How Can I Keep from Singing?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI’ve said elsewhere that the music I love best is folk music, music made by people like you and me. The music I love best is made and sung by everyday people in response to everyday events in their own lives. I can appreciate the glory of the highly-trained operatic voice and also love a song that has-a-good-beat-and-is-easy-to-dance-to but I come back, every time, to the grittier, more authentic sound of the folk.

I especially love the music of protest and resistance. I wrote a Master’s thesis on the spirituals sung by African-American slaves and published a book about the protest songs of the American Civil Rights Movement. I’ve also studied Irish songs of rebellion and the protest music of the American New Left and of the turbulent 1960s.

The best songs, to my way of thinking, are not sung by an individual performer while others sit and listen quietly. The best songs are shared in the fullest sense—shared words, shared voices, making together a sound and a covenant that could not be made by one person, alone. And the best songs transcend the moment in which they were created, to speak across generations, about the human condition.

This is all by way of providing you a preview of coming attractions! I just know I’ll be writing more about this music and the songs and singers/songleaders that have moved me most. I’ll start, in the next week or so, with my thoughts about what I would call the greatest folk song of all time, “We Shall Overcome.” I hope you’ll come back and follow along!

Loving Hands: Connecting Two Generations

Banker quilt pendant-4When it comes to a trove of items made by “loving hands at home,” I am one of the lucky ones. I have many, many treasures made by members of my family.

I am very sentimental about these things and I like to have them out where I can see them. I have a wooden knife box, made by grandmother’s grandmother’s father, in the kitchen holding my dishcloths. We use my husband’s grandmother’s hand embroidered pillowcases on the bed. And I used the scrap of an old, old quilt, with my great-grandmother’s signature, to make a silver pendant.

The quilt: An old patchwork quilt, done as a friendship quilt; each person would stitch a block with their signature in the center, then the pieces would be put together by the group. Sometimes these quilts were made as a gift to a person marrying or leaving to move West. Sometimes they were made by members of a church, with each signer paying for their block, as a way to raise money for the church. This quilt was made in a variety of fabrics, set into off-white cotton and with a center square for the signature.

Banker quilt pendant-2My quilt had been used hard and then stored badly for too many years. By the time it came to me, it had huge holes through the fabric and batting and was filthy. Though some people will say I was wrong to do so, I cut it up and salvaged what I could, with an eye toward doing something to preserve the remnants at a future date. I saved all the signature blocks, including a number with names I recognized, made by women and men. One block said “Grandma Banker.”

Banker quilt pendant-3Based on the other signatures and family memories, I identified the “grandma” as Ella Banker, mother of my paternal grandmother and born in 1867.

The pendant: I studied jewelry making as an art student in college and then did nothing with it for years. I became a college professor in an entirely different field but the college at which I worked offered jewelry making and silversmithing so, after about 25 years, I was back in the studio.

We received the assignment to make a piece of jewelry that represented our notion of “precious.” I knew I wanted to focus on family and connections so I chose to incorporate the “Grandma Banker” quilt scrap into the jewelry.

I made the pendant of sterling silver and created a tiny oval box into which the fabric would nestle. I cut the front and back, using a jeweler’s saw, and scalloped the edges to suggest lace. I used tube rivets to hold the pieces of the box together; these hold tightly just by fitting them properly and I thought the hollow middle of the tubes added to the look of stylized lace.

Banker quilt pendant-5Banker quilt pendant-6I used plexiglass on the front, to protect the old fabric. I wanted to be sure that the piece wasn’t airtight, so the fabric could breathe and not get mildewed, so I used my saw to spell out my great grandmother’s name and birth year on the back of the pendant.

Banker quilt pendant-7It was hugely satisfying to find a way to incorporate an old one-of-a-kind family treasure into a new one-of-a-kind piece. I still haven’t done anything with the rest of the quilt pieces but I have ideas!

I’m always drawn to the re-purposing of old treasures. I’d love to hear about ways you continue to weave the pieces of your family’s past into your present life!

Banker quilt pendant-8

Many Lovely Finds!

