Fond Memories

13 Nov

I’ve purchased a water bath canning apparatus, spent a lovely afternoon helping my friend Andrea put up jars of pickled beets, and selected a great applesauce recipe.  What I haven’t managed is to bring it all together in my kitchen and produce the jars of applesauce.

Instead, I’ve been thinking a lot.  About how and why I set my sights on canning.  It’s rather ironic, I think, that I’ve ended up obsessing about domestic goddessness.

My mother avoided the kitchen.  I have no fond memories of baking cookies with her – or doing anything domestic together, for that matter.  My mother hated to cook.  She also hated to clean, sew, knit, or participate in any activity that was scented with the sweet perfume of domesticity.  She worked full-time, which goes a long way towards explaining why she saw all domestic tasks as drudgery, but she was also the daughter of good New England Yankees, and that history alone could destroy any domestic inspiration one might have.  My grandparents saved string and canned the produce from their large garden, and made their own furniture and hooked rugs – and did it all with a sense of duty and patriotism.  It was one’s moral obligation to be frugal and clever and handy.  Domesticity wasn’t supposed to be fun; it was supposed to be work.

All of my mother’s stories about her childhood carry a whiff of the Dickensian: how she was whipped with a belt on her bare legs if she was five minutes late for dinner; how she had to eat everything on her plate, even when what was on her plate was liver and lima beans; how she had to wear garters and woolen stockings that itched and gave her rashes.

But the story of hers that I remember most fondly is the story of the special dress my grandmother sewed for my mother’s ninth grade graduation.  My grandmother sewed all of my mother’s clothes, and my mother didn’t have much of a say in any of it.  For this particular dress, my grandmother chose an unusually stiff fabric.  Probably because it was a good bargain.  My mother doesn’t actually remember what color the dress was, but I like to think it was brown.

My mom had skipped a year of school, as many kids did in those days, so she was only thirteen, and not yet, ahem, “mature” by the time of the graduation.  She was, however, tall.  The patterns available for a 5’7” girl assumed the physical maturity that my mother did not have.  So my grandmother selected and sewed a lovely woman’s dress – complete with darts to accommodate a womanly bosom– out of the stiff fabric.  The stiffness of the fabric intensified the pointiness of the darts.  My mother recalls trying on the dress and staring down at her chest, which pointed sharply out, two cones of brown fabric with nothing beneath them.

1940s Butterick Dress Pattern

With these kinds of warm and fuzzy experiences, it is not surprising that my mother had little interest in bonding with me in the domestic arena.  We read books together, and played cards, and ate hot peppers on crackers while watching M*A*S*H.

That meant it was left to my public school to teach me whatever I might need to know regarding homemaking.  In those days – the very, very dark ages of the 1970’s – girls actually took a class called “Home Economics,” and boys took Shop.  As the name implies, Home Ec had nothing to do with celebrating domestic artistry or encouraging crafty creativity.  Running a home was seen, and taught, as a science.  Be precise, our teacher admonished; follow directions, don’t take shortcuts.

What I learned, mostly, in my three years of Home Ec, was that reality rarely matched one’s imagination when it came to making stuff.  We knit scarves that looked adorable on the pattern sheet, but the yarn we had to work with was acrylic and ugly, and no one wanted to wear their finished product.  We sewed stuffed animals, which sounded kicky and fun; the stuffed animals turned out hard and ugly and unhuggable.  We followed recipes to cook things like broccoli surprise, which no one wanted to eat.   Project after project sounded so good and so exciting at the outset, but fizzled into disappointment.  Still, I held out hope: the next project would be The One, the satisfying foray into domestic creativity.

In eighth grade, as our final sewing project, and culminating Home Ec experience, we had to sew an item of clothing for ourselves.  The preppy girls selected patterns for wool jumpers; the bohemians settled on maxi skirts; a few very brave and talented girls (mostly those whose mothers sewed) went for hip-hugger bell-bottoms, to be sewn from a stretchy material.  I pored through the pattern catalogues, thrilled at the idea of creating something beautiful that I could actually wear, and finally settled on a blouse.  I chose a lightweight, cream-colored cotton fabric.

There were many, many pieces to the pattern, and I slowly fell behind the other girls. When everyone else had all their pieces cut out , and I was still pinning mine onto the fabric, I decided to try a shortcut.  I doubled the material over, and pinned all of the pieces for the right sleeve onto this doubled fabric, figuring I would use the second set for the left sleeve.  Only when I began sewing did I realize that there was an actual difference between a right sleeve and a left sleeve.  But it was too late.  I didn’t have enough fabric to cut a true left sleeve.

I made my blouse with two right sleeves, and wore it for the Home Ec fashion show.  What should have been the left sleeve hung at an odd angle, and the buttons at the wrist fastened on the wrong side.  It was a subtle defect, but one that made me feel like I was slightly deformed.

After so many years and so many less than shining homemaker memories why is it that I have such an urge to master a new domestic skill?  I don’t quite know.  But tomorrow, dear reader: a dozen jars of applesauce.  No shortcuts.  Here’s hoping it goes better than the blouse.


6 Responses to “Fond Memories”

  1. schmeightschmatchers November 13, 2011 at 10:47 pm #

    Loved this – I want to hear your whole story!

  2. Jennifer Lang November 14, 2011 at 2:44 am #

    Hysterical. I have similar memories of ugly sewing projects and inedible cooking flops from 7th grade Home Ec, which makes me appreciate my in-house French chef all the more! Good luck with the apple sauce!

  3. Louis Greenzweig November 14, 2011 at 9:31 am #

    I sewed a shop apron in the 7th grade in Home Economics. We used a pattern to cut the parts and hand sewn it all together. I believe the fabric was denim. I wore that apron to woodworking, electricity and printing in the 8th grade. Thanks for bringing back the memory.

    • Cathleen Barnhart November 15, 2011 at 2:35 pm #

      Apparently your school was much more enlightened than mine – boys didn’t take Home Ec at my school, and girls didn’t take shop.

  4. Dhru Elerbey November 15, 2011 at 10:09 pm #

    At the risk of sounding arrogant, I share the following: the repetition compulsion is thought to be driven by a need to “master” the feelings of shame and sense of abandonment brought on by a trauma.

    I enjoyed reading about your Home Ec classes, as I never found myself in one, and one of my best female buddies took Shop. I brought back memories of trying out recipes from my mother’s Joy of Cooking, particularly the pride of making my first “popovers.” Does anyone even know what these are anymore?

    I also attempted to make a “Christmas Tree Cake” that slumped over in the same defeated way as the tiny tree chosen in “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” It was hard and tasteless.

    Kudos for your determination!

    • Cathleen Barnhart November 15, 2011 at 10:54 pm #

      Thanks for reading Drhu! I’m glad you found me. And, yes, I do fondly remember popovers, although I certainly never tried to make them.

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