If the stories told to me are accurate, my mother starting sewing when she was a little girl. She made dresses for her Barbie dolls and when my grandma saw how well she could sew, she had her make clothes for the entire family. She even made her sister’s wedding dress, all of the bridesmaids’ dresses, the men’s tuxes, and ALL of the outfits for the entire wedding party. Do you know how much fucking work that is? I die at the thought of the perfectly sewn powder blue ruffles.
Some time between her first and second marriage, she decided that she hated sewing clothes and fell in love with country folk art. I don’t mean the music, she actually hated country music, I mean dolls, shelves, and every sort of knickknack made to look like they were from the late 17 to early 1800s. Later we would call it, “primitive” or “antique reproductions,” but when it first started, it was just, “country.” There was a an entire country folk art culture; it consisted primarily of white women from the east coast to somewhere around where the Midwest meets the southwest. I would say that it was not popular at all on the west coast, but I am basing this solely off of where my childhood was spent. My mother was a famous country folk artist and I spent the better part of my childhood on the road selling her work.
Before there was HGTV showing people how fun it is to shop junk piles and find something to refurbish, there were people like my mother that had full on wood shops in the garage. She built shelves and tables, and painted and stained them for us to then sand down to look like it was all old as hell. Sanding picture frames and staining dolls’ legs were things that I had to do before I could go to the movies. This part of my life is what I bring up whenever anyone asks why I am not “crafty like your mom?” At one point, when I was in maybe fifth grade, my mother owned three country shops in three different Michigan towns while also driving to various states almost every weekend for the shows. She never slept. Well, that’s not entirely true, one time she fell asleep at the sewing machine and sewed through her hand. Another time she was drowsy at the band saw and sawed off her finger tip in the garage. Oh and when we were driving back through Canada from a show in New York, she fell asleep and her side view mirror hit the cement embankment which smashed out her window. She threw a blanket over my face for the remaining drive to avoid shards of glass blowing into my eyeballs. I remember times when she’d get a big order and her and a friend would have to make the same doll over and over again until 6:00 am to get it shipped out in time. They’d lose their damn minds. They were laughing hysterically, naming each doll and making them talk to each other, and by the wee hours of the morning, referring to them as, “the fucking snowmen.”
There were magazines like The Country Sampler that would sometimes feature a doll of hers, which would make her famous while we were on the road. We primarily did the Country Folk Art and Country Peddler shows. These were two different circuits of the same thing: high end, expensive craft shows. I am calling them craft shows for you, but it was a sin to refer to them as craft shows. If my father dared to tell someone that we were doing craft shows, he would earn the wrath of my mother. These were not card tables in a local high school gymnasium; she started her country show journey on a tiny table at a local auditorium and this was not that. These country folk art booths cost anywhere from $300 to $1300 per weekend and they were full on elaborate store fronts made out of antique ironing boards and chicken coops. Every show had about 100 booths of anything from oak dining rooms tables that weighed 800 pounds to intricate wrought iron lamps that looked like were owned by George Washington. Some of the booths were run by young adults that the artists would hire just to do the shows while others were like my mom and me: successful family-owned businesses that did it all. She still was making her stuff by hand while there was a guy that we called “Taiwan Dave” who would spend the day picking off the “made in Taiwan” stickers on his stuff before the doors opened. There were strict rules that you had to hand-make a certain percentage of your product in order to be a part of the shows, so these folks pushing the limit would deny any and all of the allegations otherwise. And just like in any community, the country folk artists had a slew of gossip to go along with them . We didn’t always remember people’s names, there were tons of women named Beth or Nancy and so we would talk about them by their product name. “Lamp Lady” or “Bear Daughter” and “Fudge Guy” were probably the least creative, but 30 years later I can still picture these people’s faces perfectly. Bear Daughter was having an affair with Fudge Guy, by the way. She was 19 and he was probably 45 and had a wife and kids at home. One time he hit on me in a hot tub at a Holiday Inn in Baltimore when I was maybe nine. He said, “If only you were a little bit older.” The bulk of my childhood was not spent in hotel hot tubs with gross dudes though, it was spent with a circuit of artistic people that looked out for each other while traveling across the country.
My mother put me in private school for a few reasons. The reason that she told everyone was that I was too smart for public school. My kindergarten teacher told her that I was interrupting everyone in the class because I would finish whatever we were assigned and then go around talking to everyone else. But the reason that I tell everyone is that they were lenient with extra absences and would send me with my homework so that I could do the shows with my mom. I was in second grade when we went to the first big show. It was a Country Folk Art show in Farmington, Connecticut at the Polo Fields. It was the middle of the summer, a million degrees and a million percent humidity, and one of the few shows that I remember with my dad. He usually stayed home; he had his own electrician business after taking an early retirement from Pontiac Motors. It was on this trip to Farmington that he said he never wanted to do another craft show. And it was on those sweaty polo fields that my mom found her calling.
The shows were super fucking hard work. If you were like my mom, actually hand making all of the stuff, you had 3 days a week to do that. You would leave on a Thursday afternoon to drive sometimes 18 hours to an arena, fairground or stadium in cities like Baltimore, Syracuse, Madison, Sturbridge, and Louisville. You would start setting up your booth at 7:00 on Friday morning and the doors would open at 4:00 pm to the public. The smallest booth was a 10 x 10 (or 100 sq. feet) and some folks had seriously intense backdrops made out of pipes and wood with cloth drapes or walls that collapsed onto each other. You would spend the morning lugging in antique ironing boards and boxes of dolls, using dollies to load giant walls made of wood shutters. If everything went well, you would have enough time to make a quick run to your hotel, check in, shower, throw new clothes on, and be placing the cash that you brought for change in the register right as the doors opened. Customers came through until 9:00 pm and you’d be back Saturday morning from 9:00 am until 4 or 5. Sunday was a short day, so you could pack up after the doors closed and drive all the way home in hopes that you would get there early enough Monday afternoon to have 3 solid days of sewing and painting shit to box up for Thursday morning.
