Falling From the Family Tree

by Jennifer Busick

Every woman in my family is an artist with a needle and thread. My mother and my aunt used to run their own drapery business, turning heavy bolts of fabric and enormous spools of thread into custom window treatments for posh homes. When I married, my mother made my wedding gown and two bridesmaids' dresses. My grandmother beaded the bodice of my gown by hand. My aunt made the other bridesmaids' dresses. You could not have found better workmanship in the most sumptuous designer salon. My great accomplishment of the day was to not trip over my slip as I stepped up to the altar. Had I done so, I'm sure the guests would have been in stitches. Alas, I did not contribute a stitch of any sort to my own wedding.

Mom bought me a sewing machine years ago, certain that I, too, would someday become a woman of the cloth. But the sewing genes skipped over me. The mischievous cherubs who sniggered as they hung me from the family tree quickly earned their horns and pitchforks and moved on, because my younger sister is an avid seamstress too. I finally gave my sewing machine to her. I had used it twice in four years, to make two throw pillows and hem a pair of pants.

Nobody gets it all, of course; the women in my family are not renowned for their culinary skills. Once, as a prank, I put a Mr. Yuk sticker -- the kind Poison Control distributes, with the icky green face, for parents to put on things their children shouldn't eat -- on my mom's recipe box. It might have been funny, had it not been discovered by an unsuspecting dinner party guest. After one too many rounds of Hamburger Helper, I taught myself to cook in self-defense. My methods were simple -- find a recipe for which we had most of the requisite ingredients, and make it before Mom got home. She thought I was a great kid, and I got a little variety in my diet. And even though my magnum opus as a seamstress was the apron I made in eighth grade home economics class, I had managed to find a place where I was appreciated, and where I could shine.

You know what they say about pride. When I got engaged, I told my husband-to-be that I was a fine cook; at the time, those didn't sound like famous last words. I should have known I was sunk when my mother-in-law volunteered to make the wedding cake. I had my heart set on four tiers, with a fountain beneath the top layer and ceramic carousel horses on top. My mother-in-law delivered in style, outdoing herself with a bouquet of blue and white roses crafted from sugar that blossomed around the ceramic horses and cascaded down the side of the cake. I have photos, of course, but they hardly do it justice. Michelangelo would have been impressed with this cake. My best cakes come in plastic from the local bakery; the ones I make tend to have lots of crumbs in the frosting. I began to worry.

My mother-in-law's talent is not limited to baked goods. Anything she touches turns to delicious. Yeast rolls that melt in your mouth. Hungarian goulash that draws you back for seconds . . . and then thirds. It runs in their family, you see. My sister-in-law can make an enviable feast of spaghetti and a garden salad. My husband's grandmothers both put out seven-course spreads for guests, and one of them used to run her own restaurant. Even my husband is a better cook than I. I could no more stand alongside my in-laws as a cook than sew a straight seam for my mother.

I was 0 for 2, and low on self-esteem; a skinny cook in store-bought clothes who couldn't do anything right. My husband quickly became fed up with my blues. "You need a hobby," he told me, and he knew just the thing. He dragged out a box from behind the TV, a battered cube of cardboard I had not discarded through six years of marriage and six addresses in four cities and two states. Inside were reams of paper stuffed in garish school folders, covered in a familiar hand that grew progressively more juvenile as he peeled back each layer.

"Write," my husband said, opening a folder on top of the stack. "What is this? A novel? It's not finished. Finish it." He dropped it on the floor at my feet. "Look, a story. This is good! What's it doing in here?" Smack, it hit the floor on top of the previous one. Dozens of half-conceived works, everything from fantastic fiction to sappy devotional pieces, my unrecognized second life spread like so much unruly litter across my living room floor.

Obviously, he didn't understand. There are almost as many writers in my family as seamstresses, all of them better than I. My father wrote a book on circumnavigators. My grandfather has written his World War II memoir and a popular teacher's guide to the Holocaust. Heaven forbid I should ever compare myself to Mom, who spent many years as a freelance photojournalist, and wrote a prizewinning essay on (I'm not kidding) "The Role of General Graves B. Erskine in Amphibious Warfare in World War II." It's in the library at Quantico. It's part of the officers' training school curriculum. He wanted me to pit myself against that?

But he recognized in me that quality all writers must possess in spades: unlimited optimism. Not cheerfulness--that's a horse of another color. Just that dogged, never-say-die determination to shovel manure until the %##$@# pony appears. The unaccountable faith that if the glass is half empty and getting emptier, a waiter will be along momentarily to fill it back up.

I finished my first short story and sent it out.

It came back.

I sent it out again, wrote another, and sent that one out.

They came back.

But something amazing was happening, nonetheless. My disposition improved, my outlook became more--dare I say it?--cheerful. I learned to translate the language of rejection slips--an essential skill for writers. After all, a writer who does not understand that "not for us" in fact means, "definitely for someone else!" is liable to give up. "Unfortunately, our publishing lists are full for the next two years" obviously means "resubmit this piece in two years--if another publisher doesn't snatch it up and turn it into a bestseller by then, due to its dazzling brilliance!" So you see, it's only a matter of time!

Another amazing thing is that when I get together with my family, we have a new common ground. Now, when Mom critically examines my outfit's loosely sewn buttons and says "They really should use cotton-wrapped polyester thread. It wears so much better," I can blithely segue into, "It's research. I'm writing a story about sweatshops."


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All Content (c) 2002 Jennifer Busick