By Jane Marcellus
My mother kept the hammer and pliers and screwdrivers in a kitchen drawer just below the one for spatulas and slotted spoons, though sometimes they ended up all in a jumble in one place. They were hers, and by extensions ours, by which I mean hers and mine and not my father’s, since he had no interest in such things. At home he toggled between reading the paper and taking a nap or, if he were bored, driving down to a particular shoe repair place on Classen Boulevard where he would sit on a high stool while a lanky black man polished his wingtips. This was 1965, give or take.
My mother had a way of talking about what was important in capital letters (“The Hammer”) and with specificity (“The Phillips Screwdriver”). She regarded mid-century kitchen gadgets with disdain, measuring flour in a teacup and rolling dough with the side of an iced-tea glass, which is either how her mother had done it back on the farm or the way she’d figured out to improvise when she still scraping by as an office girl and living in garage apartments with roommates during the Depression. That was the best time, I was given to know.
I don’t remember my mother actually building anything with her tools, though the possibility floated, lingered, just beyond words. She was quick to solve practical problems though. When the hall closet needed a hook, she found a fat nail pulled from an old board and hammered it in—crooked, but it held the umbrella. And she once unfroze the narrow pipe that led to the icemaker with her mother’s curling iron—the old kind made to heat on a woodstove or in a kerosene lamp. Remembering girlhood, she held it against the bright coils of our electric range and slid it into the pipe until the ice melted. She was proud of that—of bringing the past into the present.
Besides the drawer with The Hammer, another drawer held fabric scraps and bits of lace and rick-rack left from sewing projects and zippers she’d clipped from clothes before putting them in The Rag Bag. Sometimes I would plunge my hand into the soft mystery of this drawer and pull up, say, a zipper, and she would tell me about the dress it had come from and where she had worn it during that lost time she called “back when I was single.” The tools were hers from that time, too. My father, as far as I know, brought nothing to the marriage but his good suits and a used car. They married late. She was thirty-seven. Finally married, relatives said. Now she will be happy.
Besides the tools, and the scraps, she liked finding colors in other colors. “See that red there,” she might say about someone’s dress. “That red has a little blue in it. Do you see?” I didn’t, usually, so she’d say, “Look again.” At times we fought about color. I hated our living room walls, which were clearly brown, though she insisted they were white.
More than once I came into a room to find her sorting through a box of buttons she kept in The Sewing Drawer. Some were extras from dresses she made and others had been clipped, like the zippers, from clothes she no longer wore. I knew her buttons, which she had shown me before—flat blue ones from an old robe and plain white ones made to sew on a shirt. Some were peach-pink and bulbous and three or four were either blue with a bit of green or green with a bit of blue, depending on which one of us you believed. I liked those best, with their upturned edges like those three-cornered hats you see in pictures from the American Revolution. But her favorite was a single button—a fat white one with the pearlescent finish of a tortoise shell. She’d hold it up, turn it over, hand it to me. “What can you think of to make with that?” she would ask.
I had to tell her I didn’t know.