I grew up in the Midwest, with parents who came from Chicago and Minneapolis. Both were college educated (‘though my dad was the first in his family).
We lived in urban environments when I was growing up.
But my Dad still had relatives ‘on the farm’ back in Minnesota. My (great) Uncle Jake was a dairy farmer. And there were others whose gherkins we picked, my girl cousins and I, for dill pickles that Grandma Helen Zumberge made every year.
My grandma Zumberge and her mother, great grandma Sophie made all sorts of things by hand.
I won’t go into the breads, pies, cookies, doughnuts and all the other wonderful things that came out of their kitchens.
I’m talking about quilts and clothes. I have two quilts hanging in our guest room, what we call ‘The Minnesota Room.'
Every summer when Dad’s parents visited (for weeks on end, which made Mom groan), Grandma Helen would sew summer pajamas for us children. Cozy flannel pjs in the winter. I can spot some of the fabrics she used in the quilt above.
Anyway, my point is: it was an earlier generation – not my mom’s and not my own – that was gifted with the artisan’s ability to make beautiful or tasty or useful things with their hands.
I think my Mom’s mother, Esther, is a good example of what changed in my family, perhaps in America in general. Grandmother Esther came from such a poor family that it was a status symbol for her to be able to buy things rather than have to make them.
I felt special when I learned how to needlepoint (mom taught herself, and then she taught me). I thought I was among the elite in making pretty things with my hands.
My cousin Karen makes quilts today. Beautiful quilts, “quilt art” and quilt jackets; although I don’t believe they are made in the same way that Gram and Great Gram made theirs, which were strictly hand-sewn – no sewing machines. Doesn’t mean Karen’s aren’t gorgeous, it’s just the modern way.
Then I got to know some people from Slovakia; over the past seven years, I have discovered the many talents of both my peers and the next generation after us.
My first clue should have been the needlepoint on the wall in our caretaker’s flat in Banská Štiavnica. It is of a famous baroque building in Prague, where he lived when he played in the Bohemia soccer league back in the 60s. Ivan stitched that himself.
Then our neighbor, Viera gave us some exquisitely decorated Christmas cookies and a hand-embroidered Christmas doily one December.
We discovered another Christmas tradition: nativity scenes made out of corn husks. Primitive and beautiful.
Later, we would discover the tradition of elaborate nativities filling entire rooms, with mechanized movements, all hand-carved out of wood.
I’m not sure when the penny dropped.
Was it after I discovered the talents of 13-year-old Nina with her handmade felt? Was it the talent of my friend Iveta’s husband (and her own!) with the cross-stitch art that hang on her kitchen walls? Was it the handmade advent wreaths given to us for our December table? Or the oil painting Viera’s husband Janko painted for us? Or the handmade musical instruments or the handmade sausages …?
… or the hand-loomed fabrics you can buy in the folk-art shops, if you’d like to recreate the traditional costume of your region
… or the crocheted doilies and table cloths women make for their doctors, thanking them for helping with their husband’s heart problems
… or the honey wine you can’t buy in the store, only at the local Christmas market because it’s homemade – or the housewife selling fresh, homemade honey at the high school bazaar, just 5 euros a kilo.
… or the home made hooch they distill from apples, juniper berries, pears, raspberries or anything else that takes their fancy
… or the home made Christmas tree ornaments and the Easter ornaments.
Yes, I’ve decided I’m not so special after all.
In fact, I have embraced the concept of learning to do more by hand. You can see me here, learning how to make ornaments from the master:
Making something by hand is not only less expensive than buying it from a folk shop, it has a lasting value you KNOW is there, because you made it yourself.