A pretty plaid afghan in blue and green.

A pretty plaid afghan in blue and green.

I posted earlier that I was going to a garage sale of “epic proportions” ( As it turned out, I guess it depends on your definition of epic. My dictionary says it can mean “of unusually great size,” and that it was. But the other definition is “majestic, impressively great” . . . not exactly.

BUT the day was quite a success from a “hands at home” point of view! I saw many handmade crocheted blankets or afghans and quite a lot of hand-stitched linens. Think how long someone worked on these things!

This is HUGE and so pretty in pinks and white.

This is HUGE and so pretty in pinks and white.

Granny squares in two shades of blue!

Granny squares in two shades of blue!

Old dish towels with hand embroidered fruit--unused, I think!

Old dish towels with hand embroidered fruit–unused, I think!

Four sweet vintage napkins, with teacups.

Four sweet vintage napkins, with teacups.

Beautiful Arts & Crafts embroidery but, sadly, this has holes in it.

Beautiful Arts & Crafts embroidery but, sadly, this has holes in it.

Can you see why I find it so hard to pass these items up, when I see them?

Garage Sale of Epic Proportions?

garage saleToday I’m going “saling”—garage saling, with my mom. I’m going to look specifically for items made by “loving hands at home,” instead of all those plastic Fisher-Price toys and retreads  from Bed, Bath, and Beyond.

One of the sales in the local paper is advertised as a “sale of EPIC proportions.” We’ll just see about that!

I’ll report back soon!

Simply Human—We Don’t Have to Be Perfect!

quilting_amish_diamond_centerWhen I was more actively involved in quilt making, I remember reading that Amish women, the makers of some of the most fabulous quilts ever (if you ask me!), always made sure to include a misplaced patch of fabric or a few incorrect stitches in any quilt they made. The thinking was that only God was perfect and that it was arrogant for a human to attempt perfection. Including an intentional mistake was acknowledgement of human fallibility and humility.

In the “loving hands at home” world, mistakes and missteps abound—and the mistakes remind us that we are real and our products aren’t going to be perfect, and it’s okay to say, “Hey, at least I tried!”

In the world of Pinterest, where all the homes are beautiful and all the handmade projects above average, some people are celebrating their imperfection, and maybe, just maybe, creating imperfection for its own sake. Just type “craft fail” in the search bar and look at some of the boards with that title!

I love finding the imperfections that come, it seems, from busy, distracted hands at home. These vintage towels I saw for sale on eBay crack me up.

Firday towelback Thursday towelI can understand the accidental misspelling of “Friday” but how did the word Thursday get stitched backwards? Either the maker a) was majorly distracted, b) was sampling the dandelion wine, or c) had a wicked sense of humor!

I try to be pretty relaxed when I make something that doesn’t turn out exactly as I planned. I want it to be structurally sound (or edible, when it’s food). I want it to be worthy of the time I put into it. But if I make a mistake, I don’t quit the whole thing and throw it away and I usually don’t start over. I try to find a way to incorporate the mistake and move on. After all, I’m only human!

How about you? Are you a perfectionist? I hope you can laugh and accept the missed stitch, the runny frosting, and the little quirks that prove your items weren’t made by a machine!

Vintage Textiles: Looking for Loving Homes

cowboyI love vintage. I especially love vintage textiles–table linens, quilts, blankets, and such. I have loved them for so long and so well that I created quite a problem for myself. I lived in a house that was overwhelmed with textiles. I was the stereotypical “crazy cat lady” of vintage linens. I wanted every embroidered napkin or tablecloth, every crocheted afghan, every hand-stitched quilt to have a good home. And I thought I was the only person who cared enough to provide a good home.

The fact that I had two houses to fill didn’t help matters. For years we had a “real” house and a summer house, both with lots of storage space. When we moved into the summer house full-time a few years ago, I was forced to face my linen-hoarding tendencies. I found boxes and boxes (really!) of linens that I had completely forgotten I had. I had wanted those things to have a good home but what kind of home was I giving them, packing them away and forgetting them?

