When I was little, I had a best friend. She was an only child. Her mom was a dental hygienist. Her dad collected civil war memorabilia. Their house was tidy, and quiet, and perfect. Weekends included family trips to museums, and sandwiches served with cloth napkins.
I, on the other hand, had 5 siblings. My dad was a mechanic and later a mechanical engineer. My mom did upholstery. Before kids came along, they liked to drag race on the weekends. Our house was full of music and dancing, wrestling and laughter. When our parents went out, we used sofa cushions to sled down the stairs.
One day, I visited my friend’s house, and when we washed our hands for lunch, I reached for the lacy towel next to me. My friend’s eyes got wide and she scolded angrily, “I hope my mom doesn’t find out that you did that!!!!”
I was humiliated. How could I admit that we only had one kind of towel at my house? The kind you actually use? Who wouldn’t want to dry their hands on such a pretty towel??
I deeply envied my friend’s home. Somewhere in my little brain, those fabric napkins and lacy towels were the trophies of a desirable life, a CLASSY life.
And I was going to get it.
Fortunately, I was a good student. I loved school and got excellent grades. I didn’t know what I wanted to actually BE when I grew up, but heading to college with an academic scholarship, I figured that I’d fall into something.
That something turned out to be music. “Major in something you love!” They said – Well . . . I loved being in choir. I was a very good singer, by high school standards, and it seemed like the natural choice.
I had loads of fun.
I sang opera, and went to recitals. I performed art songs in a hand-me-down bridesmaid’s dress. I learned to play the piano (badly), and mastered 5 or 6 chords on the guitar. I worked at food service or the music library in the evenings and drank Boone’s Farm with friends on the weekends. When I wasn’t in the music building, I was in the library, or running the campus trails. I imagined the tidy little life I’d have as a teacher.
There was just one problem: I hated teaching music.
I kept assuming I’d warm up to it, but the truth was, it terrified me. Before teaching a 20 minute voice lesson, I’d lose sleep for days. Preparing to enter a classroom gave me physical stomachaches. Most of the kids walked all over me and I spent all my clinical days wishing I was anywhere, ANYWHERE else.
Halfway through my senior year, I finally got honest with myself: I definitely did NOT want to be a music teacher.
Now what?? I was beyond despondent. I’d spent 4 years and boatloads of money preparing for a teaching career. Now I was back to square one, and saddled with college debt to boot. How could I be so stupid?
After graduation, I moved to Minneapolis and attempted to sort my mess out. I stayed in contact with my college roommates. When we’d get together over the next few years, it would be in one of their lovely homes.
And they had the prettiest towels.
Not only did the fluffy new towels match each other, they matched the shower curtain and floor mat and toothbrush holder as well. Those towels announced, “WE HAVE OUR ACT TOGETHER!!!!” And my friends did – One went on to be an excellent teacher, one an excellent nurse, and one an excellent doctor.
And me? What on EARTH was I doing? Even I couldn’t tell. A family friend gave me a card shortly after graduation with a little cash and the encouragement that, “We believe in you.” I thought, ‘Why? Why??? I am a complete loser.’
Everything I’d expected to want felt wrong, and I assumed the problem was me. But what could I do? I bumbled forward into my adult life, teaching voice lessons, studying graphic design for a while (ART! I also love ART!!!), getting certified as a fitness instructor, and finally tentatively landing on upholstery.
Upholstery was not a profession I adopted lightly. Quite the opposite. It was, after all, the thing that my mom had done, and like most teenage girls, I had been fully determined to be nothing like my mom. I was of the adolescent mind that upholstery was something she chose because she had “failed” to achieve anything better. (Don’t worry, I’ve apologized profusely)
But in perhaps the first fully mature act of my adult life, I sat down and made a list:
“What did I ACTUALLY want to do?”
This is a very different question from,“What am I SUPPOSED to want to do?”
And the answers surprised and confused me.
First and foremost, I wanted to MAKE. Almost everything I’d ever enjoyed was hands on. I crocheted and painted and drew and did origami. I baked and sewed and even (especially??) loved shop class. I wanted to be creative and solve problems in the physical world. And whatever career I chose, it needed to support a balanced life, with time for family, and travel and health.
With these tentative requisites in place, I took a fresh look at the field of upholstery.
Well . . . It WAS hands on, and potentially flexible. And there was definitely a need: Schools in most states had closed, and upholsterers were precariously balanced between a rich past and an uncertain future.
I looked at the industry and I looked at my list and I took a chance.
We got married and had a son. My husband began a career in finance. In truth, I was still struggling to own my path. There certainly weren’t many upholsterers in my age group, and it was a choice I had to explain again and again. Nobody knew quite what to think of it, including me. One thing was for sure: we were a long way from the tidy little life I’d imagined.
We bought our 1950’s home shortly before the market plummeted. It was a tiny fixer upper that we now couldn’t afford to fix up. So we filled it with second hand everything and dove into the DIY life, trying our inexperienced hands at everything from plumbing to curtains.
