“If you look the right way, you can see that the whole world is a garden.” Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden.
My mother has descended another level down the steep staircase that is dementia. These days it is uncertain she knows who I am, yet as the person I know fades and I try to come to grips with this, I’m reminded of who she was to me at different times in my life. As chameleon-like as me, she changed along with the context of her life and the way each addition of yet another child shaped and formed hers. She changed with the time she lived in with all of its challenges and yet to be exploited, opportunities for women. She changed with every change in my father’s financial fortunes and ultimately with his health. Being the oldest I have traveled the longest with her. I sit on the arm of her chair and rub her back or croon nursery rhymes I learned from her as a child. I call her Mommy again rather than Mom or Mother as I have for many years now. Her head rests on my chest and it is hard to discern if I am comforting her or she is comforting me. Everything between us has always been unspoken and indirect. My ability to decode tells me we are comforting each other. She can still remember things, but only from decades ago, farther and farther back to her own childhood. My memory now, along with hers, also remembers with far greater clarity those moments in my long-lived life from decades ago.
When I was in sixth grade, I won a gold medal for writing the best book report and the creation of an accompanying diorama. It was about my favorite book, The Secret Garden, a tale about nature, the power of a girl’s imagination, mutual aid, and a return to health. The story held great meaning for me and I identified with the main character, a resilient yet bratty young girl around my age. Filled with beautiful watercolor plates, I spent hours between its pages, sometimes reading and sometimes just looking. The garden in that book became a place for me too, one where I nurtured my imagination and found hope. I still have the same battered, now 60-year-old, copy. Thanks to an intuitive and thoughtful reader of this blog, a second copy came my way; one given as a gift to another young girl on December 25, 1912. The year my new/old house was built.
While feeling confident about my ability to write a quality book report, I was not at all convinced I could be artistic like other classmates whose private art lessons and natural ability ensured they could reproduce paintings and create sculptures like ones in the Met. The person who sat at the desk behind me could draw figures of girls with outfits that looked like she produced them in an advanced fashion illustration class. Her name was Patty, and she made her own paper dolls, filling folders with wardrobes designed especially for them. Enthralled, I would try to replicate both the figures and the clothes and even with practice and her patient instruction, mine always fell short of the desired perfect images shown on the walls of grey matter from the film projector in my brain.
I sat at my narrow desk, similar to the one I sit at as I write this, struggling to create the magic of the garden I loved so much. The one-dimensional flowers I drew provoked neither interesting thought nor strong emotion. Tears welled, began their slow descent past my sparkly cat eyeglasses, down the curve of my cheek and soon there was a slow, spreading blotch on the loose-leaf pages of the book report I just wrote. My perfectly rendered Palmer method blue script, written with the sharp nib of the fountain pen my Catholic school required us to use, became illegible from bearing the weight of my sorrow. My words would need to be painstakingly copied again. Despondent, I believed I could never render the beauty I found in the book. I thought maybe I should choose another one; a book I did not care so much about. I cried in silence, not to be a bother.
My mother, who left me to my own devices with school and most other things, appeared somehow intuitively summoned from her after-dinner chores and without a word, picked up the cardboard box from my desk, beckoned me to follow her back into her domain and plopped what contained my uninspired attempt in the middle of the kitchen table. Patting the empty seat on the bench beside her, I slid in and heads together, we thumbed through the book and landed on a watercolor plate of the garden coming back to life; one of my favorites, as it implied re-birth and re-generation, is possible. The brick wall of the garden was covered in flowering vines. The boy who the main character helped to return to health (and in doing so helped herself) stood in the midst of blooming flowers of every hue, his face suffused with joy. I saw that something was able to be made from what had at one time looked like nothing, something old and thought to have outlived its time if one only had imagination and hope. Even back then, I am attracted to such an idea.
Amid the colored paper, glue, and scissors scattered around the table, my mother showed me how the everyday items that made up her world like Saran Wrap, could turn blue construction paper into a shining pond, toothpicks became stems for Kleenex tissue flowers planted in beds of styrofoam, food colored spaghetti strands made perfect vines. We soon filled the empty box with all the colors, textures and optimism I loved about the story. The diorama had come alive, just like the Secret Garden. We wrapped it in brown paper with care and it stood on the table waiting for me to carry it to school the following day. The gold medal I won later that week, years later came to find its way onto my mother’s charm bracelet, as it should have. That night my mother taught me how to make the everyday and the ordinary things in our life, interesting and beautiful.
Accidental Icon was always a low-budget operation. Part of it was because when I first started, I needed to direct my modest professor’s salary to play catch up on retirement funds. More so, it was my stubborn insistence on doing everything myself so I could keep learning something new. Not in a position to hire others, spend money on fancy equipment, or finance trips to international fashion weeks or luxurious resorts, I was back in my mother’s kitchen with just an empty cardboard box. The header for my blog says, “Accidental Icon: For Women Who Live Interesting but Ordinary Lives”.
Not knowing anyone who would invite me to runway shows, I got press passes to market shows. It was there in the cavernous spaces of convention centers that I met young, undiscovered designers trying to sell their clothes to bored buyers. Lucky if one person stopped by all day, their eyes implored me to have a conversation however brief. They told me of their inspirations and desires, later took me to lofts and workrooms hidden behind doors in the Garment District. There I met pattern makers, learned about tech packs and minimum order quantities. In exchange for a post, they gave me garments that no one else was wearing, making me stand out in a sea of sameness. Wearing these clothes, my Instagram photos come straight from the camera, no re-touching of wrinkles or any other imperfections I possess. Calvin only bought a digital camera (rather than his preferred film) because he loves me and neither of us knows anything about Photoshop. Unlike the exotic locations filmed by my peers, I appeared on the shabbiest of New York City streets. Despite the garbage that may lie near my foot in a shot, somehow these photos still read fashion. Even after I became more successful, this organic, by the seat of our pants, using what’s around method, is still how we operate. It helped me to be creative about producing content amid a pandemic when I turned bath towels into couture. Having to work within the confines of a box, cardboard or otherwise, often conspires to make us even more creative than working “outside the box”.
All this to say that thanks to my mother, my creative approach to re-purposing and re-imagining what I already have gives me a way to move forward, resources or not. This is so important to remember as we are crafting our “What Nows”; the lives we envision for ourselves as we get older or even just starting out when young. If we leave the hype, the hustle and bustle of social media which compels us to compare, the expectations of others, we can see that every choice and decision we make throughout the day, regardless of how mundane they may seem, has a creative basis. You can teach yourself to appreciate and re-imagine what you already have in your life rather than say you don’t have the talent or resources to begin a reinvention project or act on a deferred dream.
While writing this essay, I discovered the term “everyday creativity”. Used to describe the countless ways we are resourceful in our daily lives that are often unrecognized and unrewarded and thus remain underdeveloped, we all have it. Whether it’s taking a different route to work, patching a moth hole in a sweater, or improvising that recipe you can’t find, it need not be a traditionally creative activity to count though it could be. Each of us has a unique palette, a personal style, that no one else has, filled with stories, meanings, feelings, and unconscious associations that we bring to whatever we wish to create or to the solution of any problem. Every success in my life comes from the Secret Garden Diorama lessons learned; each one creating a charm for a bracelet of my own. While my mother may not always know who I am right now, I take comfort in remembering those times when she knew me better than anyone else in the world ever could.
In what everyday ways are you creative and how can you bring them into your What Now?