Sunday, November 22, 2009

Artistic hands

The holidays are upon us, and they bring to mind memories of childhood. I am aware that I write about my family a great deal. I guess this is natural, as they gave me my firm foundation in life. As children, we were fortunate to live next door to my maternal grandparents. My Grandfather was a farmer who raised tobacco in East Tennessee. He had a barn and an old smokehouse where for much of my childhood, he continued the old ways of doing things. His mother and sister, my Great-Grandmother and Great Aunt, raised flowers to sell downtown on Market Square Mall and that was the reason they all were so talented at making things with their hands. The winter months had to be supplemented with sales of something, and that something was holiday decorations, wreaths and dried flowers.

When the holidays approached, sometime after the first few frosts had hit, it was time to make Christmas wreaths. My Grandpa was a master at this. He would go into the woods to cut grapevines for the base of the wreaths, evergreens such as hemlock (although they called it cedar), boxwood and pine branches, holly leaves and berries, and gather pinecones for various decorations. Mistletoe would be shot out of the tops of trees after all the winds had stripped the branches bare. This was always an opportunity for small grandchildren to tag along and chatter his head off as he gathered everything into big burlap bags.

Bags and bags of greenery would be carried back to the barn, set out on tables and the work would begin. Grapevines would be cut and wound into circles for the base of the wreaths. Strong baling twine would be used to secure everything to the grapevine bases. My task, because my hands were too small to pull the twine tightly enough, was to pull small swatches of evergreens from the branches and hand them to my Grandpa as he built the wreaths.

He would have buckets of water set out that he would pour metalic paint - gold, silver, bronze - onto the surface. Pinecones would be tied to twigs with string and dipped down into the water, emerging gilded by the metallic paint, then hung over a handy nail on the wall of the barn to dry. The same would be done at times with twigs of holly leaves and berries, wild grass seed pods and pine cones. I always loved that particular part of the whole process, watching the dark brown pine cones disappear into the water and come out shiny silver or gold.

The quiet gloom of the barn was peaceful and frosty cold in the early winter days. My brother and sister usually grew bored with the wreath making process in a short period of time, and would escape to play in the fields. I tended to stay there for hours on end, just sitting quietly, watching as the wreaths grew from such simple, humble beginnings into full, glossy, fragrant works of art. Chatter was not encouraged too much once we got back to the barn, but from what I remember, my Grandpa did enjoy the small jewels of wisdom that would come from my child's mind when I was "helping" him make those wreaths.

To this day, I can close my eyes and picture the ground floor of the barn and those work tables full of winter greenery. My Grandpa's hands were huge to my little girl's eyes and strong and tough enough to handle the prickly evergreens and holly branches with a deftness that to this day amazes me. He would work quickly, pulling that tough twine tight to bind the greenery to the grapevine hoops, scattering the decorative pinecones and berries in random patterns. Sometimes he would create something on a whim, such as a wreath made entirely out of straw. His eye for proportion and texture would serve him well as an artist today, I am sure.

For me, as a small child, what mattered most was getting the chance to just be with him and experience this important part of the holidays. The earthy scents of the barn would be spiked with the sharp, clear, tangy tones of the evergreen clippings. The chemical smell of the metallic paints would also punctuate the air. Yet above all of this was the absolute stillness of being out in the country on a winter morning. The winds whispering through the open barn doors, birds singing, squirrels chattering in the trees, the sounds of distant trains, and the occasional conversation shared between a three year old little girl and a Grandpa in his work overalls, who to that little girl, could work magic with his hands.

Years later, my Mom and I tried our hand at making some Christmas wreaths and I was astonished at how challenging a task it truly is. Our results were pretty, but tended to shed some greenery here and there where we failed to pull the twine tightly enough.

It is an art that is becoming fully mechanized these days, the making of wreaths. I find that to be a bit of a shame. There were occasional years when lots of family would visit around Christmas and we would all sit around and make wreaths; this was always a wonderful thing, full of the typical laughter that occurs when family comes together. The fact is, making holiday wreaths isn't for the faint of heart - it requires dexterity, long hours of labor, strong hands and an exacting eye for placement of greenery. I can understand why they are now being mass produced. While the ones I've made would never stand up to my Grandfather's critique, I do retain the knowledge of what I consider to be a noble art.

When I do attempt to make wreaths on my own, it is always with the memories of watching my Grandpa flowing through my mind, reminding me of simpler times spent in the barn, watching a true artist at work. He would scoff at being called such a title, but this is what I see as a strong truth. I think he enjoyed in a very deep manner the beauty he produced and the enjoyment his wreaths gave to so many. He would have called himself a simple farmer, and he was that very thing. My mind also saw him as a man with artistic hands, capable of producing beautiful works of art each holiday season.


  1. Never figured out the art myself. I think I'll give it a go!

  2. It's defintely something that you have to work at, but the results are always gorgeous. Plus, it's a great excuse to gather friends and family together. Can't beat that!