artisan, backing books, brown paper packages tied up with string, Castledawson, Dale Chihuly, good with their hands, Memoir, mother daughter relationship, my mother, rural Derry, Rust Belt, Seamus Heaney
a worker in a skilled trade, especially one that involves making things by hand:street markets where local artisans display handwoven textiles, painted ceramics, and leather goods
The arrival of a brown paper package tied up with string last week set me ruminating on words about ways of living that appear to be creeping back into our lexicon – ”vintage,” “organic,” or “artisanal.” Redolent of superior quality, the “master artisan” has always conjured the likes of Antonio Stradivari or in more recent times, the brilliant Dale Chihuly, whose stunning glasswork appeared to grow right next to cacti in the Desert Botanical Garden, transforming it forever for me. It also brings to mind the master cobbler I first encountered in a shop in Florence, Italy. I can still see him, bent over a supple piece of leather, hands moving deftly as he shaped it in the form of a shoe that would invariably grace the foot of a tourist. In retrospect, he was not unlike the men and women whose artisanal handiwork imbued the rural County Derry where my parents grew up. As a matter of economic necessity, they were “good with their hands” and frugal too. Thus their farming, knitting, dress-making, baking, turf-cutting, and roof-thatching was shaped by and shaped the villages and towns in which they lived. The poetry of Seamus Heaney is peopled with such artisans as the solitary, quiet Thatcher, who “snipped at straw and sharpened ends of rods/ That, bent in two, made a white-pronged staple/ For pinning down his world, handful by handful,” leaving his rapt spectators “gaping at his Midas touch.”
Somewhere in Heaney’s notion of “pinning down” one’s world, a handful at a time, art and living surely converge. Far away from Derry, in a world that might not be so different after all, the Rust Belt of the United States is the backdrop for Carlo Rotelli’s Good With Their Hands: Boxers, Bluesmen, and Other Characters from the Rust Belt. Within it, he explores the symbiotic relationship between the artistry and the environments of an unlikely lineup including bluesman Buddy Guy, pugilist, Liz McGonigal, and former New York city cop turned movie-producer, Sonny Grosso. Like the turf-cutter, the thatcher, and the blacksmith of Heaney’s poetry, these too have honed the “deceptively unsimple virtue” of being good with their hands. Their handiwork is forever inextricably bound to their worlds.
For years, my mother has been sending me brown paper packages tied up with string – boxes filled with Antrim Guardian newspaper clippings about people I used to know but might not remember, chocolate for my daughter, the obligatory three or four packets of Tayto cheese and onion, and always something for me to wear. (This last is typically something for which she paid entirely too much, and something I really don’t need, but she always dismisses me with a “it’s just-something-to-throw-on”). My husband has always been bemused by the brown wrapping paper and the string, but what he doesn’t realize (and my mother may not either) is that, by all accounts, consumer demand for her type of handiwork has gone rather mainstream. At any moment, we are but a few clicks away from artisanal gift-wrapping, jam-making or the knitting of very complicated Aaran sweaters, all of which she has practiced and perfected since childhood. I have knit only twice in my life. The first time, I had to produce a pair of slippers for Domestic Science class. Seriously. I remember it took forever to cast purple stitches on fat grey knitting needles, and then there was the daily grind of “knit one, purl one,” until those ugly slippers were finished. My mother intervened of course, but her neat rows of stitches were too obviously different from mine, and she didn’t want me to get in trouble. Which I imagine I did. I have no idea what would have possessed me to undertake knitting a second time, but years later, I knit a sweater (mostly by myself). So impressed with my handiwork, I even wore it out a time or two. Alas, it literally fell by the wayside as we made our way to Slane Castle on the warm July afternoon of Bruce Springsteen’s Irish debut. That was the end of the knitting for me, but my mother only grew more skilled, taking on increasingly complex patterns, her needles clicking ever more rapidly it seemed.
My mother’s first job was in Crawford’s shop in Castledawson, and that is where she learned, among other things, how to wrap a tidy parcel in brown paper and string. As she had learned to bake and sew by watching my grandmother, so she watched Jim Crawford skillfully wrap parcels for the customers. Soon she was expertly preparing packages of sweets and biscuits for those who wanted to send a taste of home to relatives across the water, Mrs. O’Connor, whose daughter was in England; Jim Crawford himself had devised a way to tie newspapers with string so they could be easily mailed to relatives far away in Australia. I imagine one such newspaper will be making its way to me soon – my mother believes she still has the knack for it. She is quick to remind me that all this wrapping and knot-tying was long before there was any such thing as Sellotape (Scotch Tape) so sometimes she would use a seal wax over the knotted string.
Years later, when my mother was home with us, one of her favorite jobs was “backing books.” By the first day of school in September, she had saved brown wrapping paper for this special task. Anyone from my part of the world will readily acknowledge that our teachers were very particular about the way our books were backed. There was definitely an art to it, and so naturally it fell under my mother’s bailiwick. She could barely wait for September when my brother and I would get our new school books for the year. I can still see her waiting in our kitchen in the house on the Dublin Road, brown paper and scissors ready. Each book she placed carefully in the middle of a sheet of brown paper, and with a few quick snips, folds, and tucks, she had it covered, ready for us to write our names on the front. I remember one September, because my mother was ill and in the hospital, I had taken it upon myself to back my new history textbook. Of course I couldn’t do it right. Like so many things, this was something my mother had made look so easy, but unlike my mother I had not learned by watching. It was impossible for me to get the brown paper neatly under the spine at both ends, so I gave up and went to school, book un-backed. For my sins, I was subjected to a memorably sarcastic tirade from a teacher who clearly cared not about the fact that my mother lay in the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast. She may as well have been on the other side of the world in those moments. Over thirty five years later, I can still feel the flush of embarrassment on my face. I have never forgotten or forgiven his lack of sensitivity. I am sad to report that I was reminded of it once more, just five months ago when a teacher was inexcusably cruel to my daughter – in front of her classmates and in spite of knowing that while he casually broke her spirit, her mother was recovering from cancer surgery.
Perhaps being good with one’s hands is somehow connected to being in good hands. Handled with care. A hand-wrapped parcel from Crawford’s shop was done right and with great care. There was heart and craft in it. It was in good hands …