Made by Harriett: The Making

IMG_4545Remember Harriett?

Harriett was a maker, and a striver.

We can’t say we know Harriett well at all but we do know one thing—whatever else Harriett was (Daughter? Mother? Wife? Nun? Maiden aunt?), she was highly skilled with needle and thread.

This pretty tray cloth was certainly not the first thing she ever made!

At first look, you might’ve said, “Oh, pretty. Pretty, but too fussy for my taste.”

It is fussy and not modern-looking at all, but I want you to appreciate the skill, and efforts, that went into it, a set of skills that are stunning by today’s standards. Even though you and I may never use these skills, we can still learn a lot from Harriett.

So, let’s not think about the maker right now but, rather, the making. How was this tray cloth created?

Harriett combined several skills with which many women of her era would’ve had at least some familiarity.

First of all, she embroidered her tray cloth. The embroidery style she used makes me think of “society silk” embroidery that was all the rage, first in England, then in America, in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Society silk embroidery was done in single-strand silk thread; the embroidery, which was most often of flowers, was detailed and precise. The silk was available in hundreds of colors so the best society silk embroidery was subtly varied, highly detailed, and realistic. You could expect the backs of the embroidery to look as perfect as the front.

Harriett’s embroidery is clearly inspired by society silk. She worked in fine silk on fine linen, and used only two stitches, running stitch for outlines and satin stitch to fill in, as was common in society silk work.

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Harriett’s work does not match the highest level of skill you can find in this sort of embroidery—she doesn’t do a lot with subtle color shading and detail and the back of the work is a little messy—but the embroidery is delicate and finely wrought.

Another technique Harriett used, which really sets this piece apart, is the use of cutwork. Cutwork can be fairly simple or extraordinarily complex but the basic principle is the same—certain threads in the woven linen are cut and removed from the fabric. This would be easy to do in a rough fabric, like burlap, but I can’t imagine doing it the way Harriett did, in very fine linen!

I did my best to count and found that this linen has about 70 to 80 threads per inch; each thread is finer than sewing threads you use today. So, Harriett was carefully snipping certain threads, without cutting others, and gingerly pulling them out only, then, to introduce new threads back in, to create her patterns and stabilize the fabric.

She used cutwork in several ways. The simplest was the hemstitch she used.

For this, she pulled out one or two threads around the edge of her piece, double-turned the hem up, next to the small line created by the drawn threads, and used tiny stitches to secure the hem and create a tiny ladder effect.

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from The Encyclopedia of Needlework*

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Another, more complicated, skill was the open work that created the straight lines through the work. Here, a number of threads, probably 35 or so, were cut from the cloth and pulled out—basically a section of this delicate fabric was unwoven. Then, a new thread was added, which was used to weave in and out of bunches of the remaining cross threads, to create a regular and intricate pattern.

072

from The Encyclopedia of Needlework*

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Harriett pulled out both horizontal and vertical threads in her piece, meaning the open areas crossed and basically created a section that was completely open. Here, Harriett has added “spiders.” She used the center threads she had added in the previous stage, to weave in and out of the bunches of threads. She treated these threads as spokes in a wheel and wove her thread around them, over and under, for the spider web effect.

099

from The Encyclopedia of Needlework*

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Harriett also used cutwork and drawnwork to create lacy areas in her tray cloth. In the square and rectangular areas of the cloth, she removed a lot of threads running in both directions, leaving only a few intact. She finished the outside edges of these boxes with infinitesimal buttonhole stitches, so they wouldn’t fray further, and then added threads to draw the remaining threads into a star-like pattern.

102

from The Encyclopedia of Needlework*

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Whew! That’s amazing work, Harriett! And to think, you did it entirely by hand, in sunlight or lamplight.

Harriett’s work is excellent but, truly, it is not at the expert skill level achieved by some artisans. If you look really closely, you can see little mistakes and sloppy stitching.

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But who wants to look that closely?! After this time with her, Harriett feels like my friend and I cherish the work of my friends even more when I can see the imprint of their hands, and their humanity, in what they do.

Harriett seems to me to have been a striver, someone who was testing her skills and pushing herself to a more intricate, more difficult level of work. She was building on work she had done in the past, to see where desire and persistence could take her.