Each purchase and project became part of our shared history: the uneven bathroom tile that I set in a hurry before lunch because I was exhausted, hungry, and (surprise!) pregnant. The plants in our garden, split from this friend, and that family member. The first piece of art we agreed on, discovered at a thrift store for $5
We bought and reupholstered a mid century sofa – coil sprung with a slim design: maximum seating capacity with minimum floor space! Wide enough to spoon on, or serve as an impromptu guest bed!
We dragged home bookshelves – tall, NOT long! The living room is small, but the books must stay!
We were building a life, piece by mismatched piece.
When we could, we bought used, or made things ourselves, or simply did without. While I was embarrassed by our eclectic furnishings, sparkly new items often left me feeling disappointed. The quality and function were usually inferior to the older items they’d replaced, and they just seemed to lack character. I came to prefer the heft and the history of our gradually accumulated treasures.
This dovetailed nicely with my career in upholstery. I encouraged clients to appreciate the lineage and beauty and function of their furniture.
I showed them the springs and the joints and the toys that fell out when we opened it.
They showed me their photos and told me their stories: “This is the sofa we bought when we got married.” “This is where I rocked my children.”
In a world that seemed to throw everything away, this gave me profound pride. When clients discarded solid, interesting pieces, it broke my heart.
At some point, the idea of teaching came into the picture – people would wander in and ask if they could watch or help. Most upholsterers say no, and for good reason: for a small businesses trying to turn a profit, there is simply no space or time for students. It would take a dedicated space and enough paying students to fill it. Was it feasible? Was it worth the trouble?
I couldn’t help but believe that education was critical to the upholstery industry. Yes, to train actual professionals, but also to educate the market. It’s one thing to TELL someone that their old chair is sturdy and wonderful, it’s quite another to SHOW them. It’s difficult to appreciate the time and skill that upholstery requires . . . until you try it. How could we expect people to love and support this industry if they didn’t really understand it? The new furniture manufacturers were out in full force, with expensive marketing and easy financing and big fancy stores.
We needed to give people a convincing reason to consider reupholstery.
So when I saw that a local woodworker was looking for an upholstery instructor, I leapt to the phone. About a week later, I drove to NE Minneapolis and met with Will Fifer of Blue Sky Galleries. His studio was located in The Northrup King Building, a century old structure that used to house a seed company.
How do I explain what I felt walking in? It was like coming home. After teaching there for a few months, I confessed to Will, “I feel cooler just walking into this building.” And I did. It was old, and strange and completely beautiful. The doors were heavy and the floors were wood and the plumbing was temperamental. There were photos displayed of the men and women who worked there decades earlier. And now it was full of artists – amazingly talented men and women honing their skills in every medium imagineable.
I had no idea what kind of towels they owned. Probably ones that were full of clay or paint or sawdust.
And I LOVED teaching. As more and more students came through our workshops, I saw that we were teaching more than skills. Many students arrived with angst that felt all too familiar: They were afraid to miscut, to make something ugly, to make something “bad.”
They felt the pressure to achieve perfection, and to achieve it NOW.
And upholstery is not like that. The product is beautiful, but the PROCESS . . . the process is art. The journey towards mastery is long and winding and wonderful.
I found myself repeating quotes like, “If you can’t make a mistake you can’t make anything.” (Marva Collins.) I told students, “You have to be patient with yourself” and “Your chair doesn’t have to be perfect to be fabulous.” I explained again and again the value in messing up: Mistakes have so much to teach us.
And these themes were echoed in other parts of my life. At the YMCA I’d encourage each person to take care of and celebrate their amazing body – not in spite of its “imperfections” but because of them. Our “imperfections” make us beautiful and wonderful and unique. I’d say things like, “How terribly boring it would be if we were all exactly the same” and “Take a moment to recognize and appreciate everything that your body is willing and able to do for you today.”
With my children, I tried to instill curiosity and gratitude, resourcefulness and persistence.
Together we’ve made things and fixed things and broke things.
We’ve explored parks and libraries, cities and meadows.
We’ve read Harry Potter on a train and Lord of the Flies around a campfire.
We’ve seen the World’s Biggest Ball of Twine and The Spam Museum.
We’ve played checkers with cookies and battled origami sumo wrestlers.
I wanted my kids to approach life with curiosity, joy and gratitude, not fear and envy.
And I struggled to lead by example.
With each year that passed, careers evolved and money became manageable, if not plentiful. . We considered family vacations, and home improvements that we’d had to delay. I moved to a shop of my own. We began to plan optimistically for the future.
Then one day, I went to put away a few (naturally) mismatched towels and realized:
‘I could totally go buy new towels.’
But in the EXACT SAME MOMENT a little voice said . . . so?
I realized that I LIKE this life, towels included.
I’m still figuring things out, but I’m learning to be patient with myself.
We don’t have to be perfect to be fabulous.
The PROCESS . . . The process is art.
Looking at those towels, I took a moment to recognize and appreciate everything that this life is willing and able to do for me today . . .
Just like reupholstery, this life has taken time and practice to put together. It’s not perfect and we’re definitely still learning. But every step is part of the story, and this particular story is full of laughter and learning, travel and adventure, messes and mistakes.
The story is what makes this life wonderful.
Not the towels.