My mother baked all our bread when I was a child. She made cookies that were small works of art, and twirled cinnamon buns like nobody’s business. She embroidered Christmas tablecloths, made pancakes for all the kids in the neighbourhood and served homemade strawberry jam to go with it. She sewed the pants we wore and knitted the sweaters (I’m not kidding!). She had five kids. She put whatever we had in the cupboards into a pot and made it taste like a childhood dream.
In the evenings she went to work, cleaning the local school. When she got home she cleaned our house too. Then she created a textile advent calendar with little rings to fasten tiny wrapped gifts, one for each day up until Christmas. If we’d had a cow I’m sure she would have milked it, churned the butter and made the cheese as well.
She cried in the evenings sometimes, when she thought we were asleep. She was always worried about money, primarily because we had so very little. I think she was very tired. I know she was very creative.
When I ask my mother about this now, she says she did all that she did because she had to. That the lack of money demanded an ingenious housekeeper. No doubt she felt the pressure from age old concepts about what it means to be a good, capable woman.
But still. There are different ways to make cookies. You can bake them and something of yourself spills over in the process, a kind of love, an attention to detail, a joy in the giving that defies all tiredness. It will linger and the recipient will notice. That’s how you know someone has created something, instead of just producing.
My mother claims she produced, but I – who ate the cookies – know she created.
If I insist she is creative, she gets upset. Which only makes me more certain.
It may sound like humbleness, that denial, but it isn’t. We deny our creativity because we are afraid. Of our own power. Of our true size.
Many, women in particular, can walk through their whole life without claiming their space. Probably because something else would have to give in the process. To stand in your power is not compatible with wanting to be liked by everyone. When you stand your ground you are not so easily swayed. You don’t settle, and you don’t shrink in order to avoid upsetting someone else.
And sure, who encouraged my mother to stand tall and call herself creative? When would she even have considered it? In between loads of laundry, before breakfast? To hold back, tone down, smile and diminish the value of our work and our contribution quickly becomes a way of life.
But we are creative creatures, whether we admit it or not. If we hold back in one area, it will overflow in another.
For my mother, creativity flowed through her hands and – literally – through her body. Five pregnancies, five children. Just like me, she has moved a million times, and wherever she settles she creates a home you want to be in, cooks food you want to eat. Offers children, not only her own, a lap to rest in and space to play.
For a woman, this is a safe outlet for creative power. Maybe that’s why we still choose it to such large extent, instead of reaching outward, towards a more professional outlet for all our knowledge and skills. That path – children, home, food – is open to us already. It doesn’t threaten anyone.
It’s easy to sniff at that choice, assuming it is a choice. I know I’ve sniffed at it. I thought about that yesterday, while placing a rose on my grandmother’s coffin.
She was one of the many, many who lived an unseen creative life. Small acts of beauty and kindness that did not command attention, but over the years accumulated into something deeply valuable.
I thought about that when I saw all her children gathered, along with their children, and grandchildren. All of us descending from her. All of us shaped by her unique way of looking at the world and the way she chose to express it.
I’ll make a textile advent calendar for my daughters next Christmas. One with tiny, wrapped gifts. I’ll make it as a tribute to those remarkable women who went before me. Some of their skills and creative power will now flow through my hands. I like the thought of that.