Growing up on the road with my mom definitely provided a vast educational experience that other kids did not have. I was reading a map and navigating her through the eastern seaboard before I was nine. And I mean a real ass map that you had to fold because we didn’t have cell phones. (There was a period of time that we did have a CB radio so we could communicate with the truckers and know where the cops were hiding.) I had been counting change back in my mom’s stores before I could read, so I was the perfect business partner to take on the road. My sisters worked in her stores and helped cut wood for cabinets, but then they grew up and moved out. I was still in school and that meant that I was a full time employee. To everyone else it looked like I got to eat in fancy restaurants, stay in four-star hotels, and go back to school shopping in Boston every summer. These things were true, but I also had to bust my ass as a manual laborer dragging in hundreds of boxes of framed antique samplers (stitched sayings under glass that were like, “Button Button Who’s Got the Button?” and “In searching for rainbows end I found not gold but you my friend”). I had to be pleasant to the hundreds of customers that shuffled through our booth all weekend picking up the dolls I had carefully set out or kindly telling their kids not to touch the dried orange and bay leaf garlands that I had delicately tacked to the front of the milk crates. I knew how to calculate sales tax by hand on a receipt. I remembered that I had to write that everything was much cheaper for the Canadian customers to help them with their drive home through customs. I first learned how to drive in a van with a 10-foot trailer attached and I was able to navigate that 1986 death trap that had lost power steering in the middle of Indiana when I only had my learner’s permit.
The 10 years on the road are full of stories. My mother had asked me a long time ago to write a book. She actually asked me repeatedly to just start writing about it and see what happened. She said that the stories from the road were too good not to share. She’s right, and I wish I had written them down sooner. I am older now and the shows all blur together. I know that there were good times like when we sold out of almost everything by Saturday morning and my mom bought herself a new diamond ring and me an Oakland Raiders Starter jacket at the nearby mall. There were the customers that would would travel miles to see her, sometimes across state lines, just to buy her newest doll. There were the times that she would let me bring someone along so I have fun memories of laugh attacks with a best friend in random towns in far away states. There were amazing crab leg dinners in Massachusetts, buying the Best of Prince (and the B Sides) in Indianapolis, and gagging at the sight of McLobster sandwiches on the menu at a McDonald’s in Vermont. And of course there were also bad times like when I rolled down the window in Brooklyn and stacks of cash that we had just made blew out of the car or when some random ass bug flew in the driver’s side window and bit my mom and we ended up at a hospital in the middle of Maryland. (Or was it an emergency dentist visit in Maryland and the bug thing happened in Minnesota?) We would get in screaming matches in hotel rooms because I didn’t want to wake up to shower on Sunday only to be sweating by noon rushing to pack everything up. One time the van kept breaking down before we could leave Michigan. We went to the mechanic, he “fixed it,” we would get back on the road and it would stall again. So she got pissed and bought a brand new Trans Am and had them put a trailer hitch on it so we could take off from the dealer. My mom was fucking hilarious. A TRANS AM WITH A TRAILER HITCH ON IT!
I was in high school when she started to get sick again. I say again because although she was doing shows, running her stores, and busting her ass, she was always fighting for her life. She was diagnosed with cervical cancer and given six months to live when I was a baby. She beat it though and got a brand new Fiero. I was nine or ten when I woke up to find that the stairs were covered in blood and the trail led to the bathroom. My dad took her to the emergency room in our shitty hometown. They had their medical books out and were flipping through the pages – she had no platelets and was bleeding out of everywhere, but they didn’t know why. They gave her a ton of transfusions and sent her home. It wasn’t until the third or fourth time that this happened when they said that there was nothing they could do. My dad had her flown to Pontiac to see a rheumatologist that gave her an emergency splenectomy after diagnosing her with ITP. She was saved, or so it appeared, until she was diagnosed with lupus. I think I was 16. In the later years she was too tired to create the products and do the shows. She would have my friends and I go because we were old enough to drive. If it was a really far show, she would arrange to share a truck with another artist from the shows that lived sorta close and I would go in her place. I would drive 13 states away with someone named Ann that would wear giant white panties in the hotel room. I would set up the booth and run it myself while my mom stayed home to slowly make more.
I don’t remember the last show that we did, but I do know she never thought it would be the last show. Her country stores had come and gone, but she always loved being on the road. She was too tired and sore to keep up with the work and so we thought she would take a break and get back out there. It never happened. Our home was always set up like a country folk art production warehouse – bulk supplies of stuffing for doll legs, bolts of fabric, mason jars full of buttons, random pieces of wood for shelves, and power tools scattered everywhere. And after her funeral, my family and our friends had to clear it all out so my dad could walk around. Literally, right up until her unexpected death, she had always hoped to feel well enough to live that crazy life again. She longed to be on the road, in another state every weekend, people fawning over her art, and eating lobster in fancy restaurants.
My mom was able to create something out of anything and so she stayed busy, even when she was sick. She was featured in the local news several times for the best garden or most artistic house and other local country stores would buy her stuff wholesale to sell themselves. She would bring home people’s trash and turn it into a garden bed or a shelf for the house. She was able to find some joy in rural Michigan, but it isn’t until now that I realize that she was happiest on the road. I don’t want to remember her in pain or depressed because she wasn’t on the road. Instead, I want to remember my mom smiling while ringing up customers on a cash register in some sports arena in the middle of Pennsylvania as the smell of cinnamon candles and fresh roasted sugar pecans waft through the air.