I don't remember a time when our mother wasn't trying out some new craft. Ceramics, stenciling, decoupage, carving, woodburning. Ceramics lasted the longest and was the least annoying as far as my brother, Walt, and I were concerned. We kind of liked it. Our house was peopled with Chinese courting couples and Southern belles and glamorous busts of Vargas-looking blondes. We had zebras and dachshunds, tigers and elephants parading through our small living room. It was like living in a toy factory. Except they weren't toys, as our mom was eternally warning us. But being kids, we'd succumb to the temptation to play: the romantic in me was always sending the ceramic Chinese couple off on dates which ended for them with a chaste kiss. Walt was more inclined to having the animals clash. Occasionally the worlds would overlap and the couple would be chased by the tiger or the dachshund. Inevitably, we broke something. Equal parts sad and scared, we'd have to confess and bear the punishment: seeing our mom upset because we destroyed one of her ceramics and then being sent to our rooms after a clipped tongue-lashing.
Perhaps because of the mortality rate of her figurines, our mother turned next to stenciling very solid objects such as chair backs and lamp stands. The process of stenciling seemed simple - cover an object with the stencil, paint over the cut-out portion, remove the stencil - but in truth it required not only an artistic vision of color and proportion but also a steady hand and an eye to perspective. Our mother had all of that. Her work was beautiful, there was no doubt about that. She used deep shimmering colors - plum and gold and red - against a black background. The effect was always striking. Even she, harsh critic of her own ability, was taken with the final product. The result was that she went on a stenciling spree. My brother and I would jokingly warn each other not to fall asleep in the living room lest we wake up with a limb painted black and sporting a stenciled pattern. Eventually, of course, this phase passed and she moved on to something else. I believe the next craft was making dolls out of cloth and dried apples. The clothing she made was artful and delicately stitched; the heads carved out of dried apples were frightening. The total effect was . . . startling.
The crafts would come and go, ebbing and flowing with the current trends as put forth by those arbiters of Americana, the magazines Good Housekeeping and Redbook. But always, as if in tacit acknowledgment of the transience of these crafts-by-popular- decree, our mother sustained her connection with her truest skill, her deepest love - embroidery. She was a master of the art, there is no doubt still in my mind about that fact. Although her medium would be considered mundane - jeans jackets and cotton shirts, pocketbooks and pillows - the talent shone through like a Vermeer painted on a cellar hatch. It was not at all uncommon for someone to approach my step-father (it was he who was most usually the recipient of our mother's talent) and offer to buy the coat off his back.
My brother and I frequently offered to set her up in a business of her own, but she always declined, saying that having to create would destroy the joy she received from simply embroidering as the spirit moved her. At the time I thought her short-sighted at the least and most probably suffering from a lack of confidence in her ability, but now that I am past my youth and well into middle- age, I can appreciate the truth of her wish to keep something for herself that was separate from commerce, separate from the demands of others, something that brought her comfort and serenity and a deep satisfaction of the kind that must only be known to those so gifted.