Harriett impresses and inspires me. The work I’m engaged in, 100 years after Harriett put down her needle and thimble, is much different work. But the impulse to create, and to challenge myself, to grow and strive, is no different for me than it was for her.

Thank you, Harriett, for reminding me that hard work and the joy of learning something new knows no age.


* These illustrations come from the amazing Encyclopedia of Needlework, written by Therese de Dillmont in 1886 and available for free through Project Gutenberg.

Made by Harriett

IMG_4551In one of my piles of vintage linens was this treasure—a tray cloth of fine white linen, embellished by hand with embroidery and fancywork. Very pretty, very delicate, probably made in the early part of the 20th century.

Lovely, but not so unusual, except . . .

IMG_4546It was made by Harriett.

Who was Harriett?

I so wish I could tell you she was my paternal great-grandmother or a maiden aunt who entered the convent after her heart was broken. But the truth is, I have no idea who Harriett was. I don’t know her. I’m embarrassed to say I don’t even remember where this cloth came from.

But I know there WAS a Harriett. She put her talent and skill into making something lasting, and knowing that this cloth was made by Harriett gives me a different sort of connection to this piece.

So many things I come across were made by hand—but whose hand? We can’t know. Those details are lost to time. Making was such an integral part of daily life, such a staple in what people did, that most things weren’t signed in any way. No note was attached to document the maker and connect her or him with that which was made.

And because we can’t put a name to the maker, we may fail to think about the person. We admire the tangible product in an abstract way but forget to think about the flesh and blood that created such beauty.

These were people so much like us, with the same urges to create, to brighten a room, to clothe a family, to leave something lovely in their wake.

With this piece of linen, we at least have a first name to remind us of a specific woman, Harriett. I can’t see her clearly; it’s as if she’s in one of those old tintypes photos that has become faded and cloudy. But she’s there. And she’s real.

Her name makes her real. I can imagine her looking forward to a quiet moment in her day, when the chores are done, to pick up her embroidery and sit by the window for the best light and put in a few tiny stitches. I can see the ghosts of her hands, her touch left in the work she did.

This tray cloth tells me that Harriett was a maker of a special order. Whatever else she could or couldn’t do, that woman could sew. The work on this cloth is done completely by hand—the embroidery, the cutwork, the hemstitching—but more on her work soon.

For now, let’s just think about Harriett.IMG_4545

What I Do For Love

IMG_4544I spend a lot of time thinking about how fortunate I am. It’s true—I’m fortunate by pretty much any standard you could think of to apply.

But the good fortune I’ve been thinking about lately is how fortunate I am to be able to make what I want, when I want, and not to have to do it for money, to make a living.

Historically, craftsmen and artisans did a job of work. They worked long hours, they sought to please others—a patron, a customer. These craftsmen could not stop when their backs ached or when they lost the creative impulse.

I do a job of love.

Making for the love of making is different from making to make a living. I have and will continue to sell some of the things I make but I do it entirely on my terms.

If I don’t want to make fleur de sel caramels anymore, I don’t have to, even if they are the most popular candy I sell.

If I find no joy in purple or pink, I can leave those colors out of my quilting and weaving, even if other people love them and would pay for them.

If I want every single item I make to be entirely different from the last, I am free to do exactly as I please, even though that’s inefficient in the marketplace.

When we were in Ireland, we talked to two weavers for whom weaving is a job, both excellent life-long weavers. They weave to put food on the table, to keep a roof over their heads. They prized efficiency and output—they had little choice.

They made multiples of best-selling items. They wove in colors deemed popular and made items designed by someone else, someone who understood the trends. They did the simplest of weaving because simple is quick and yields the highest return for time expended.

They laughed at us because we don’t use a flying shuttle—“you’re so slow,” they said!

But we’re lucky enough to be able to go slow.

I can make a quilt in which every stitch is done by hand, because that’s what pleases me.

I can make an Etruscan loop-in-loop chain where every link is formed and soldered and woven by hand, because that’s what pleases me.

I can hand dip, one by one, every chocolate, because that’s what pleases me.

I can pass the shuttle slowly, from hand to hand, and watch the fabric grow slowly, inch by inch. It pleases me.

I don’t have to worry about pleasing someone else. Just me.

