The one with the good taste: Column
Another Mother’s Day has come and gone, and I hope all y’all remembered, or else this sentence just sent you into a terror. Once again, my brother and I managed to come through with a gift my mother adored: a yard sculpture created from multiple metal flowers from Steel Blooming in Charleston. She loved them, and we loved that she loved them, and so everyone walked away from Sunday happy.
Now, metal flowers are not cheap. Ever since she developed a liking for them, I figure I have spent roughly the equivalent of a year’s worth of community college tuition on large, colorful flowers that can’t die and that she can switch out depending on the season. And you won’t find me getting her any other kind of flowers, because she made it very clear when my brother and I got old enough to be good gift-givers: She does not care for cut flowers. Of course we’d gotten cut flowers for her before, and she was always super appreciative of them. But they weren’t her preferred way of being shown that we love her, and when pressed on the issue, she let us know that.
I love that about my mother. She has no poker face (a trait we share), so if she doesn’t like something, she can’t hide it, and she’s so sassy, she’ll just come out and tell you that something isn’t her taste. I’ve mostly noticed this trait in the last decade or so, but honestly, she’s been like that forever. She knows what she likes, and she’s strong enough in her feelings that she can’t be influenced by popular opinion to the other direction. Or in our case, the opinions of the other people living in her house.
For example: The house that I grew up in got remodeled when I was 11. Mom was very much into antiques at the time, so she spent hours combing through estate sales (we have a trunk that belonged to Ella Dee Kessel) and antique shops (like the much-missed Blue Ribbon Antiques outside of Ripley, owned by the delightful Mr. and Mrs. Ingram), looking for Roseville pottery, dairy crocks of all shapes and sizes, blue Mason jars and appropriate antique furniture. And when the last nail had been pounded and the wallpaper was set, our remodeled A-frame was lovely to look at, with history-filled pieces everywhere. And had a kitchen with an almost zero function level.
Look, my mother doesn’t like to cook. She comes from a long line (two — it’s a line of two, her and my grandma) who do not care for cooking. They’ll do it because their families will starve otherwise, but it's not their first choice in activities. My mom’s favorite meal when I was growing up was a handful each of tiny sweet pickles, olives, crackers and other finger-foods, served up on one of our chipped Currier and Ives plates, while we happily ate our requested sandwiches, which she lovingly made. And everyone was happy as a lark.
So it should come as no shock that when she designed her kitchen with antique pieces, it was not designed with “function” in mind. I’m not sure everyone knows what a baker’s cabinet is, but I’ll just describe it as an oversized hutch. The top has shelves and glass doors, there’s a metal counter, and it has two deep lower drawers that bakers would fill with flour and sugar. And in a 1900s bakery, I’m sure it was a great piece to have. In a 1990s house, those drawers just held a bunch of big spoons, all the attachments to the food processor and the dish towels. It just is not a practical piece, especially for me, who baked pretty heavily for 10 years, and who still has the crick in her back from leaning over that counter, because 1900s counters seemed to be made with children heights in mind.
And when it came to picking a dining room table, she did not opt for a normal table: she picked one she could fold up so it wasn’t sitting out all the time. The table part folds up so it can lay flat against the wall, and where the legs are, there’s a square seat built between them, just big enough for a person to sit in, so when its folded up, it looks like some weird, wooden, early American “Iron Throne.” Every time we’d use it, you’d have to pull the table out to the middle of the dining room, then fold it down, and then fold it back up when you were done and shove it back into place, so before long, we were only getting it down for parties and major holidays, because our family loves each other, but that kind of effort just to say we ate at the same table while we all read our own books and magazines is just not our thing.
Now if my mother doesn’t like to cook, you’d never know it from the Thanksgiving dinner she can prepare. Turkeys so moist, you forget how much you hate hearing people use the word “moist.” Corn niblets perfectly buttered and seasoned. Potatoes beaten to a fluffy mashed mountain, and with just the right tang from lots of mayonnaise, butter and sour cream. And her signature dish, broccoli casserole, a dish every person who has ever eaten it tells me is sublime, but I’ll have to take their word for it, because if a piece of broccoli ever passed my lips, it was a mistake of the highest level. A meal so great you say to yourself “Ah, she can cook. She just chooses not to.”
And so we’d set our unfolded dining room table with our slowly-growing assembly of unchipped Currier and Ives plates and matching serving-ware (my favorite people are ones that always have a collection going — they are so easy to shop for), we’d look out upon this feast that Mom slaved over in that very impractical kitchen and we’d bow our heads and give thanks for the food and the hands that prepared it (with special shout-out to Grandma Kate for her contribution of Waldorf salad).
Then my dad would invariably lean on the wrong edge of the table and all the dishes would slither around a moment before he quickly pulled his elbows back, because you couldn’t lock the table into place to stop it from folding back up: you just had to remember not to lean on the edge. One year, he forgot and leaned on the edge so hard, the food actually started to slide off, and we all nearly killed ourselves grabbing for hot dishes, lest they all slide unto Mom’s good Berber carpet.
Other mothers might have said “Hey, maybe a table that’ll fold up if you lean on the edge too hard isn’t a great idea. Maybe we should get a normal, non-folding, dinner table.”
Whereas my mother said, “You people just need to stop leaning on that edge of the table. What’s wrong with you that you can’t seem to grasp that concept?” And I just love that about her: because she wasn’t going to give up on that table. Instead, she was just going to shame us into paying more attention to where we put our elbows. Which didn’t work either, but 30 years later, I still have that table, and it sits behind my actual, normal, dining room table, because I am function over form, but even I can recognize an interesting piece of furniture, especially if my mother told me it was good in the first place.
She’s just got really good taste, and the confidence to back it up. She knows what she likes, and if asked directly, she’ll give you a direct answer. And not that she won’t accept some clunker of a gift she has no use for; Lord knows she has graciously received her share of macaroni pictures, cotton Christmas ornaments and heart-shaped trinkets emblazoned with the word “Mom” on them with far more enthusiasm than they were worth. Not because she liked them, but because she loved us.
And now she loves us enough to just tell us what she wants, and we go and get it. If she’s actually ever surprised on Mother’s Day, I can’t tell. But she is happy, and making your mom happy on Mother’s Day, even if the material things that make her happy aren’t your personal taste (I’m talking to you, Concrete Porch Ducks with Seasonal Outfits), is the least any of us, we ungrateful and disappointing children, can do.
Because someday, when those things are living in your house, you’ll be reminded of the person who loved them first, and look on them with a little more fondness. Because not everyone still has a mom who’ll tell them just what to get them for Mother’s Day, and they’d give their eye-teeth for one last chance to get their moms a gift they’d love. I know I’m still glad I have her, and if she hangs around long enough, maybe one day, some of her good taste might rub off on me.
At the very least, right now, she’s given me a really interesting conversation piece in the form of an upright dining room table.