When I was a teenager, I lived with my father.
You see, I am lucky enough to have two wonderful father figures. My biological father, Sam, is the poet, essayist, and literary translator, Sam Hamill.
You met my stepfather in an earlier post as my dad. For the record, his name is Skip.
I might as well tell you now that I also have a plethora of mothers. My biological mother is Nancy. Sam was later married to Tree, a smart, passionate woman who got me through my rebellious adolescence. They were married for almost 20 years.
Then Sam married a kind, loving, and beautiful woman named Gray. My father has great taste in women.
During those years with my father, there were always writers, painters, and musicians coming and going. I can vividly picture a group of people sitting around Sam’s dining table. The conversations would sometimes start with cooking, and eventually wind their way through poetry, Zen, and then on to the twang of Hank Williams Senior. Of course, as an adolescent, I didn't always appreciate it. But some of it I loved.
Sam and Tree, along with two friends, founded Copper Canyon Press which is a non-profit publisher dedicated to poetry. In those days, each book was entirely handcrafted - from the setting of the type to the sewing of the binding. The books were beautiful. Each one was a work of art meant to last a lifetime.
I really grew up at the press. If I wasn't in school, I was at the press with my family. Creativity was encouraged. I always had some project on the go. One summer I wrote a small chapbook of poems. It was four or five pages in total. I took stacks leftover paper and carefully measured and cut until I had enough to print several copies. I set the type, locked it up in a press and printed a little edition of ten or twenty copies. I folded each page by hand and stitched the binding. The poems were all very adolescent and melodramatic. When I found that little chapbook thirty years later I was amazed by the amount of work done by that 14 year old girl.
I lived in a world where imagination and artistic expression were valued.
Eventually, I went off to university and studied art history. And then I continued on to the Ontario College of Art and Design University where I studied painting and ceramics for four years.
After all those years of studying and school, I still needed to make a living. The art world in Ontario was very political and I really am not good at politics. I think I was also struggling creatively. I was trying to find my own groove, my true calling, without any success.
I walked away from the life of an artist and went back to school for more education and a subsequent career in health care. I never let go of the creativity entirely. It was channeled into different outlets. I cooked like a mad woman, cultivated gardens, renovated homes, sewed now and then. So many things to make, so little time has been the story of my life.
More than twenty years slipped by. Unbelievable. They went so fast.
Life went on. There were marriages, divorces, new babies, and cross country moves. I continued working as a registered nurse.
One day, I got a phone call that would change the course of my life, but not in the way I expected.
Sam’s wife of many years, Gray, had untreatable, incurable cancer of the cerebral spinal fluid. The progression of symptoms is similar to MS or ALS, but much faster. It was devastating.
For the next ten months, my life was devoted to Sam and Gray. Every weekend I packed my bag and made the drive to their little home overlooking the water. I spent my days off with them, trying to care for Gray and support my father. After a few days, I would drive back home and to work for the week. Wash, rinse, repeat.
I realize in retrospect that I was exhausted. But during those days I just kept doing what needed to be done. My only goal was to get through each day.
I was desperate for an outlet. Desperate to make something with my hands, to create amid all the despair and heartache and and dying that surrounded me.
Several months into Gray's final illness I bought a funky pearl necklace from her sister who had a booth at the local craft market. That was my first ah-ha moment. Beading! It is relatively small, fairly portable, and doesn't require a bunch of expensive specialized equipment. Off I went to Michael's. I had no idea what I was getting myself into.
Two hours and $150 later I was ready to start making bead necklaces. I didn't now anything. I had never strung beads, had no idea about clasps or beading wire. But I liked the colors and textures. And it all fit into a tote bag.
Beading became my therapy. I would often come home from work, which was incredibly stressful, and say to Roger "I need some therapy time". Out came my tote of beads and wire. Several hours and a half-dozen necklaces later, my heart finally slowed down, my mind cleared, and I was able to cope again.
During my trips to Sam and Gray's, I regularly took my father out for dinner. Going out for dinner is one of his favorite things. He needed time away from his own grief. In spite of the crushing sadness, I have fond memories of those dinners. We spent hours talking and crying. Luckily, we found a wonderful Italian restaurant where we got to know the owners a little.
One night, Sam and I were sitting at our usual table - one in the little back room where it was quieter. We had been talking about Gray, and dying, and life. Tears were streaming down my face. The owner came over, concerned. I felt like such a fool. I have never been good at crying in front of other people. We told him our story as a way of explaining my tears. That restaurant became a regular haunt for the two of us. They always gave us a quiet table that was a bit more private. Sometimes they brought an extra stack of napkins for my tears.
After dinner, Sam would collapse into a worn out sleep. And I sought the sanctuary of the guest bedroom. It was therapy time. There were many nights that I sat on the bed in the dim light, Khai asleep on the floor beside me, and spread beads all over the blanket. I made necklaces until I couldn't see any more. I frequently fell asleep dreaming of beads.
Gray died early one summer morning. The sun was bright and beautiful. It was a perfect day as I recall. Warm, but not hot, a slight breeze blowing. She slipped away from us peacefully.
And I kept on making bead necklaces.
Summer turned into fall. Sam and I adjusted to our new lives and routine.
One day I was poking around online and found a continuing education program that offered a Tuesday night Introduction to Jewelry Making course. It promised to teach me the basics of silversmithing - sawing, forming, and soldering. I signed up on a whim.
That course was my second ah-ha moment. I am not sure how to explain what happened except to say that I just "got it". I will admit that my hand skills weren't very good, but I understood the metal in a way I really never understood paint. From that moment, I was set on a new path. I never looked in the review mirror. Never once doubted what I wanted to do.
The learning curve was steep. And there have been lots of times I have doubted my ability. Often, I have been unsure how I was going to make the piece I envisioned into a solid, three dimensional object. There were plenty of failures. Silver melted into a lump on my soldering board. A join that I couldn't get right. Solder that wouldn't flow. I kept working at it and with time my technical skills started to improve. Though I was not sure of the route, I have never been uncertain of my destination.
In the years that followed, I have spent thousands of hours in my studio. Jewelry-making is still my therapy. My hands crack and bleed. My nails are chipped and pitted from the tools. Silversmithing is dirty and gritty at times. And at others, sweetly poetic and deeply satisfying. Much like life itself. It grounds me and calms my spirit. The pounding of the hammer echoes the beat of my heart. Life has a different rhythm now.
I have come full circle.