Now, let’s be clear—I like selling things I make. It’s a special kind of thrill when someone honors my aesthetic and my skill by trading their hard-won money for something I’ve created.

I like that but I don’t NEED it. And that, my friend, is good fortune.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic. Do you make your living from your art or craft? Do you sell your work at all? Do you struggle to please yourself while pleasing buyers? Can the pressure of making a living co-exist with the joy of creativity?

Today, for Show and Tell

IMG_3789“Now, Kerry, it’s your turn. What did you bring for Show and Tell?”

Show and Tell? I loved Show and Tell!! Showing off was disapproved of at our house when I was a kid but, once in awhile, at school, we were allowed—nay, encouraged—to show off. At those times, showing off was an officially sanctioned event.

Some days I feel like I’m using my blog the same way—as an opportunity to show off a little, under the guise of waxing rhapsodic about all things handmade.

And today is one of those days!

I’ve already gotten a lot of blog miles out of my green striped dishtowels. You’ve all been so patient and attentive in the past, that I’m trotting them out one more time. They’re finally finished, hemmed and everything, and I’ve taken the glamour shots.

These were the towels that got me so excited because I was able to weave four different patterns after threading the loom just once. It doesn’t take all that much to make a new weaver happy!IMG_3790

At the end, when I had the three planned towels done, I changed the weft (horizontal thread) color from off-white to green. Again, this changed the look of the patterns hugely.IMG_3784

I also tried hemstitching for the first time. This is a finishing technique that is done while the fabric is still on the loom. The effect is neat and tidy, and reminiscent of the vintage linens I handle all the time. I’ll be using it a lot!IMG_3788

The towels aren’t perfect, of course. They are too small for my taste and I did the hems on the sewing machine and I still haven’t reached détente with my sewing machine.

But, they have far fewer mistakes than the last set of towels I made, I tried some new techniques, and I got a sense the possibilities on my little four-harness loom. It’s all good!

Sigh. Show and Tell is over for today. Now it’s time for Reading Circle and Arithmetic . . . and recess! I loved recess!

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Tools, Glorious Tools

toolsI love tools.

Truly, I do—I love the tools of almost any trade. I love hardware stores and catalogs like the ones I get from Lee Valley Tools and Rio Grande and the Yarn Barn.

In history museums, I love to look at rusty tools from the farm, the sawmill, the kitchen, the workshop. I like the familiar tools and the mystery tools, the ones now obsolete, where you can only guess what their work once was.

One of the best parts of starting a new craft, for me, is the necessity of accumulating the tools of the trade—poring through catalogs, searching eBay, poking through garage sales, coming up with elaborate ways to justify the cost.

As I’ve thought about the crafts and hobbies I’m most drawn to, I’ve noticed that I seem to gravitate to the ones that take the most tools. I wonder if the reason I’ve never really connected with knitting and crocheting is because the basic tools seem so few and, well, basic?

I also realize I like powerful tools—they make me feel competent. One of the primary appeals of jewelry making, for me, was that I got to use acetylene torches and wield big hammers.

And I love specialized tools—the tool that does one thing, perfectly.

I love expensive, high-quality tools because, if you can’t trust your tools, you can’t do your job.

And, if I can get a tool that is, itself, handmade and beautiful—well, that thrills me no end.

I love old, well-loved tools that show the evidence of the work they’ve done and human hands upon them—the wooden spoon that’s getting a little flat on one edge because it’s stirred the soup and scraped the pan so often, the worn spot on the hoe handle, where the hands always grip.

I find myself consciously appreciating certain tools, almost petting them. Just off the top of my head, I can think of favorites for almost any activity I engage in. When I find these favorites, I keep them safe, and I keep them close.

I think I may tell you about some of my favorite tools, at some point, partly because I love them so, but also because I want you to think about the tools you use and rely on and, yes, love.

Just off the top of your head, do you have special favorites? A paintbrush that’s special? A crochet hook? A fiddle, or trowel, or shuttle, or pair of scissors?

The Craftsman’s Creed, in the Depth It Deserves

I hold with none who think not work a boon,

Vouchsafed to man that he may aid his Kind

With offerings from his chisel, wheel, or loom,

Fashioned with loving heart and loving mind.

