Sunday, December 23, 2007

My Mom Fired Her Holiday Presents

This year was a bit unusual. My mom did not hit the malls for holiday presents. She hit and fired up clay instead. Large clumps of clay were flattened, rolled, pressed, imprinted and even tossed on the floor. That’s how my mom describes her holiday gift activities.

Clearly, my mom has had her manicured hands full creating terracotta angels and glazed salad bowls. That’s because she has four adult kids, who celebrate three different holidays. Consider the evidence: My younger sisters celebrate Christmas; my brother, a fellow blogger and a philosophical man with waist-length dredlocks, celebrates Kwanzaa, and I celebrate Chanukah.

My parents —Ben and Barbara Harvey (in the pictures) —have a very busy holiday season. With such children, my parents have learned seasonal flexibility. Like clay, they mold their holiday cheer with shape-shifting adaptability.

So it’s just perfect that my mom retreated to a pottery studio to make holiday presents. She says that shaping clay is good physical therapy for her hands, which were fractured last year. Hitting clay, she says, is also good for anger management, which is not her issue, but appears to be something that other pottery makers in her workshop are working through. Handmade pottery has now become another holiday tradition for my family.

Since my childhood, the family rituals of the holiday season have meant a lot to my parents. Christmas meant Nat King Cole singing about “chestnuts roasting over an open fire.” Christmas was the smell of chocolate chip Slice’n Bake Pillsbury cookies baking in our oven and the scent of a fresh pine tree in the front room. And on Christmas Eve, we’d decorate that tree with red, green and gold balls on hooks, strings of multi-colored electric lights and painted wooden ornaments, including the little blue moon that my parents bought when I was a baby.

Everything leading up to Christmas was magic, even the Sears catalogue, which was packed with a thick toy selection. Every page had something we wanted. My brother Ben Jr., and our little sisters, Karen and Debbie, spent hours studying the toys.

“Make a list,” Mom or Dad told me when I was about seven and we still lived in Philadelphia. I was in the middle bedroom and the Sears catalogue was on my lap. Bengy was about five; Karen and Debbie were pre-schoolers; I took their orders as they pointed to toys on the glossy pages. The list was for “Santa,” and M&D promised to mail it off to him. “We’re his helpers,” they always told us with such pride.

This year in the pottery studio, my mom again molded herself into Santa’s helper. The process involves far more than I ever imagined. In addition, to pummeling clay, pottery also demands finesse and creativity.

For example, to create textured wings for a terracotta angel my mother used a piece of crocheted cloth and imprinted the fabric into the soft clay. Likewise, the leaves from a palm tree were pressed into service in order to mold a large salad bowl.

That process – like parenting — also demands patience and time. Before going into the oven, each piece requires at least three coats of glaze and it’s a real wait-and-see process.

“In between coats, we use a hairdryer to dry out the glaze,” mom says. “It takes patience.”

As a pottery student, my mother was especially impressed with the patience shown by her teacher, the Ever-Patient Phyllis in the Heritage Isle Club House.
"She gave us all individualized instructions and attention," my mom says.
My parents, however, know a bit about patience. My siblings and I were raised with equal doses of special attention, instruction and care.
The molding process is also a lesson in frugality. Every bit of clay is used or recycled for other projects that are twisted, snapped and pounded into shape.

“We never throw away extra clay. Everything is recycled,” my mom says. “You add piece by piece and you work it out.”

During the process, my mother has worked out the little idiosyncrasies that makes us unique and she has designed each piece to match the quirks of the designated recipient. For my youngest sister, a religious Christian, my mother created a brown cherub with textured wings.

For my new-age brother with the long dredlocks, my mother created a large blue salad bowl for his leafy green meals. And for my middle sister, a sales executive in the Orlando hospitality industry, mom made a beautiful showcase bowl that will look elegant on a coffee table or a display case.

And of course, my mom has made a piece for me. I haven’t seen it yet, but I’m guessing that maybe she’s fashioned candle sticks for my Sabbath table, a small menorah for my children to light next Chanukah or maybe an elegant salad bowl. But the gift doesn’t matter, because she’s already given me this narrative as a holiday bonus.

Sharon Harvey Rosenberg is the author of The Frugal Duchess of South Beach:How to Live Well and Save Money Anywhere You Live, which will be published in May of 2008 by DPL Press. This piece includes an excerpt from that book.


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