March 29, 2011

From Homemade to Handmade: Happy Birthday, Grandma Miller

I was a weird kid.

I played with boys, picked my nose and, on an otherwise pleasant camping trip to Ft. Stevens when I was 8, tattled to the game warden on a young man at Coffinberry Lake because he was smoking and fishing without a license. I then sprinted to my parents' white Country Squire Ford station wagon with its wooden side panels and flattened myself out in the rear cargo space for fear that I would make eye contact with the boy who was now having a little talk with the game warden.

For months I had nightmarish daydreams that I had caused him to be incarcerated and would embellish that he had been working to support his family at 14 years old and that I was the one who took him away from his poor mother. Yes, I was a weird kid. But not to Grandma Miller.

She never cared that I chewed constantly on my lips or that I was mistaken for a boy until the age of 12 due to my frizzy hair that my parents had to keep so boyishly short in order just to tame it. No, even though I spent most of second grade out in the hall--in time out--for talking, she loved me.

She was a marvelous seamstress, knitter, crocheter and all around crafter. She always wore dresses, nylons and very sturdy pumps with heels two inches wide and two inches high. When she wasn't wearing a large, ornate brooch, she wore homemade beaded necklaces that she treated like treasures, keeping them in a locked jewelry chest in her bedroom. Her face was framed with the softest short gray hair and I loved to watch her pin it tightly in little clips all over her head at night in order to make it curly in the morning. She was only 5 feet tall, tiny and mighty. She was beautiful. And I was the only granddaughter out of her 4 grandchildren.

Grandma Miller took me under her wing, a tiny woman in the making. She would listen to what I had to say, then gently dish out sagely advice, meted out sparingly and with quiet power. Against my will, she made most of my school clothes and, less to my chagrin, knitted me slippers every Christmas. She spent weeks at a time with me in the summer, teaching me how to live while teaching me how to sew and knit. She had unlimited, stoic patience.

I struggled with my sewing and knitting lessons. I couldn't make a seam straight, and I certainly couldn't get the old-school acrylic rug yarn to stay on the needles. Each time, in each situation, my grandmother would just quietly guide me along, most times ignoring my little girl frustration. She would keep telling me to try again. She would say in her very deliberate, slow voice with the slightest German accent, "If a task be great or small, do it well or not at all." I grew weary of hearing it.

I secretly even used to wonder why we were doing this. After all, I really was only doing it to please her. I didn't really want any more clothes that were "homemade."

That was a shameful word to me then, now bringing new shame--and for different reasons--to my mind as I think of it. As a gradeschooler and preteen, I worried that kids at school would notice my non-designer clothing and make remarks; my red hair and freckles already garnered enough negative attention and I just wanted so badly to fit it in invisibly.

I resented the zig-zag finishing stitches on my clothes that were telltale signs of homemadeness and what to me were unusual fabrics--Grandma Miller called them "polyester cotton," while you may know them better today as "just polyester." Most of them had been donated by the countless people she sewed for at no charge. I didn't care where they came from.

I know I complained, but my parents and Grandma Miller were frugal people. I would stand in my grandma's small retirement community galley kitchen and beg for a top made from velour instead of the polyester cotton. She, in turn, would hang up another fold-over sandwich bag, freshly boiled and ready to be reused, and tell me she would try. I would deeply knit my freckly, strawberry blonde brow with the nearly invisible eybrow hairs, not knowing if she knew what I meant.  I struggled along with my attitude troubles and frustrations for several years.

But I kept trying to sew, even though it was hard.

It just seemed like something I was supposed to be doing--maybe because it had been engrained in me for so long. First for myself, then my small children. Gradually, I began to enjoy it. I guess I was slowly beginning to see something that was not fully realized just yet: "Homemade" means more than just being made at home. The word carries a certain deepness with it that comes from the time, effort and love the creator invests. I looked forward to sharing this with my grandmother as I got older, even if the idea was not completely developed in me. But it was not to be.

In 1993 Grandma Miller began having small strokes, and over the next two years, her health failed her completely. She passed away in 1995 when she was 92 and I was 25. Those last few years were precious and important ones. They sealed my understanding of Grandma Miller's ways and attitudes.

I continued sewing and making our family recipe raspberry and grape jellies like she did. And two years ago, my meeting with Mona at our church (see the first blog entry) completed the circle. I now can do all the things Grandma Miller did. Well, I don't do them as well as she did, yet. But I can sew Daisy Kingdom dresses for my girls and I can knit Grandma Miller's Christmas slippers. And I do it with the full knowledge of what it means to be making them myself.

Grandma Miller. Born March 30, 1903, tomorrow would be her 108th birthday. Susanna Miller--with no middle name, the oldest in a line of 8 children born to German immigrants on a farm in North Dakota--she knew what it meant, too. I miss her so.

I now proudly use the word "homemade." Because things that are made at home are made with loving hands. They are beautiful.


The Knitting Muse said...
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WeenieBeenie said...

I remember playing with Grandma Miller's empty yarn spools when I'd go over to her house. And the little rooster pillow that used to sit on her couch, that I still have somewhere. And the smell and taste of severely overcooked carrots that she made when I was over.

I love this article Mom, it's a beautiful way to honor Grandma Miller.

It reminds me that everything we do in life should be done with knowledge and reverence for the people who came before us. Especially for those of us who are women, knowledge and reverence for the women who came before us.