It’s May, the month for celebrating mothers and the female caregivers in our lives. Whether these women are mothers, grandmothers, aunts or sisters, they play significant roles in our stories. Much of what I know are reflections of my mother and the other women who helped raise me, a fact I know to be true for most, whether we recognize it or not.
A common thread
Curious about others’ traditions and creative expressions, I questioned my coworkers at the Arts Council of Greater Lansing and other local women to find out what females in their lives had passed on to them. While some of them talked about things like drawing and music, they all mentioned something about the domestic arts. Despite different backgrounds and ages, they all shared memories of creative domestic skills taught in their youth.
Tradition and ritual
For Taylor Rupp, Arts Council’s administrative assistant and Arts Night Out’s coordinator, learning to master the pastry cloth is one of her favorite memories. The cloth, a staple of the Christmas baking season, comes with a ritual that Rupp cherishes to this day.
“My mom’s cloth is 25 years old and has never been washed — it’s a proper, perfectly-broken-in pastry cloth,” Rupp said. “It’s something I look forward to having passed down to me one day.”
Embroidery, knitting and the art of furniture refinishing were just a few of the skills handed down to Debbie Mikula, Arts Council executive director. Her mother also encouraged piano lessons.
“I still play and use the same music sheets she used as a young girl,” Mikula said.
Beauty and brawn
The most important creative lessons for Rhea VanAtta, owner of the Old Town General Store, came from her “Lola” (grandma) who taught her to love plants.
“I learned to nurture, respect and surround myself with their beauty and benefits,” VanAtta said.
VanAtta’s older sister also influenced VanAtta’s creativity, teaching her to cook and appreciate food, music and culture — all which are reflected in VanAttat’s work and how she lives her life.
Elderly Instrument’s Lillian Werbin’s mother gave her strength and conviction, telling her that her gender has “no role” and that she could channel her creativity into anything she wanted to.
“She told me because I am a woman, I can do anything,” Werbin said. “She taught me to sing, to swear, to cross-stitch and to stand up for myself.”
Singing is where Arts Council program manager, Meghan Martin’s passion lies; her mother, however, is a fine artist and retired art teacher who taught Martin to see and value creativity in all its forms.
“She instilled in me that everyone is an artist and art is everywhere,” Martin said.
While Martin said she doesn’t have her mother’s art skills, she loved the time spent with her mom. And today, Martin takes time to express her creative self.
As for me, my mother taught me how to embroider, grow flowers, set a pretty table, make raspberry tarts and perfectly fold a bath towel. She taught me to sing and dance and to play “Heart and Soul” on the piano. Though she didn’t always understand them, she encouraged all of my creative forays.
Today, I see my mom as a woman who brought a level of creativity to just about everything she did. Even her clothesline was a sight to behold — like items hung together — sheets in the back — all items hung smallest to largest, left to right, something she learned from my grandma and my great aunt Minn.
I used to complain about the order, but the truth is, when viewed from afar, it was actually quite charming; a colorful art in and of itself, and I follow her rule whenever I hang clothes on the line.
Sharing traditions handed down is important to the women who came before us and to our own stories and histories. It’s something we should be aware of always, not just on Mother’s Day, as a way of honoring ourselves and the women in our lives.
Tales of women by women
If you’d like to explore more stories of women and traditions, here are some films and books about mothers and daughters you might like to check out.
Little Women, Gillian Welsh, 1994 (film)
Monsoon Wedding, Mira Nair, 2002 (film)
The Red Tent, Anita Diamant, 1997 (book)
Then Again, Diane Keaton, 2011 (book)