 

All of the fine traditions and the skill,

Come from my elders through the long line down,

Are mine to use to raise our crafts’ renown

And mine to teach again with reverent will:

 

Thus do I live to serve,

With fingers which are masters of the tool.

–James Parton Haney

I’m always trying to articulate what draws me to the work I do, how craft differs from art, what is motivating to the makers who devote time and energy to making items that are both practical and beautiful. I first saw this statement of a “craftsman’s creed,” a set of guiding principles for makers, in of one of my weaving books. It has given me plenty to ponder.

The book contained, as it turns out, only part of the original the creed and it was attributed to “anonymous.” But since we live in a world graced with the internet, I was able to track down the author with not too much trouble.

James Parton Haney, an art educator, first offered the creed as a code of belief and conduct in 1913, according to an obituary for the man published in the ‪Bulletin of the Art Center, New York.

Haney’s words and teachings seem to have been well-respected and circulated in his lifetime. In fact, I found a reference to the Philadelphia Club of Printing House Craftsmen singing the creed at their 1918 meeting. But, by 1956, the Christian Science Monitor published the poem without attribution. If nothing else, this post returns credit to the man—and I think he deserves to be known for this fine statement of what we do!

I like a lot about Haney’s statement of what it means to be a maker:

I like that it’s written in lofty terms. It may be true that this is partly a function of the fact it was written over a century ago, but the language used seems to be more formal and grand than what would have been considered everyday talk, even then.

The language Haney used makes it a little harder to read and digest the creed but I’d say that’s a good thing. It asks us to slow down and really think about what it means to call ourselves craftsmen.*

The grand language seems designed to elevate what some might have dismissed as a humble undertaking, mere “craft.” Those who embrace the creed are asked to see craftsmanship as not merely the use of tools to make the stuff of daily life, not a lesser undertaking than art, but its own endeavor, with its own passion and criteria for excellence.

I like that the creed focuses the maker’s work on connections with the past, the present, and the future equally.

For me, one of the most compelling aspects of learning a craft is that every craft has traditions; the work we do we grows from the work done by those who came before us. We learn from them; we draw on accumulated knowledge and technique; we take the next step in the journey of advancing the craft. Haney’s creed acknowledges and honors this connection to the past. We are the latest members of a family of makers.

The creed also focuses on the present and the day-to-day satisfaction that is to be derived from making a thing of beauty and usefulness. When Haney describes work as a boon, done with loving hand and loving mind, he focuses our attention on the satisfaction we get from our efforts—we are making not only because the product of our labors fulfills a need, although it will, but because the act of making pleases us.

Haney’s creed also makes references to the equal partnership of heart, hand and mind in making finely crafted work. He speaks of love, of skill, and of the thought that go into the work we do. Could we call it craftsmanship without any one of those elements?

Lastly, the creed makes the case for an obligation of the craftsman to the future of the craft. The future of the craft depends on each of us feeling an obligation to teach our skills to others, so that the craft continues to flourish.

On this topic of sharing what we know and teaching it, I also really like that Haney gives such short notice to the topic of making money from the craft, unlike a more modern craftsman’s creed offered by Josh Kaufman. Of course, many craftsmen are concerned about making a living but Haney’s creed seems to assume that, if the tenets of the creed are upheld, the making of a living will follow. Just as the Hippocratic Oath of Physicians states that, “If I faithfully observe this oath, may I thrive and prosper in my fortune and profession,” Haney’s creed expects the work of the maker, in service to the craft and to the well-being of others, to ensure thriving and prosperous business.

One more aspect of Haney’s creed that really speaks to me is his casting of craftsmanship as a boon to be thankful for. The full text of Haney’s original creed (see below) makes reference to craft skill as gift from God. You can do with that what you will. I am happy to consider my skills a gift given by nature, nurture, my teachers, my own hard work.

But, whatever the source, it’s a gift that one should recognize as such and be thankful for and respectful of. Sometimes I forget to stop and think about how lucky I am to have the opportunity to do the work I do. Sometimes I get so caught up in making quick, little projects—something I can give away as a quick gift or, yes, blog about—that I lose track of what my real purpose is. And that purpose, for me, is to make the best quilt, or set of dishtowels, or peanut butter meltaways I am capable of, because these are my crafts and I owe them the respect of doing them well and striving to do them even better.