And, so, I have become the Humane Society of vintage textiles, the SPCA of linens and quilts. I started my Etsy shop, KerryCan (, to find good homes for my collection of vintage textiles. And I have found that many, MANY people love them as much as I do!

Here are some of my favorite items that have recently found “forever homes.” The dish towel at the top of the page was one of a set of three “day of the week” towels, featuring the cowgirl trying to get her chores done, with the “help” of a flirtatious cowboy

A beautiful hand-crocheted afghan, in fall colors.

A beautiful hand-crocheted afghan, in fall colors.

A pair of linen pillow cases; the drawnwork was done by hand, by a woman preparing for her marriage, in 1910.

A pair of linen pillow cases; the drawnwork was done by hand, by a woman preparing for her marriage, in 1910.

A hand-crocheted tablecloth, with a beautiful star motif.

A hand-crocheted tablecloth, with a beautiful star motif.

Another spectacular afghan, in black and brights.

Another spectacular afghan, in black and brights.

Aren’t they wonderful?! I miss all of these beautiful things! Sometimes I wish I had kept them but then I remind myself of the pleasure others are getting from them . . . and I look around and take stock of all the other special stuff I’ve kept for myself!

Do you find it easy to accumulate things and hard to let go?

Dirty Hands at Home: Gardening and Hops

hops vine-4“Inch by inch, row by row,
Gonna make this garden grow,
All it takes is a rake and a hoe,
And a piece of fertile ground . . . ”

I was singing this song by Dave Mallett long before I ever tried to grow a garden myself. I came to gardening kind of late—on the farm where I grew up, there were growing things everywhere but I didn’t take part in the intentional growing of flowers until I was in my 30s, probably. But Mallett is right—gardening is pretty straightforward, and so satisfying.

Gardening has become a big part of my “hands at home” approach to life. Maybe nothing connects us to the place where our homes sit as much as getting outside and adorning the spot with plants that reflect our tastes and, in a way, tell our tales.

I’m sure I’ll write more abut gardening but today I want to feature a plant I only learned about last year. It’s at its best right now and deserves the limelight!

The plant in the photos is ornamental hops. Yes, hops. The stuff of which beer is made! We planted it last year, one little dinky plant at each end of this cedar fence. Over the winter it died back to the ground and I thought maybe it wouldn’t come back—the winters are rough in upstate New York!

But come back it did, with vigor and determination. The photos show growth from this spring to early August. In the spring, I wear it was growing a foot a day!

hops vine-1I’ve helped it along by tying it, with green ribbon, to the fence. It doesn’t attach itself like a climbing hydrangea does although it will curl around small objects (like the necks of nearby flowers!), so it would probably climb by itself on a trellis.

Just in the past couple of weeks, the hops have appeared on the vine; they’re those little fluffy-looking pods, shaped like pinecones. I’ve been fascinated with them and have dozens of photos!

hops vine-2As pretty as they are and in spite of the “ornamental” in the name, these hops cones can be harvested and made into beer, although I’m sure there are other cultivars of the plant that you’d grow if beer making were your primary goal.

No beer making for me—I don’t want to put all those established beer makers out of business, so I’ll keep buying theirs! But, if you’re looking for an easy-care plant for a large space, one that makes a major statement and provides visual interest from early spring through fall, you must consider ornamental hops!

So, come on now, everyone, join in for one last chorus:

“Inch by inch, row by row,
Someone bless these seeds I sow,
Someone warm them from below,
Till the rain comes tumblin’ down.”

hops vine-5 hops vine-3

Chocolate-Covered Hands at Home


I have over a half million calories worth of chocolate at my house right now. Really. My house is where you would want to be, if the “coming hard times” ever actually arrive!

One of my main creative activities is making candy—it is challenging but fun, ensures I have many friends, and means I am never without my next chocolate fix. I sell candy at my Etsy shop, KerryCan (, when the weather gets cool enough to temper and mail chocolate, and I just went shopping to stock up for the upcoming candy-making season.


So, I have 21 of these big bars of Callebaut Belgian chocolate. Each bar weighs 11 pounds.  That adds up to 231 pounds of chocolate! And if you do the math it comes to about 572,880 calories! Knowing it’s there makes me feel all happy and secure . . .

