Biomythography Note 66
From different sides of the small room, my wife and I leaned over the guest bed at my parents' house. Diane was judging the angles on a hardcover book she needed to wrap in gold paper. I was wrapping a shirt box in shiny, white paper with pink sparkles in it.
When I finished taping the last corner, I turned the present over. I grabbed the red spool of ribbon and spun it out. With a measured eye, I pulled the coils to about three quarters the length of my outstretched arms and tested my judgement by wrapping it, corner to corner, around the box. It came out right to within an inch. I cut it, taped it, and moved next to unraveling a ribbon length for a bow.
Beside me, my wife rustled through the box of bows, store bought and hand-made. She seemed to be looking for anything the color blue. She pulled out two of the bows I had made last year. We had cut them from the packages and saved them or maybe my mother had done it. After all, we were taking from my mother's collection of materials.
Diane pulled out another bow. This one was larger, better made with heavier ribbon. It was a deep blue that almost matched the ribbon she was using.
"Does this look good?" she asked.
If I remembered right, I'd made the large one, too. I doubted myself as soon as I had the thought. The fat loops looked awfully neat and careful. Plenty of times, that was me. But this time, maybe it had been my mother's work.
My wife and I had spent three years wrapping presents together. We'd gone into our joint tasks with different approaches. As children, we had learned contrasting styles of folding and variant choices of decorating. But we were starting to develop a system we agreed on.
While I finished making a couple smaller, red bows, Diane taped her choice to the top of her gift and moved on to her next package to wrap. She finished fast and slapped a pre-made bow on it. Done. She stood next to me, hands on hips while I finished the shirt box.
"Where does your family get these bows?" she asked me.
For a moment, I didn't know what to say. For years, she had worked in the same room as me as I'd made them. This time, she had stood four feet away. Her focus hadn't been on what I was doing but I took her peripheral vision and her general awareness for granted. Surely, in some of these years together, she had looked up as I coiled the final decoration.
"Uh, I just made this." I poked the red bow.
"You made it?"
"Yeah." The red ribbon bounced under my fingertip again.
"Your family makes bows?"
This led to a long conversation about exactly how my mother taught me. Basically, she demonstrated how to a) grab a length of ribbon, b) weave it back and forth in a line, each time shaving off about a fifth of the previous length, c) make a neat loop for the center, and d) tape it all together. Several times, as I showed Diane, we stopped for her to gush, "This is why I never see them in the store!"
Less than a month later, we had to wrap gifts for a birthday. We were working in our master bedroom in our townhouse. Diane finished wrapping a DVD. She reached into a gift bag we used to hold reusable gift bows.
"Where did you get ..." she began. She shook her head at her thoughts. "Oh right."
She turned to a cardboard box near her feet. Her right hand rummaged through it. Then she rose and handed me a spool of ribbon.
"Can you make me a bow?"
Where I was instructed by my mother, Diane got guidance from her father.
Don Thornhill showed Diane how to make efficient use of wrapping paper and ribbon. He taught forming creases and folds. He didn't come at the chore from the culture of poverty. Rather, he simply liked to see jobs done well. For Diane, being efficient had a moral component, too. Using less of everything is better for the environment.
Diane didn't recognize my family bows because she had learned two other kinds. One was a type I didn't see much because it requires cloth ribbon. The strips of cloth come from grosgrain, organza, cotton, or satin. We never had any of those when I was growing up. After Diane and I married, I laid my eyes on cloth ribbons for the first time when Diane bought rolls of them. She made a few of what she calls "floral shop" bows.
She also made bows in a manner her father had taught. Those, I found fascinating. With a deft flick of her arm and wrist, she used the edge of a shear on a narrow ribbon to make it curl. It was like giving the ribbon a perm. The resulting bow looked disorganized but festive.
This process works only on the narrowest of ribbons, however. As you might guess, I had only ever gotten the cheapest sort of ribbon, which is the slick-surfaced, plasticized stuff made from acetate. It's not the right consistency and, in any case, too thick for this type of bow.
Sadly, our family doesn't put ribbons and bows on presents anymore. I suppose bow-making skills will be lost in the next generation. I'm not sure if this is similar to losing hoof-trimming skills because the family no longer owns a horse. Some people do still give nicely-wrapped gifts, after all - just not us.
In a world of so many possessions, the specialness of a seasonal gift has faded in comparison to all the other purchases. My grandmother felt her grandchildren were unreasonable to feel disappointed by getting the gift of socks. When she was young and got two or three hand-me-downs per year at most, a new pair of anything seemed special to her. She was happy even with a hand-me-down that she'd been eyeing for a while. In her era, there was nothing ironic about wrapping up clean underwear with a ribbon and bow.
In the course of her life, my grandmother made sure her wrapping paper, boxes, ribbons, and bows saw as many as twenty special occasions with her family. Sometimes they reappeared as a complete set and made Lois or my mother exclaim, "Oh, I remember this."
My mother passed down the tradition of re-use, at least for a while. She taught me to make bows for our gifts. When she was young, she regarded store-bought bows as a luxury.
She never got as tense as my grandmother, though, when her kids unwrapped presents.
"Don't tear it! Don't tear it!" Grandma Adele would bark. "Save the paper. Save the bow. How about the ribbon? Something that long is worth putting back on the spool."
Sometimes she would comment on the ornate bows.
"Isn't that a nice one?" she would say as she held it up for approval. "Ann, I suppose you made it. Can I keep it?"