James Parton Haney’s Craftsman’s Creed is far more, to me, than a nice poem, a pretty summary of what I like to do. It’s really more of an inspiration. My tendency is toward being a “Jill of all trades,” toward racking up one craft after another, and then moving on. My life has sort of epitomized the “been there, done that” school of crafting.

But pondering Haney’s words makes me want to expect more of myself and to honor craftsmanship, to challenge myself to focus, learn, learn more, become as expert as I can in one area.

Will I do that? Will I choose one creative outlet, to the expense of all others? No, not likely—that’s just not me. But Haney’s words can still inspire me to give my different crafts my full focus, each in its turn, and, instead of jumping on the next bandwagon, to push myself deeper into what I already do.

And what about you? How does Haney’s creed represent your experience in crafting and commitment to your craft? Does the creed articulate what motivates you, in your quilting, your knitting, your baking, your gardening, your work?


* Does the gender-specific word “craftsman” bother you? It does me, sort of, but I strongly dislike “crafter” and haven’t come up with other suitable options. I’m hoping the whole discussion can be shelved for another time and not take away from the meaning behind this creed.


This is the creed as Haney wrote it. It contains a reference to pay and the last lines about God (as marked) that don’t appear in the version I’ve seen published more recently and attributed to “Anonymous.”

THE CRAFTSMAN’S CREED

I hold with none who think not work a boon,

Vouchsafed to man that he may aid his Kind

With offerings from his chisel, wheel, or loom,

Fashioned with loving heart and loving mind.

 

All of the fine traditions and the skill,

Come from my elders through the long line down,

Are mine to use to raise our crafts’ renown

And mine to teach again with reverent will:

 

Thus do I live to serve, though least for pay,

With fingers which are masters of the tool

And eyes which light to see the pattern’s play–

As it unfolds obedient to each rule of our dear Art.

 

So all my craft is praise to God–at once part homage and part song.

My work’s my prayer, I sing the whole day long

As Faith and Beauty shape the forms I raise.

The Craftsman’s Creed

Does the following creed address what you do, as a maker of lovely and useful things? More on the subject soon . . . .

THE CRAFTSMAN’S CREED

I hold with none who think not work a boon,

Vouchsafed to man that he may aid his Kind

With offerings from his chisel, wheel, or loom,

Fashioned with loving heart and loving mind.

 

All of the fine traditions and the skill,

Come from my elders through the long line down,

Are mine to use to raise our crafts’ renown

And mine to teach again with reverent will:

 

Thus do I live to serve, though least for pay,

With fingers which are masters of the tool

And eyes which light to see the pattern’s play–

As it unfolds obedient to each rule of our dear Art.

 

So all my craft is praise to God–at once part homage and part song.

My work’s my prayer, I sing the whole day long

As Faith and Beauty shape the forms I raise.

–James Parton Haney

 

It Pleases Me

working handsA folklorist, traveling in rural America, meets an elderly farmer. The old man is tired, from hard work with his herd and his land, yet works in the evening to make chairs he needs for his home.

The chairs he has crafted could be considered finished—they are strong and sound—but the old man continues, with weary hands, to carve flourishes and curlicues into the wood, to decorate his utilitarian creations.

The folklorist, a specialist in material culture, asks the man, “Why? Why do you take the time to decorate the chairs when they are perfectly serviceable?” The old man is silent, thinking, perhaps for the first time, about his motivation, his desire. And then he answers:

“Because it pleases me.”

I heard this story, told by folklorist Henry Glassie, many years ago as an undergraduate when Glassie came to visit my college. Since then, I have thought often of the story, the old farmer, and his desire to create beauty and to please himself.

The fact that this story, and none of the others Glassie undoubtedly told, has stuck with me suggests to me that it touched a nerve with me, even as a young person just starting to make things with my hands.

It seemed, and still seems, so profound to me.

In my painting classes, I was taught to follow rules of perspective and color theory. In my jewelry making classes, I was taught design principles and told that my designs were too predictable. In my communication courses, I was taught that good speeches are audience-centered. As a teenage girl in the 1970s, I was taught to please others.

