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.

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