Sunday, November 13, 2011

My Mother's Daughter

I recently returned from closing up the cabin for the season. It will be at least seven months before I get back there, and the leave taking is always bittersweet. On the one hand I like thinking that I have tidied things up and tucked the place in for the winter; on the other hand, closing up the cabin also means saying good-bye to my parents. In truth, mom and dad passed away nearly twenty years ago, yet at the cabin, they live on.

My parents acquired this cabin, located in a small mill town in the Idaho panhandle, after my brother and I were launched; at least we had both finished college and married and were no longer looking to mom and dad for financial support. The building itself was an old logging camp cook shack, and at the start it only had three rooms. It served as both a vacation spot and a repository for all things from our family’s past. My parents had been storing anything that might be given a second life in their barn for years, so it was no surprise when the kitchen cupboards, the wood stove and the round oak kitchen table that had been resting in the barn since an early remodel, made their way to the cabin.

Let your eyes wander around the few rooms of the cabin and it will become apparent that long before the practice became popular or the word became a household term, my parents were recyclers. Everything from the light fixtures to the rocking chairs, started out as something else. Like many of their generation, the notion to “waste not/want not” was part of their DNA. Living by that edict satisfied their practical interests and simultaneously sparked their creativity.

Early on, mother’s recycling forte was clothing and her knack for renovation grew out of necessity. Her large extended family was populated primarily by aunts and female cousins. According to mother, though none of them were wealthy, most had more “wherewithal” than mother’s immediate family. A visit to or from any of them was accompanied by a variety of hand me downs – coats, sweaters, and the occasional party dress. I don’t know how my aunts felt about it, but mother reveled in the prospect of rummaging through this treasure trove and finding something to make over.

A full length coat with a ragged hem and worn cuffs was shortened to three-quarter length. With the collar and cuffs removed the coat might be trimmed in velvet or plush corduroy and dressed up with new buttons. Once Peter and I arrived, these coats would be made into snow suits. Sometimes mom took the coat apart and turned it inside out before she re-cut it, so the fabric looked like new. If the front of the original coat wasn’t too shabby, she would try to re-cut it in such a way to utilize the existing buttonholes. Failing this, the alternative was to bind new buttonholes by hand with embroidery thread or painstakingly make bound buttonholes. Every photo of me and my brother taken in the winter until we were about ten years old shows us in jackets, pants and little hats our mother made out of material that started life out as something else.

Today, the cabin is home to the original sofa and accompanying chairs bought for their first home in Spokane. They are covered with quilts made out of squares of corduroy each with their own story. The red corduroy comes from my first grade Christmas jumper and the royal blue squares were once part of my junior high cheer leading skirt. The salt and pepper cords that Peter wore throughout grade school are alongside forest green squares from dad’s favorite LLBean shirt.

In large part the cabin is a testament to my parents’ great collaborative relationship. If mom had an idea, dad could give it a form. He made swing rockers from wooden wheel chairs salvaged from the Edgecliff T B sanitarium. Mother was un-phased by raised eye brows and unbridled laughter when she fashioned lamp shades out of yellow foam egg cartons, which, by the way are still in service to this day.

Last summer, when I cleaned out the storage room in the attic of the cabin, I threw out the remainder of the stuff that they had saved for future projects. One bag held remnants of wool and corduroy, some of it cut up and ready to sew into yet another quilt. When I looked into a second bag, I was initially baffled for it appeared to be a collection of plastic bread bags. You may remember the time when only bread came in plastic bags and groceries came home in a paper sack or a cardboard box. In the bottom of the bag, I found the beginning of a crocheted rug, fashioned from strips of the bread bags. I had to laugh as I put them in the trash. “Really mom, this is a stretch even for you!”

Fast forward one year later, and who’s laughing now? Here I am industriously knitting new rugs for the cabin kitchen out of loops I have cut from old T-shirts and connected with a slip knot. I just know they will be the perfect complement to the egg carton lampshades. An added bonus to this project is the fact that the next time Fred looks in his T-shirt drawer and asks me if I have thrown out any of his favorites, for once, I will be able to say no without blinking.

If the T-shirt recycle project goes as well as I think it will, when I open up the cabin next June, I may just cut up the plastic grocery bags that have taken over the broom closet and knit them into – well, who knows what? Placemats? A hammock? You name it. Anything is possible when you are my mother’s daughter! (And perhaps to my own daughter’s dismay, it appears more and more likely that this recycling behavior may in fact be part of our genes!)