A Reflection on Working with your Hands by Jean Dempsey

For as long as I can remember, my mom, my dad, and my grandma (like a third parent) have made things with their hands. My mom made us dinner every night, made pancakes for breakfast every Saturday, made clothes for our dolls, did needle point, and patched holes in our clothes. And of course, as a nurse she constantly used her hands; even my dad went to her every time he had a splinter. She always knitted, but recently she’s become very dedicated to it. She makes scarves, hats, mittens, gloves, socks, and sweaters to keep her kids and grandson warm and cozy. She follows complicated patterns, knit-purl-knit-purl, that seem to be written in code. She uses straight needles, round needles, sock needles. She starts with a ball of yarn and ends up with sweater! Also, over the past few years she has become a “hooker.” She hooks beautiful, intricate rugs that now adorn the walls of her house. She hooks smaller patterns, which she turns into pillows. She constructs footstools out of plywood, and covers them with rugs. There seems to be no limit to what she can make!

My dad also worked with his hands. As an artist, he assembled pieces of scrap metal and junk that he collected along the railroad tracks and made sculptures of the sun and the moon. He painted pictures too, that now hang in my apartment and my sister’s and brother’s. He also used his hands around the house and garden. I remember my mom and dad spending weekends in the yard, planting flowers and bushes. My dad even grew tomatoes one summer, which we used to make BLTs. My parents built us a two-story tree house in the backyard and they built the deck, allowing us kids to help with small tasks.

Then there’s my grandma. What hasn’t my grandma made? She made clothes for her children and her grandchildren. She built a wall down the middle of the single bedroom in the small house where she raised her children, so that her son could have his own room. She finished a section of the basement and turned it into a room for her daughters. She worked many jobs to support her family, including one job decorating cakes! For as long as I can remember, she has crocheted afghans and doll clothes; every member of our extended family has received one of her signature afghans, whether as a birthday present, wedding present, graduation present, etc. She makes food for every occasion, specializing in baked goods. Even now, when she’s lost feeling in her hands and it hurts to walk because her knees or so bad, she hobbles around the kitchen making deviled eggs and potato salad and inventing new cookie and cake recipes.

So you would think that I’ve had more than enough inspiration to work with my hands. You would expect that I’ve learned the tricks of the trade. Well, I have learned a few things. Once, for Father’s Day, my mom, my sister, and I made my dad a birdhouse from scratch and painted it blue and white. The other day, when I ran past my old house, the birdhouse was still in the tree; my mom didn’t take it with her when she moved to the new house because she didn’t want to deprive the birds of their home. My mom taught me how to needlepoint when I was young, and I made a few pillows. But now, I don’t own a needle and thread and I probably couldn’t even stitch a hole in my sock if I had one. She’s taught me how to knit a few times. I made one scarf that only looks pretty because I used that yarn that changes color, making it look like there’s a pattern, when really there’s not. I started another scarf; a more sophisticated one. She showed me how to knit again, and this time taught me how to purl (which is another kind of stitch). I got halfway through, and then let the half-finished scarf sit on my coffee table for months. Now, even if I wanted to, I don’t think I’d remember how to finish it.

As I sit and reflect on this, I can’t help thinking, “What’s wrong with me?! Am I completely helpless?” If I have a flat tire, I call AAA. If I need a skirt hemmed, I call my mom. Is there anything I do with my hands, other than cook dinner? Then it occurred to me that cooking for myself is something I do with hands. Now, most people probably take it for granted that before you eat, you cook or assemble your meal. But there are plenty of people who don’t do this. Often, as I sit in the staff room eating my lunch, I notice that many of my co-workers are popping Lean Cuisines, Hot Pockets, and other frozen meals into the microwave. So maybe cooking my own meals, or even throwing together a salad, isn’t something to take for granted. I know many people eat out multiple times a week; it’s easier to go through the drive-thru or order a pizza than it is to make a meal. So for the time being, at least, I am proud of the fact that I cook my own food. And not only that, I enjoy cooking for my friends as well. During the winter I invited about a half dozen friends to dinner every Sunday. For the first several weeks, I made a huge pot of soup for everyone to share; but as the tradition grew, my friends took turns cooking too. But one thing was constant: we always had soup, we tried a new recipe each week, and we always started from scratch. I can’t wait for winter to come again so Soup Sundays can start over again. However, even over the summer and in the fall my friends and I have regular dinner gatherings. Sometimes we go to the Farmer’s Market together on Wednesdays and then through everything on my friend’s grill. Once this summer I tried “Sorbet Sunday.” It doesn’t have to be a special occasion, it’s just a nice thing to come together with friends and make something that we can all enjoy together.

So in answer to your question about being inspired by my mom: yes, I am inspired. As I’ve reflected, I’ve realized that there is very little that I make with my hands, other than soup. Maybe it’s part of my generation; maybe we have become a little helpless and lazy. Or maybe I just haven’t discovered my talent yet. Just because my mom knits, or my dad was an artist, doesn’t mean I have to follow their example. Maybe I’ll build birdhouses or take pictures or make pottery or learn how to repair my bicycle. Who knows? I may discover some hidden passion one of these days. But yes, I definitely feel inspired to start working with my hands! You inspired me!

 Jean Dempsey is one of my best friends (since 7th grade!)  She currently teaches at an Elementary School while getting her Masters in ESL.  She loves France, running, and watching movies.  She and my other friend Alicia initiated “Soup Sundays” and “Wednesday Dinners” as a way of gathering friends together for homemade food and potluck fun.  She lives in St. Louis.

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