which some travelers are wearing.

“The skirt, it is long, no? Not like anyone else. And the backpack. You look ready for anything. And that bag!” He points to my very unusual bag, which certainly is an eye-catcher. It’s a messenger bag crafted from a Cambodian fish food bag—bright orange imprinted with carp and the label, “Golden Feed” in red and yellow. “Looks like… from a (he is looking for the word)… a health food store!” He is congratulating himself for describing it just right. “’Ippees. There are people, I think you call them hippies, on Nantucket. Your face looks like them. Like you are happy to be here. Like you are friendly to strangers. Like you would talk to a couple of guys from Lithuania.”

“Okay, then,” I laughed. “I am in fact happy to be here. I’d like nothing more than to talk to a couple of guys, half my age, from Lithuania. If you think I am a hippie, you should see my hair!” It is twisted up in a loose French twist with hairsticks, and I have no idea how it looks, but there are probably corkscrews of hair escaping from the pile on my head.

“It is unusual. I see it.”

“This bag is from a health food store—you are exactly right. I work at a health food store. You have lived in the US maybe six months, and already you can tell these small nuances—you are a good anthropologist.”

“But will it help me find girls who will dance with me, on Key West? That’s where we are headed, Key West. No night life on Nantucket. No one is wearing t-shirts here—am I dressed okay, I want to ask?”

“It’s a chilly night, by Orlando standards, outside. You will be cold in a t-shirt, but I’m sure once you get to the Keys, you will find you are dressed just right. I can see you are a very smart student of people. I bet you will find girls who will dance with you.” He is so vibrant, so merry, so fresh for whatever is going to happen. He says goodbye at the baggage claim and I wish him luck.

I live in my own skin pretty comfortably—I have no idea on a day-to-day basis what might make me stand out from a crowd, except my hair and my Cambodian fish food messenger bag. Maybe I just don’t know how to dress myself, as one friend said of people who don’t watch a lot of television: maybe we just miss all the cues of what we are “supposed” to value and do. But I’ve lived with a string of these kinds of encounters, people who need to tell me something they see in me, some truth about me—that’s been happening my whole life, even when my hair was short, and long before the bright bag. I expect it to slow down, now that I am clearly middle-aged and nothing special to look at. I’ve always been trying to understand what it is people see when they speak to me this way.

So now I know. Although I’ve been traveling in what I considered perfect anonymity, I look like the kind of person who would talk to a guy from Lithuania. Which is absolutely true.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

weather inside my head

One summer, I spent a quarter of my waking hours in and around Bear Cave, exploring more than a mile of fissures with small children in helmets. There are many things to love about a cool cave on a hot day, but the best, best thing was to emerge from the cave, to clean up from the trip, to have a hot shower and to happily devour whatever camp food was served. After the interior of a cave, every single thing in the world looks good, smells good, tastes good, feels luxurious and rich. After the darkness, the scent of good clay, the world seems sparkly and delicious.

My headache lifted last Thursday. I’m mildly euphoric about it. I’m writing and organizing my writing, and enjoying being pain-free.