Tinker Trader

paringI stood at the sink soaping my sponge and carefully stroked the last two items, my twin paring knives. One had been a gift to my mother. She no longer needs it. And one for me. I was promised this would be the last paring knife I’d ever need. I was sixteen at the time and wasn’t necessarily seeking out a life mate in a paring knife. That was forty years ago. I realized that I have owned this knife for 15 years longer than I’ve known my husband!

Mrs. Margaret McGuinness was the Executive Director of the Somerville Home for the Aged when I worked there as a teen. She was a woman in her eighties, strong, clear-eyed, and in fact her eyes sparkled with a youthful exuberance. Mrs. McGuinness was short and stout. She had tightly cropped, curled white hair, cat rimmed glasses, and wore a dark pink lipstick. She often adorned herself with pearls and clip earrings. She had a firm, confident voice. Her full figure was held together by a full body shaper – or as they were known then, a girdle, which made a swishing noise as she walked.

On this day, she came to the employee break room carrying a small cardboard box. Someone asked what was inside. She withdrew a single item from the box. It was wrapped in tissue paper. As she unwrapped it, she revealed a small paring knife. She then told the simple tale. Several years ago, her church sold the knives as a fundraiser. The twelve or so unsold remained in the box. The knife had a stainless steel blade and aluminum handle. She further explained that since the knives held their edge so well, anyone only really needed to buy just one. Perhaps two or more if planning to share as a gift. The fundraiser only did so well, since the knife lived up to its name – no need to replace it unless lost or stolen. I was intrigued and asked the price. Three dollars she answered. I quickly bought one for myself and one for my mother. The box emptied without much effort.

I should take the time to explain that I felt somewhat skeptical. Afterall, my grandfather was a knife grinder by trade and profession. His sharpening wheel resided in his box truck which he drove on his route in the North End of Boston. He was the knife sharpener on this most esteemed route in some of the best restaurants in Boston! I knew firsthand what effort goes into keeping a blade crisply sharp. Unlike many people, I know what a truly sharp knife is.

Realizing their age, I can’t help but feel the knives have held up better than me. Mrs. McGuinness was right about these little beauties. Hmmm… this is starting to sound like a commercial. I always felt the wanderlust of a tinker trader. I’ve spent a lifetime looking for just the right product to sell at local fairs. I have a friend who owns an onion ring food truck and travels to New England carnivals all season and makes a bucket of money. I have another friend who makes and sells unicorns, only unicorns at select fairs throughout the northeast. I once tried to sell my own handmade photo greeting cards but I quickly became bored with the handmade process and quit. Later in life, I worked for a nonprofit hostel and there developed a great maple granola recipe and would sell canning jars full to guests and at local fairs. I recently enrolled in a “bringing your food product to market” business workshop and quickly became frozen by complex licensing requirements and food regulations.

Standing by the sink, I envision myself at flea markets and fairs with a few boxes of the paring knives, bringing my own 40 year-old specimen as proof of the promise “this is the last little gem you will ever need to buy.”

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Swimmer’s Itch

IMG_20170406_185207I recently bought a membership to a local hotel pool. I typically swim five days each week. I have an ongoing idea that I will speak of my troubles to a stranger at the pool. Will it be the front desk clerk? A fellow swimmer? Perhaps even the owner? Many people tell their stories to a stranger. Why not me? I can’t shake the notion that someone will have the answers I seek. Someone will have just the right words to reassure me about my son enlisting in the Marines.

I joined the pool soon after he signed the contract. I am not an especially energetic person by nature. I suddenly felt kinetic. Live-wired. Unable to unwind or dissipate. I simply had to find mindless activities to take me out of my head. I chose knitting and swimming. In the early days of swimming, I would simply count endlessly and silently to push any panic thoughts out of mind. I started with 90 minutes of activity in the pool. At times, it boarded on frantic. After working all day, then swimming like that, I can usually fall asleep at night. During the moments in a day that typically offer “down time”  I decide to use knitting to fill the void and deflect any remaining stray thoughts.

As I finish my swim this evening, I notice the water looks slightly milky. Probably from the salts shed by the many bodies. Or it may be a pool of tears. I have certainly shed many into the deep waters here. I also notice oil droplets floating on the surface as I make ripples with each stroke. The pool’s aqua blue color adds a special touch to the overall effect. Nothing will dissuade me from this moving meditation. At the same time, I think of the six adult bodies currently sharing a bath in the place they call “the spa.” I have the pool to myself and feel grateful.

Just as I exit the water and head for the shower, a woman steps in before me. It is a single use room. I grab my bag and head for the men’s room. After all, the outside door locks and there are no men present. I shower quickly, exit the men’s room and no one seems to care.

Knowing Mothers & Others

My 18 year old son recently severed himself from our family. In case you think this is unusual, you might be surprised to hear that it is not uncommon. I have struggled as to how to respond when people inquire about my son. At first, I simply ignored the question. I realized as time marched on, I was in essence building a facade. The second problem – I felt I needed to explain the look of pure sadness on my face and the water which pools in my eyes at unexpected moments.

For me now, the world is divided into two groups: Knowing Mothers and Others. Knowing Mothers are my heros – they are the ones who are brave enough to admit to more than a June Cleaver existence. When I answer the question about my son gently and truthfully, Knowing Mothers speak softly to me and tell me their child’s story. They never ask, “What happened, did you have a fight?” In fact they never really question anything. They simply wait for the story to unfold, piece by piece, whatever one is willing and able to share. They understand the situation immediately. A few words and they get it. They also almost always say something hopeful, reassuring, or insightful. And they aren’t afraid to ask how things are going after that.

These Knowing Mothers, it turns out, are everywhere. I have found them at the office, at the clinic, in my family, in other community groups I attend, etc. We are part of a circle we never planned for or dreamed about. No one taught us what to do when things don’t go as planned. I am surprised there aren’t any Knowing Mothers support groups. So instead, I attend the NAMI family support group.

I recently had my annual physical, which I had waited months for. The first question the doc asked “how are you?” What a bombshell! I asked her what she meant by that (might she really want to know?). “What’s going on in your life?” she clarified. Again, water in the eyes. She handed me a tissue. It turns out, she had an even more dramatic happening. She came home from work on the eve of her son’s 18th birthday and found an empty room without any notice or warning. We shared for 30 minutes. My high cholesterol and borderline hypertension could wait. We had important work to do together. The sharing, camaraderie, soul searching were key. She understood immediately that pretty much nothing else mattered to me at that moment. That understanding was so settling for me. I loved hearing that although it took a few years, they are back as a family. This gave me hope. Priceless. We have a follow-up appointment in two months.

Another Knowing Mother’s story. She says with a smirk, when her son calls, she and her husband exchange a glance. They wonder if everything is okay. Who will pick-up this time? They take turns. Deep breath out, he wants to take them to dinner. He seems settled into a good life, living and working in Boston. This is after some legal scrapes, leaving school in Florida for 2 1/2 years and forgetting to tell his parents.

The parents in my support group chuckle when I tell them the following story. When my son was ten and playing soccer, another mother and I stood on the sidelines. She turned to me and suggested that my son needed to smile more often as he always looked so serious. When I told her that he was diagnosed with autism, she felt so badly about her remark and apologized profusely. It wasn’t exactly true but somehow this just slipped from my mouth, totally unplanned and without much forethought. This still makes me smile today! I never corrected it or felt badly about it. After all, I truly believe that we are ALL on a spectrum of sorts, some more at one end than most but we each have traits, behaviors, idiosyncrasies in common. It’s called being human.