I knock. My twelve-year-old daughter opens her bedroom door with fanfare, all vibrating arms and legs and long, dark hair, as if unveiling an art installation to an adoring fan. The room is dimmed for full drama, twinkle lights flickering on shell pink walls and a reading lamp trained like a spotlight on the new, mostly empty bookshelf. Lavender mist rises from the teardrop-shaped diffuser on her bedside table. Promising, I think.
Earlier today, when Harriet invited me to check out the progress of her bedroom redecoration, I had allowed myself a flutter of anticipation. Maybe this new bookshelf would bring a hint of order to a room that could easily have been featured on an episode of Hoarders. Might the shelf prompt her to progress from haphazard treasure-gathering to tidily arranging her belongings, so she could remember not only that she owned more than a dozen scrunchies, but also where to find them?
Surveying the room more closely now, I note that the bedside table also holds wads of used Kleenex, several lip balms, and an aqua blue Hydroflask nearly full of dusty water. The gallery-style bookshelf leaning against the wall between the windows contains only six books, a pink Polaroid camera, and a collection of soccer trophies.
A teetering pile of books remains pushed up against the wall, where it has been since we emptied Harriet’s old desk six months ago and sold it at a garage sale. Since then, each week seemed to bring more clutter around the old desk’s contents, as if the books and papers were mating. My husband, Mike, grumbled as he tried to vacuum around the piles. I made a few forays into her room to lay down the disappointment card, ask the obvious, tear-provoking questions, and maybe peek into the horror show of a closet, if I was feeling energetic. But mostly I tried to stay away.
Tonight, clothes still litter the floor. The sleeve of a fluffy brown sweatshirt peeks out from beneath the closet door, like roadkill. I try to blinker my eyes, but the piles surrounding the bookshelf shimmer in my peripheral vision.
“What do you think?” she asks, bouncing on the bed.
I swallow hard. “Good. But, what’s your plan for all the stuff around the shelf?”
She stops bouncing. Lowers herself to the carpet.
“Why not use the bin on your bedside for the leftover books?” The words are out of my mouth before I can stop them. I know better than to provide solutions. I prevent great ideas from happening simply by being her mother and presenting the possibilities out loud.
“I don’t know,” she sighs, deflated.
I back out of the room. “Just going to check on dinner.”
Instead, I go to the basement. Tucked into a corner behind the furnace is the place I call my studio, where I express my creativity and store piles of items my family no longer needs but can’t part with. Now, I twirl a basket filled with Aunt Edna’s impressive collection of tiny, ornate sewing scissors. Why can’t I just let Harriet arrange her room however she wants? Am I really this controlling?
Recently my studio has become an exhibit of crafty relics originally belonging to our foremothers, four women who died in the past four years, each leaving behind an unregretful lifetime’s worth of making do. Now much of it is in my basement, my personal Michael’s craft supply store. I move the basket closer to one of my mother-in-law’s recipe boxes, its plaid metal surface bearing the label “Meat” in Verna’s precise cursive. Beneath its plastic cover, my mother’s trusty brown Singer sewing machine commands most of the table. A Larks shoebox brimming with my grandmother’s embroidery silk holds down a nearby corner. I pull out a tangled mass of peacock blue and begin to unknot the thread.
Once we finally cleaned out the homes and settled their affairs, I had been eager to pass down to Harriet some of the life skills these women taught me. But sewing, gardening, and natural bathroom-cleaning techniques were quickly eclipsed by soccer practice, math homework and adult-free bike rides to meet friends at Starbucks.
“Mom?” Harriet is trudging down the steps. “Why are you down here?” She rounds the corner into the six-foot square space, narrow shoulders slumped forward.
“I don’t know, honey.” I continue teasing apart the silk strands, wishing I could untangle my mood and find a good answer. “I guess I just needed to think.”
Harriet reaches for the floss ball.
I release it, not meeting her eyes. Neither of us is quite ready.
And then, a puff of breath before she says, “I’m sorry.”
“No, I’m sorry.”
I don’t seem to know where I fit these days, where I’m needed. She had been so proud of her minimalist shelf arrangement, a perfect match to the results of an exhaustive Pinterest search. Mom, what do you think about this idea? Or this? Ooh, I really like how modern this looks. And then I got all practical on her.
“Let’s go back to my room,” she says, tossing the still-knotted silk into the open box. Her solemn mood is so easily replaced by joy.
Together we climb the stairs. On the landing sits a grocery bag filled with fabric, one of my attempts at tidying. “Wait,” Harriet says, reaching down for a wadded-up piece of black tulle with satin ties. “Isn’t this my witch skirt?”
I had made the costume four years earlier, right after my mom was diagnosed with incurable cancer, and Gram needed more help in Iowa, and I’d just started consulting. Sewing that costume gave me a brief moment of control in a world that was becoming more and more chaotic. It felt good to use my hands. And even while I was pre-grieving a world without Mom, the project helped me feel more connected to her. She had always made costumes for my brother and me, magically unearthing fabric and notions in her basement sewing bunker.
“I don’t know why we didn’t just order my costume from Amazon.” Harriet’s voice is light as she drops the skirt back into the bag.
I know she doesn’t mean to hurt me, but I feel as if I’ve been punched. I can’t stop myself. “Really? But, honey. We make our costumes. It’s a family tradition!”
“I know, but it might have been easier for you to just buy it.”
I continue up the stairs toward the kitchen, my hand tight around the railing. Easier? What about the principle of the thing?
“I’m going to buy my costume this year,” she says, sailing ahead of me toward her room.
I stand near the pantry, taking shallow breaths.
