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January 04, 2021 4 min read

Here's the thing, even though I’ve been a working artist for 30 years, I still don't always know why I'm doing something until after it’s made. Or even never. There's a kind of compulsiveness to it - if I'm not making stuff all the time I get a little wiggy. Which means I've made good works and some serious clunkers. And everything in between. I've also made a couple of kids. Made out. Made money, a mess, a home and a future, and I will tell you, even after all these years, the act of making, remains a deeply mysterious and complicated endeavor. For instance, this November, suddenly I was making tons of paper flowers. 

It all started just before Thanksgiving, when I made Señor Abejorro (pictured below) to keep my a little bronze bee company.

Before the Thanksgiving-paper-flower-a-thon, I’d made this sterling silver cuff bracelet.

And a bunch of rings.

But something about working with handmade paper -  the texture of the fibers - and how it felt to pull them apart - and the jagged edges - really bit me. And became an itch I just couldn't get scratched. I had to keep at it.

So I made stacks of 5 x 7 sheets of paper. Then pulled them apart in a slow, methodical tearing (which was super satisfying) to form petals.

That tearing process produced flashes of a certain pink.  The rhododendrons that bloomed in front of my childhood home in suburban Boston are camped out in my psyche. And the house owns me.

 [2019]

Like most Americans, Thanksgiving holds a very specific place in my life. My parents were married on Thanksgiving in 1957. The following year my father began building the house in which my family would have 60 Thanksgiving holidays.   

 [1959]

Yes, we had turkey. Cooked in a brown paper bag, which my mother still swears keeps the bird juicier. And yes, we had that weird baked sweet potato thing with the marshmallows. (So 70s!)

But there were also rituals specific to us. My grandmother was a legendary cook. Her delicate knishes launched each of our Thanksgiving festivities with Jewish, hors d'oeuvre, aplomb. Ever precise, I remember watching her measure out each section of dough with a wooden ruler. Then she wrapped the dollops of seasoned meat using her particular methodology so that once brushed, baked, and browned, they were perfect rectangles of savory deliciousness. Each identical to the last. Slackers weren't tolerated. As our family grew, she had to stockpile batches in the freezer to keep up with demand. The day before Thanksgiving she'd take them all out to thaw. The older she got, the earlier she had to begin the production process. Eventually months in advance.

Once we'd gobbled down the knish supply, passed on pretty little trays, and before sitting down to Thanksgiving dinner, my father always gave my mother an anniversary day corsage. She's a dedicated plant-person and fresh cut flowers still fill her with immense joy. Many of her potted plants have been in her care for decades. And in the spring, when her rhododendrons were in bloom, low afternoon sunlight shot through the petals, staining the front rooms of the house with tints of pink.

My father was a builder: quiet and earnest. He would call nighttime fire drills so each family member could have a reflex understanding of their own primary and secondary escape routes. My sister and I shared a room, in the back of the house, and since the lot was sloped, that meant our room was 2 stories up. No matter the time, if he called out, we had to leap from bed, crank open the windows, remove the screens, and hook and unfurl the rope ladders that were carefully stored under our beds. Then barefoot and wearing nighties, climb down to safety. An accurate reenactment could mean the difference between life and death. The rendezvous spot was at the top of the driveway, clear of the house. Which doubled as my run-away-to spot in times of childhood turmoil so my father could carry me home. His body was like a redwood, and wrapping myself around it was the privilege of being one of his little girls. It never occurred to me that eventually I’d get too big. Or that he’d get cancer and die.

 

[Cape cod 1975. I’m the chubby one on top of the rock]

At 86 my mother is still intellectually sharp. A day trader, she follows the stock markets, and at year end has often outperformed the pros. But over the past fifteen years, neuropathy has claimed her hands and feet, making her living conditions problematic. The pain and loss of balance and dexterity has been grueling. It isn’t that she can’t peel a hard boiled egg anymore, it’s that we had to keep layers of rubber bands around the front door knob so she could get it open. She can’t grip anything. What if there actually were a fire? 

 So this past May, in the middle of the Covid-crisis, we sold the house, and in June, moved her into an apartment in an assisted living community.

The house's quiet charm had rendered it obsolete. The bedrooms didn't have ensuite bathrooms. No walk-in closets. No kitchen island. But it sat on a big lot in a great school district so we didn’t have trouble selling it. The buyer planned to tear the house down, and it didn’t matter what was left inside.

My mom had to let go of so much, including the keepsakes stored in her freezer: the top layer of her wedding cake (not kidding), and the last batch of knishes my nana made before she died. (Also not kidding.) We didn't perform a ceremony. There was no ritual heave-ho. We just left them in the house. Frozen in place.

There's a lot of us now. My siblings and I are all breeders. Plus some of our kids are old enough to have begun paring off. (No next-gen babies yet but I can't wait!!) And we're scattered around the country: Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Illinois, Louisiana, and California. Thanksgiving is the one time, every year, when we all come home. But bringing 20 people together, from various places across 6 states, during a pandemic, to some rented space somewhere, seemed not just irresponsible but dangerous. So with infection rates spiking, like so many American families, we made the tough call and cancelled Thanksgiving.

Which left me making paper and tearing it apart. Feeling the structure resist. The fibers finally give. Ripping "petals" and then gluing it all back together. 

I made a corsage from three 5x7 sheets of paper, a toilet-paper tube, hanger wire, floral wire, and hot glue. 

One of these days, when my mom's new community is not in lockdown, and my family can once again be together, I'll give it to her.

 

 

 [My mom in her apartment]

 

Roanne Kolvenbach
Roanne Kolvenbach


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Raya
Raya

January 05, 2021

I loved reading this, it really captured the feel of the place. It truly was a place like no other.

Emily rosenfeld
Emily rosenfeld

January 05, 2021

Beautiful writing! The story ands its arc, the emotion and even the tactile experience of shredding the paper are all perfectly balanced and evocative. I loved having this window into your family.

ELISSA KAPLAN
ELISSA KAPLAN

January 04, 2021

So poignant. So powerful in capturing the arc of our family life, rooted in a single home.

And I never saw the photo of the house under construction. I think that I’ll never return to see the "monstrosity " in its place.

Manda
Manda

January 04, 2021

Oh so beautiful. My childhood was different but the feelings so similar. You’ve done such a job of capturing it. Thank you 💋

Amalya Sherman
Amalya Sherman

January 04, 2021

Thank you for this <3

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