Aaron brought home another ugly pumpkin. “From my mom to you,” he said, plopping it on the counter in front of me. It looked like a giant brown dingleberry with a pinched off turd for a stem. At least the last ceramic pumpkin Sue gave me was close to the right color. That one was orange-ish and squat; lumpy, but cute. This one will need a special kind of person to love it. Evidently, that person is me.
My house is slowly filling up with my mother in law’s crafts. Two Yosemite landscapes interpreted via quilting. A shallow bowl that looks like it’s been glazed with semen. A knitted pair of multi-colored square shapes which I thought were Kleenex cozies until Aaron said, “No. Socks.” A sweet, lopsided vase dotted with purple flowers. And scarfs. So many scarfs. All of them not quite long enough for a standard double-wrap.
Sue unabashedly gives me the discardable, the defective. The mutants. She once presented me with a scarf for my birthday, and explained, “I made a scarf for my sister and Joan. I made ones for their kids, for Kay and Judy and Theresa and Joe. I had all these bits and pieces of yarn laying around—nothing you can make anything good out of—so I thought, well, I’ll take these scraps and make a scarf for Amy!”
Where others might see leftovers or trash, my mother in law sees gifts for me. It’s a dubious honor. What is the message when she cleans her garage, finds a broken plastic lampshade, says, “It’s ruined, it’s broken, it no longer functions, I’m throwing it away and do you want it for your living room?”
I don’t know why she would think I’d want her trash, but I did once intimate that I was open to gifts of the handmade variety. It was a Christmas when her mom was still alive. Sue stood in her country home kitchen with a ruffled apron on, coring and peeling green apples to make a pie or two or three. Her wispy blonde hair and California garden tan kept her looking young and hale, even though a middle-aged weight had started to set in. “My mother doesn’t like any gift I give her,” she confessed to me, tossing mounds of apple skin ringlets into a composting bucket. “I knit her a red sweater. She wasn’t even remotely impressed.”
I was surprised. Doesn’t every mother love a handmade gift from their daughter? “Well, that was extremely thoughtful of you,” I said.
“Mm-hmm,” she said, unconvinced. I watched her sift flour onto a large cutting board. Soon pies would be made, and her large family would devour her efforts in one fell swoop. I was sure no one would think to thank her at all.
“I would be so glad to get a gift like that from you,” I shyly said. We were still finding our way around each other then; constructing tentative footpaths over chasms of differences. Perhaps crafts would be our happy middle ground.
A few months later, Sue presented me with a giant clay planting pot covered in beige seashells pressed into a dirty gray cement. It was a monstrosity. We didn’t even have any plants. “Thought I’d try mosaics!” She said happily, nearly dropping her gift onto my foot.
Sue has funneled her crafty instincts into pottery the last few years. She’s getting quite good. She’s made ceramic bears, trout, and sea turtles. There are brightly colored serving trays, decorative bowls, and even a jolly snowman, complete with twig arms and a top hat. None of these examples of a burgeoning talent are for me. I still get what is lumpy, what is lopsided, what is over-glazed and covered in paints that have dripped in the kiln.
“What does it mean?” I ask Aaron with each new offering. His answer is almost always a shrug; a refusal to read much into anything, ever. Which only further fuels my conviction that everything means something, always. “Is she subconsciously telling me I’m a reject? That I am not worthy of first tier gifts? That I am a second-hand person?”
Yet I do love the ugly pumpkins. They sit in my office, where I can marvel at their lumpiness, their blatant character. The purple bowl with the semen-esque glazing resides on my stove, ready to collect the dribs and drabs of greasy cooking. The lopsided vase has a predominant spot on a bookcase in my living room. The seashell encrusted planter…well, okay, that creature mysteriously disappeared in our last move. Confounding as I find it, most of Sue’s ugly little stepchildren have ended up with the right person.
Recently, the ugly pumpkins stopped coming. Instead, Aaron delivered me rustic mugs with quaint mountain motifs. “For her mountain girl,” he said. Next, he brought home an attractive bowl encircled by the forest green outline of fir trees. These weren’t rejects. These were personal. These were actual gifts!
At Christmas, Sue gave me her present last. “This was the best thing I made this year, and I made it just for you.” I unwrapped the large serving bowl, admiring the green trees, the shining sun, the cute tent in the center. “Thank you,” I said, hugging her, touched that finally, Sue’s best was for me.
The why, as always, is a mystery. I like to think that maybe the whole time Sue was practicing her pottery, working the clay, smoothing away the lumps and dents, carefully spinning out the fragile shapes of things yet unidentified, that she was also working at loving people, loving me, loving herself; each ugly pumpkin bringing her closer to her own capacities, her own limits, to all our flaws so beautiful and ugly, patiently kneaded and molded and painted and fired, until we can finally offer them to each other, the best and worst of ourselves, brilliantly colored and finely displayed; in every fragile shape found a version of love we can accept.