One of the skills in the “things I never particularly wanted to know” category that I’ve learned over this cold, snowy winter is the art of building fires in the wood-burning stove. Among the refinements I’ve figured out is that when you use old paper bags, tax returns, and bank statements for fire-starting, they ignite more readily if you first tear them into pieces.
The other day, as I squatted in front of the stove solemnly tearing paper with utterly irrelevant precision into halves and quarters and eighths, I was reminded of my mother.
What I remembered was a specific occasion, possibly a baby shower but more likely a meeting of our Methodist Church Ladies’ Aid Society. In either case, it was a sedate afternoon party for women, with a few little girls along by default. We were expected to remain quiet, well-behaved, and in the background. In exchange we got refreshments—most likely watery punch and homemade cake—and the chance to listen in on grownup conversations.
This event included the kind of odd little games that used to be or maybe still are played at showers and such gatherings. Games like making words out of the letters of the bridegroom’s name or getting a prize for being the lucky one whose pink or blue paper napkin, folded like a diaper, contained an all-too-realistic glob of peanut butter.
One of the games at this party, which must have been held around Christmas, was to make a paper reindeer. The challenge was to start with a blank piece of paper and (with eyes closed, if I remember right) to tear a reindeer shape out of it. Something like Michelangelo’s summary of sculpting as “seeing the angel in the marble and carving until I set him free,” only with flimsier material and without the use of tools.
If you think this would be easy, try it yourself. It’s not as simple as it sounds, and it requires planning, concentration, and coordination. All skills I hadn’t yet developed as a little girl, which is probably why my own reindeer attempt ended up as a lapful of shredded paper.
But the reason I remember this silly little game so well is because of who won it: my mother. She tore out a handsome reindeer with recognizable antlers and with all its legs intact. I was so impressed. A tiny bit embarrassed, too, I think, that my very own mother would call attention to herself in such an unexpected way.
I took for granted all the things my mother did—laundry, cooking, cleaning, gardening, reading aloud with expression, and sewing beautifully crafted clothes for herself and her daughters. Those, in my childish view, were ordinary “Mommy things.” Just things I assumed that all mothers did.
But tearing a recognizable reindeer out of a blank piece of paper? That was different. That was Art.
As I grew up, I learned to admire and respect my mother’s varied skills as well as the art and creativity she brought to so many things she did. But the incident of the paper reindeer was probably the first time it ever occurred to me that she was not just a mother, but a person.