No one ever suggested that it was okay, a legitimate undertaking, to make something a certain way just because it pleased me.

And the idea that an old farmer, a man of practical considerations and hard work, with his feet firmly planted on the ground, would find pleasure in making beauty was also a revelation. I knew old farmers; I was genetically bound to old farmers! Did old farmers feel things like that? Might I?

Since I heard this story, it has informed my understanding of other makers and my understanding of myself. True craftsmen are pleased with what they create, with the skill it takes, with overcoming the difficulties of the task, with the mastery and the creating, not just of a thing but of some thing, beautiful to their eyes.

So, I’ve thought hard about what pleases me and sought to make things accordingly.

I’ve made a lot of different sorts of things in my life, from embroidering on my jeans as a teenager to majoring in metalsmithing in college to calligraphy to spinning to weaving. I’ve worked in polymer clay, beads, yarn, paint, silver, linen, and chocolate.

Along the way, there have been many other creative outlets that moved me not at all. I’ve tried some and moved on. Others . . . just never spoke to me.

These are the things I’ve been thinking about as I’ve been tempering chocolate and packaging candy these last few weeks. I’ll write more about my thoughts in the next couple of weeks, I’m sure, as my schedule calms down and my thoughts become clearer.

I’m hoping, right now, that you are thinking about what you make and how it pleases you. I imagine that what pleases you is different, in some ways, than what pleases me. And yet we share the deep satisfaction of feeling fulfilled, in important ways, by the making.

What aspect of your work, your craft, do you do simply because of the pleasure it brings to you?

“Doris, I Need You!”

Doris“Doris, I need you!” I call these words and, always, my husband comes to help.

No, my husband is not named Doris. But his mother was and, though she died years ago, I invoke her name regularly, and he answers.

Beyond her sunny personality and her goofy sense of humor, Doris had a special skill that my husband inherited and that I am, sadly, lacking.

Doris could glance at leftovers—the tomato sauce, the cauliflower, the salsa—and gauge volume so perfectly she could always choose exactly the right container to store the food in.

This sounds like a little thing. But, to me, this little skill spoke of a stunning store of knowledge that confounded and amazed me, and has taught me a little something about craftsmanship—you can’t have a beautiful, impressive finished product without being fully in charge of the most mundane and seemingly inconsequential details of your craft.

I learned of her skill the first time I met Doris. My husband-to-be and I traveled across the US to visit his parents. His mother welcomed me in her sweet way and cooked a huge, fabulous dinner. I was mightily impressed with the meal—can we talk about her tamales? Her blackberry cobbler? I was thinking I should ask for her recipes.

But, first, wanting to impress my future mother-in-law, I tried to help clean up the kitchen. I who was, and still am, pretty much without skill or clue in the kitchen.

Doris asked me to find a plastic refrigerator container to store the leftover rice and beans. She directed me to a cupboard with plastic containers and lids of every size, perfectly organized.

I picked one that seemed right and handed it to Doris.

Long pause. A look from the container to me, to assess whether I was kidding. The realization that, no, I was serious.

And then Doris, the sweetest woman ever, laughed at me! She laughed at me in that way that says, “You poor pitiful child. Don’t you know anything?”

And she explained how the container I had chosen was way too big and she pointed out the one she wanted. And I KNEW she was wrong, that the designated container would be too small. I would be vindicated.

You can see where this is going. Doris spooned the leftovers into that container. She scraped every last bean and grain of rice right in there and it was perfect. Just right. Spot on.

I think I realized, right then, that Doris’s recipes, alone, wouldn’t do me any good.

She could make the food she made because she knew her kitchen, and its pots and pans and Tupperware, the way all experienced craftsmen know their tools.

It was this complete body of knowledge that underpinned the exquisite final products, the food that came from her kitchen.

Instead of asking for Doris’s recipes, I should’ve asked to be her apprentice!

Luckily for me, my husband inherited Doris’s love of all things kitchen. He is at home there and regularly concocts wonderful meals. He, too, depends on his knowledge of the tools of the trade and his long experience wielding those tools.

In all of this, my role is to clean the kitchen. So, here I am, 25 years later, still struggling with an unfamiliar art form. A medium not my own.

I call out, “Doris, is this the right container?” and Doris, in her son’s voice, answers.