In Praise of Ugly Crafts
Everybody has that one family member who makes the ugliest darn crafts.
Mine was an elderly aunt we called Nannie. A childless “old maid” of modest means, she lived in a cinderblock government housing complex and didn’t own much, aside from a small TV with aluminum tied to the antenna and a weekly promise of a hot charity dinner from Meals-on-Wheels.
Nannie lived alone in a house carrying the scent of naphthalene mothballs and covered in all manner of crochet. She would crochet everything. She’d crochet tissue box covers. And coasters. And afghans. And placemats. And toilet paper roll covers. And creatures that sit atop glass coke bottles. (Who really needs an adorned coke bottle?) She is now long passed away, but when I was a kid, I saw Nannie as inseparable from these creations shaped of cheap acrylic yarn in the most garish of colors.
Every Christmas, after our visit with her, we’d come home with a Saran-wrapped plate full of Cajun pecan pralines and a bevy of acrylic textile whatnots, all of which smelled of mothballs. When we got home we’d stash Nannie’s masterworks in a box, feeling ashamed of the thought of throwing them away, but terrified of the shame of actually keeping them.
Really, ugly crafts are difficult to receive. We always tell ourselves: it’s the thought that counts. And then we wonder: What was the thought? What, pray tell, was this person thinking?
In your case, it may not be a monkey sitting atop a coke bottle, or a faux-flower to hang on a doorknob, or a pair of oversized acrylic underwear (okay–she didn’t actually make that–although surely she at least toyed with the idea). But in your case, you may have been given a cross stitch of a wolf, howling at a full yellow moon, and flanked by two wispy eagle feathers. It may be a poorly bedazzled sweatshirt, in Christmas colors, or a pair of tole-painted Keds. Or, horror of horrors, it may be something with dried flowers glued to it. But we’ve all received these gifts, and joked about them, and wondered how long a polite person would keep them before throwing them away.
When I was young, my taste for things streamlined and clean forbade me from enjoying such gifts. I only judged what could be seen: the glitter, the glue, the . . . (whatever the heck that furry thing is glued on right there!). What flew under the radar, unrecognized, were the unseen parts of ugly handicraft.
What I didn’t see was the intention. I was blind to the love, and to the desire to give it in the only way a person could find. For some reason, I never pictured Nannie’s imagination sparking, or her brown eyes focused and passionate, or the bare, uncovered light bulbs of imagination being tripped at the switch. I didn’t see the work. I didn’t see her lonely, arthritic hands repeatedly pulling raw materials into loops, or her hope that those loops would transform into some oven mitt or French beret or wall-hanging that would make us feel special.
I didn’t appreciate the hours, or days, or even weeks, when the handiwork wasn’t just a job, but was a meditative task, and the closest thing to a mantra in the meditation was the name of my family. I didn’t know the thrill of the moment when all hideous crafts start as perfect ideas; I didn’t know that those “perfect” ideas would always be beautiful.
Then, as I got older, I began crafting myself. I made very bad music. I wrote things. I glued things onto other things. Through experience, I now know what it all means. I know that the ugliest craft has a sloppy and garish exterior, or a tuneless melody, or bad grammar, or a few slipped stitches now and again. But I’m old enough, and experienced enough, to understand that inside hides a rich world of intention.
I understand now that the homeliest craft, in a strange way, actually resembles us. Just as we’re imperfect beings, filled with good intentions gone wrong, so, often, is our handiwork. We are often like the stuff of a misaimed glue-gun, or a heavy-handed paint stroke placed a little bit off. We are sometimes like a child’s hand-decorated flower pot: a little mottled and askew, but capable of housing, under the right conditions, an absolute bloom.
So now, when I think back on old Nannie, I understand what she was making: she was making herself, handed to us on a decorated praline plate. She was fully present in the glow of something ugly . . . and glorious.
Kara Martinez Bachman is author of the women’s humor essay collection, “Kissing the Crisis: Field Notes on Foul-Mouthed Babies, Disenchanted Women and Careening into Middle Age.” Her work has been heard on NPR radio and has appeared in dozens of publications, including The Writer, Funny Times, and the New Orleans Times-Picayune. Find out more by visiting Karamartinezbachman.com.