Music Made at Home


Where do our musical tastes come from? Are they something we pick up from family and peers or do they reflect, somehow, a personal philosophy or mindset?

Well, of course, I’m sure it’s some of each. I know, for me, my tastes cannot be explained simply by pointing to what I was exposed to as a youngster. The musical stew I grew up on had three main ingredients—a heavy broth of songs from the Wesleyan Methodist hymnal, large dollops of opera stirred in by my mother, and everything spiced with the recordings of comic genius Tom Lehrer. And then when I was a little older, we can add in a healthy serving of camp songs from riding the bus to YMCA day camp.

It was a strange stew. “Bringing in the Sheaves” (or “Bringing in Chinese,” since it was a fervently evangelical crowd!) meets “Nessun Dorma.” Tom Lehrer’s “Vatican Rag” sung in quick succession with “John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt.” It’s a wonder I still like music at all!

Weirdly, the music that I am drawn to has little to do with anything I was exposed to early, except for one faint memory. The music I love best is folk music and the memory is of a man playing the fiddle in our living room at the farm.

The man was Vic Parrotte (or Parrott); he was an occasional hired hand on the farm when I was very young. As I recall, he would work for a while then take his pay and go on a “toot,” as my grandfather called it; he’d go off and get drunk. Then he wouldn’t show up for chores for a few days and my grandmother would urge my grandfather never to let him come back.

Then Vic would come back and my grandfather would hire him and the whole cycle would begin again.

But Vic could play the fiddle. I wasn’t allowed to stay downstairs and watch him play much—this wasn’t really considered appropriate music for a good girl to hear. But I would lie in bed, upstairs above the parlor, and listen to that incredible sound coming out of his instrument. As I recall, he put the end of the fiddle on his knee, instead of under his chin, and, boy, could he play!

And, it turns out, we weren’t the only people who knew about Vic’s fiddle. Vic was always a sort of tragic-comic character at our house, a rambler who couldn’t hold his drink and played wild music. But years later I mentioned his name to an expert in Adirondack roots music who responded, first with stunned silence and then said, “Vic Parrotte was your hired hand?! He played the fiddle for you?!” Vic was famous in some circles—imagine my surprise!

But I wonder if Vic had anything to do with forming my musical tastes. He made his own music and it was spell-binding music. It didn’t sound anything like the piano I was supposed to practice, or the organ at church, or the orchestras backing up the opera singers. Vic’s music was raw and elemental and individual. I doubt he ever had a lesson and certainly couldn’t read music.

And ever since, I’ve been drawn to the music of the folk—untrained musicians and untrained voices, singing songs that speak of the trials and joys of everyday life. And as I’ve been thinking about this “hands at home” theme, it’s clear that my musical tastes are consistent with my interests in art and crafts. It’s been pretty neat to become more aware of the connections among the things that speak to me.

What do you think? Can you trace your tastes back to your formative years and experiences? Are your tastes across different art forms consistent in style? Do they reflect a key element of your personality or philosophy? Or do you simply think that I am REALLY over-thinking things?! I’d love to hear!


Many Hands at Home: The Family Gallery


Remember the thrill when your mom taped your drawing to the refrigerator, for all the world to see? Has you work been on display anywhere since? It’s still exciting, right?

If you’ve been reading along, you know that I love the full range of human made, from the most skilled to the most  . . . shall we say, inexpert. I just like the idea that people are creating and making and doing, rather than watching others create and make and do.

So, it seems fitting that we have, in our home, a gallery to show off the artwork of family. All of the family. Whether they like it or not.

We have mostly paintings and some needlework. The artists are: my grandmother, my grandfather, my mother, my husband, my mother’s husband, my husband’s mother, my mother’s husband’s mother (getting confused yet?!), my sister, my niece and me!

Some of the artists have a lot of experience and some never created a single work before they made one for this gallery. I love every single piece of art. Not to mention the artists!

Here’s to the artist in all of us, and our busy hands at home! Keep what you make on display!