by C.E. Young
I come from a family of makers, which isn’t surprising. I grew up poor. When you’re poor, making things is what you do. Year-round, if we couldn’t buy it we made it, but wintertime always had extra weight to it, likely because need is heightened.
There were 6 kids in the family, all growing at different rates. New winter boots for one meant another might have to insulate with newspaper and plastic bags for a while. All of us had at least one turn at that. We didn’t like it but we did what needed to be done. Getting a new toy was a special occasion, so for all the other days a kid needed to feel special we made our own out of foil, papier mache, or bits of one old, broken toy added to another. The large head of a GI Joe crammed atop a small plastic army man was perfectly meant to form Big Head Man, a comical hero but a hero nonetheless. Big Head Man was great at camouflage because, hung in a Christmas tree—as he often was—his head became an instant ornament.
We weren’t always happy with what we made but we learned to have fun with it.
In early adulthood my sister had kids. Then a brother did. I never did. Never will. But I wound up partly raising my nieces and nephews. Neither my sister nor brother was especially good at making a stable world for their kids. Because I loved those little people, I made one.
Throughout the year there’d be field trips, constellation naming, library days, arcade days, wandering days, and movies galore. But when the weather turned chilly and thick socks on bare floors were paradise it was always Santa’s workshop time: each child and I bopped into my messy basement full of odd bits, scrap wood, and an assortment of tools from about 12 different tool sets. We would look at those odds and ends and we would ponder, What can this become?
It had to be holiday-related. If useful, even better. Most importantly, the idea had to be theirs. Uncle was there to guide and suggest but only as a servant to the possibilities they put forth.
My niece Jasmine made a Christmas stocking holder out of dowels. The idea was to make the dowels look like a spindly tree a la A Charlie Brown Christmas. I think she was 6 when we did this. The stocking tree was spectacularly pitiful. But it worked. None of us has ever had a fireplace, none of has ever had a mantle, but Jazz knew Christmas stockings needed special hanging places. We drilled, we wood-glued, we painted green and attached hooks. It was marvelous.
She’s 19 now.
I wish I’d taken a picture of it.
Nephew Justin was less inclined to make something physically as he was emotionally. He was the gift giver, the kid who wanted his uncle to help him (provide wallet for) pick out presents every year for everyone in the family at his grade school’s Gift Bazaar. He wanted the thought to count, and I wholeheartedly agreed.
I think the longest we spent at a bazaar was 90 minutes. His little legs, normally the first to tell their owner “I’m tired” during the first 5 minutes of walking that involved anything he didn’t find fascinating, zipped back and forth from table to table; in his mind he was making things; connections, magic, meanings: his dad might pay attention to him, his mom would spoil him that much more. Grandma would hoot in delight, and his aunts and uncles would remember that he cared for them very, very much.
And finally I would give him a few dollars and he would send me away with the bag of collected gifts so that he could buy something for me. I’d tell him he had free run, but of course I watched over him from the doorway of the auditorium-turned-holiday store. This normally shy kid walked as confidently as a philosopher, picked things up, put things down, questioned when necessary and purchased when satisfied. (There’s something particularly life-affirming about seeing a kid hold a wad of bills out to purchase a 75 cent bauble.)
Justin will be 21 this year. Every blue moon we’ll go shopping together. We’re usually goofy as hell. Nothing will ever top the time we did impromptu boy band moves in the middle of a department store aisle (“Girl, stop! No, come on.”)
Those Christmas bazaars though…
Anyone who’s followed me on Facebook knows there’s one particular nephew I’ve spoken of at length the past few years. Derek. Better known as Wee Nephew. Derek will be 9 in 2018. He’s fully a child of the Digital Age.
Wee Nephew, since the age of 4, has never missed a year asking me what we were going to make for Christmas. He may be fully immersed in digital wares but if you saw the light he puts out going through my ever-present knick knack bin of wood, or learning a new tool, you’d hug somebody on a daily basis.
One year we made a holiday card holder. Another year a rolling platform for a train and village scene. The last things we made were scabbards for our traditional Christmas wrapping paper tube sword fight (‘round yon virgin there can be only one).
That was last year. He hasn’t approached wondering when we’re going to do anything this year.
Next year, at 9, he’ll be the Digital Age equivalent of 19. At 10 I hope I’m not an anachronism.
I’m sure he’ll come around this year though. The making’s in his blood. He’s asked for Minecraft video games for Christmas but I noticed physical LEGOS made the list too. Making things fills a need that not a single one of us ought to deny: to experience creation much the same way a god would remember its many acts.
Making things during winter holiday time always seemed appropriate to me. The entire season is about transformation and wonder. When my siblings and I made our homestyle insulation we were amazed to find it actually worked. Mortified, certainly, but duly amazed. And, truth be told, proud of it.
Anybody can buy something. It only takes money. But how often does money not handed over by a small child in an eager fist manage to transcend itself and become a memory worthy of recalling 10 years later? How often do we get to create with those we love, and in creating create those we love? Even things we love?
Traditions come and traditions go. What I love is those kids who’ve become or will become adults will make things the length of their lives. When the wind gets cold and the hearth, be it an apartment, a dorm room, or an actual house complete with fireplace, engenders thoughts of hibernation, the urge to see what can be done with what’s on hand will grow until they feel little choice but to do something to bring joy to their world.
What a blessing that is.