Mike appears around the corner. “What’s going on?” One look at my face and he starts upstairs. “I’m on it.”
Treading heavily back down to the cellar, I realize that I’m grinding my teeth. How could my own daughter not respect the ritual of creative reuse? How could she fail to acknowledge that it meant survival for our immigrant ancestors? She has heard the stories over and over: Isolated on modest midwestern farms in the early 1900s, the women in our family made do or did without. Over the generations, making do became part of our collective DNA.
Even when we didn’t need to make things, we did. Why buy wallpaper for my 1976-themed bedroom, when we had leftover patchwork fabric? We could even customize it with denim scraps to match the bedspread. That particular project was a showcase for the collective handiwork of my mother and grandmother, women who also knew how to whip up wallpaper paste from flour and water.
Now, I take a long, audible yoga-class breath, exhaling through my nose. Am I acting like a tween? Sort of, I think, my irritation waning with each step. Mike’s pacifying murmurs drift down the stairs, words fading as I descend. “You know how Mom feels about making stuff…”
In the playroom, I stop and stare down at my worn wool slippers, feeling frustrated and foolish. I’ve had enough therapy to know that grief lives on, but this feels different. The only word that describes how I feel is adrift. What’s my purpose if I can’t teach my daughter the satisfaction of using her hands to create something out of nothing?
Living in Minneapolis is nothing like life on the farm. I don’t suffer the hardships faced by the women who came before me, yet I am compelled to fashion pillow covers from the unworn sections of Faribault wool blankets and ferment unfamiliar vegetables from my summer crop share box.
Even before these time-honored practices were rebranded on YouTube, and DIYers became more famous than Billie Eilish, I pressured myself to give Harriet a solid foundation in handwork. When she was four, I wove tiny pink and red strips of paper left from an art project into valentine hearts for her preschool classmates. As she grew older, I strove to teach her that every craft project didn’t require a trip to Target. I encouraged her to bake with our friend Elizabeth, holding my tongue at the inevitable mess.
Standing in my little hidey hole by the furnace, I survey the pile of unmended sweaters and the empty canvas on the easel, the half-finished knitting needle storage project, and the twelve boxes of recipe cards. Not only am I being a hypocrite about neatness, I realize, but I’ve conveniently forgotten the times when I was a far less eager student than Harriet. One summer, when I was about her age and staying on the farm with Gram, I feigned a headache to avoid a lesson on baking buns. I just wanted to be alone with my MAD Magazines (hidden under the bed after Gram paid me face value to throw them away because they made me sarcastic). Another time, when I was in third grade, Mom rescinded her agreement to help me sew a jumper. She had weathered my overt boredom as we flipped through patterns in the fabric store, but back home, once it was clear that I was more interested in whining than learning, she called off the project. The unfinished dress, royal blue with yellow stars, hung in her sewing room until I left home for college.
Mom and Gram persevered with their practical lessons for making do, and ultimately, I learned to love handy creative expression. As a twelve-year-old, I was welcomed by the quilters—neighbor ladies and church women who gathered around the frame in Gram’s kitchen one summer. While I labored to complete a single line of stitches, careful not to prick my finger and soil the white cotton fabric, Gram whizzed on to a new section and put on a fresh pot of coffee, and Mom applied tiny, perfect stitches to her finished block. No one complained. They just let me figure it out.
Maybe that’s what I need to do now.
As I stack and restack the recipe boxes on my table, I can almost see Gram nodding, eyes patient behind her wire rimmed glasses, while I ponder how to be sensible, to start noticing more and fixing less, leading by example, rather than telling and controlling.
I let my hands rest on the table for a moment. I may have inherited their supplies, but what I need most are the women who owned them. Aunt Edna isn’t here to remind me that she saved these sequins in case Harriet wanted extra dazzle for her honey bee diorama. My mother-in-law isn’t around anymore to engage my daughter in simple tasks. “Your eyes are young,” she said once, plopping a skirt with an unraveled hem onto the counter in front of Harriet. “See if you can get the black thread through the needle.”
And I don’t have Mom to nudge me to finish the half-made skirt or the knitting projects that need just a few touches before they can be worn. How many times did she help me, and then step off to the side until I needed her? I want to be like that, to be more patient with Harriet. But I am not sure I can do it alone.
My phone, silent on the table, lights up with a text from Di, my college roommate. When do we want to come make lefse again, this time with Gram’s recipe? I remember Di making the traditional Norwegian flatbread on our last visit, how I looked on as Harriet followed Di’s instructions and then banished me to the corner of the kitchen. Secretly grateful to hand off this lesson to a more adept baker-teacher, I watched with pride as my daughter rolled out the dough like a pro, placed it carefully on the griddle, and flipped the potato pancake with a special wooden stick.
“I’ve got tons of potatoes this time!” Di texts.
Before I can respond, Harriet yells down the stairs. “Mom! Elizabeth and I are baking this Saturday at her house.” The sole members of a club called Two Girls Bake, their latest endeavor involved creating the perfect cinnamon roll while wearing matching aprons.
“Great!” I pull the string on the ceiling bulb. “Di wants you to come down and make lefse one of these days, too.”
I hear a muffled “Yay!”
When I climb the stairs to Harriet’s room this time, she is humming as she adds more books to the shelf. There on the bottom sits the bedside bin I had suggested earlier.
I cross the room and put my arm around her. “You’re developing quite an eye.”
She leans into my hug.
My path feels clearer and my step is light as I head downstairs again, thinking about Di and Elizabeth, and the other women in Harriet’s life who hand down their expertise with generosity and love. With their help, she will gain new and traditional skills and create a foundation all her own. All I need to do is be available when she needs me, like the women who did the same for me.