It grabbed me and forced me to pause as so many things the last few months have.
I am so fortunate.
I began to ponder the power of the people who paved my path while I was purposefully peeling potatoes. Say that ten times fast.
I felt a connection, a kind of graceful tethering while wearing the apron my Great Grandmother made, making my Grandmother’s potato salad. I felt multi- generational love that comes from a kitchen and through it. The power to press pause on a busy day to enjoy something simple. The power to provide through a process. What a gift.
I began to think of her apron and all the aprons the women of my family and others have worn through history. I am lucky to still have a few of them that have survived decades. Such a magnificently simple garment meant to keep you clean, dishing dirt while making dinner. The garment that has overheard all the secrets of women for generations. The real secrets, the gossiping hens on the back porch shucking peas and corn. The secrets only those with an apron adorned could hear. The cloth that admits for us we are not perfect and sometimes we need to be protected. The unintended uniform of a sisterhood.
The comfort the apron gives knows no limits. It holds a singular purpose in theory; to keep our clothes clean, saving us from another load of laundry. But we wear them wiping tears from wee ones with skinned knees and splinters as we send them back out to play. Comfort. We wear them preparing a feast for our families. Pride. We wear them while we learn a new recipe. Practice. Do the dishes. Process. Worn in the best of times and the worst of times, an apron has seen all of humanity. Gently welcoming new life into the arms of a mother, or profoundly protecting us from blood stains of the soldiers who came back from violent battles. There is power in an apron and for those who wear them no matter the official purpose.
The apron that acts as armor when you fail at making biscuits for the ninth time, giving your sensitive skin just a little bit of safety. The apron worn triumphantly as the Yorkshire pudding is pulled from the oven, as usual. The cookie dough and splatters of whipped cream and drops of Karo syrup.
The messes of motherhood and the matriarch.
Aprons gracefully hide our mess, and we are all a little messy.
The apron wrapping the exhausted mom who sits down, just needing a minute to breathe and wipes away her own quiet tears. The mom wearing the apron splattered with frosting from the cupcakes going to the bake sale, still worried that they aren’t quite perfect. The pristine pressed apron of the mom who burns dinner because yet another day has been too damned long. Take the apron off. Cereal it is kids, breakfast for dinner. The apron knows we have all been there at one time or another, that nobody is perfect. The apron secretly holds us all together in truly common bond and comfort.
The apron I often wear has been in my family, in a kitchen or hanging on the door to the back porch for 40 years ready to protect the favorite outfit or provide extra pockets. The stories it must have heard, the most human of experiences. The stories from my own kitchen it could tell. The feasts provided. The moments of kitchen magic witnessed. Aprons are the armor of alchemists that guard parts of us and wrap us in the memories of our matriarchs.
A blessing of the current chaotic world is that I am remembering. Skills I once saw as no fun chores have transformed into gifts as I grow more grey hair. I no longer see them as chores, but as gifts passed down with pride and purpose and potentially fun.
I learned to sew as a wee one, and not just little pillows. I learned to sew dress shirts with collars and buttons, and extra soft flannel pajamas. I learned to sew from my Great and Grand during the sweltering summer Sacramento days. I learned to stitch it all together on a 1920’s black and gold Singer. My Great had a motor attached to that old machine in the 30’s, a modern advancement. I still have the beautiful machine sitting on my piano. It still works. There is an allure to that machine, beauty and absolute braun standing the test of time. Elegant engineering. I learned on the patient yet powerful pretty machine. The machine that stitched with intentional grace taught me how to guide, how to put a foot down, slowly first. I learned not to sew my thumbs together. Eventually, I got to use the new modern machine that inspired confidence and quickness. I learned how to really sew. Guide with your hands, put your foot down, keep moving forward, go slow around the corners. Follow a pattern if you love it, make something up if you don’t. It will come together in the end. I remembered.
Most often, we made aprons.
We made wee little aprons just for me that even had a pocket sewn on the front. I used to keep the bendy aluminum measuring spoons in my apron pocket. Hems and pleats and ribbon adornments, practical yet pretty. I learned to sew the armor of the matriarch.
As my grandmother got older and less mobile we made what most people would call smocks that had snaps in front to accommodate the wheelchair and her inability to tie something behind her back. Time can be such a thief. I’m sure an oversized shirt or something else would have done the same job, but the apron was a part of the process. A pretty element of pride. We still cooked potato salad and persimmon cookies. We cleaned the spinach from the garden. We baked and canned and cleaned as we went. We drank tea or diet sodas. At the end of the day, when the dishes were finally done, the apron would come off and get hung up on the tiny brass hook on the door to the back porch. The armor laid wait for another day of battle.
Having truly faced battles, an apron of my family hangs in a museum. It belongs to my Great, part of her whole uniform. My Great, the WWI nurse. The apron that didn’t hang as low as it should because she was a towering 5′ 9″. The apron that truly witnessed the casualties of trenches, the birth of a thousand yard stare. The stories only the apron could tell, because she never did.
I understand now why she never spoke of what she saw, the woman warrior with invisible wounds. I can read, and recreate the scenes and be grateful that she was so strong. I am sure her apron wiped away her own tears shed in grief, fear and frustration. I know there were countless moments of comfort given to others. I am sure. I am grateful and proud. I wish that apron could tell me more of her bravery. It is okay to borrow the bravery of others.
I adorned her kitchen apron again the other day. On this day I was not making party sized potato salad because… pandemic. As many other people have found themselves doing, I was making bread. A return to the things we knead. In this moment, wearing her armor I remembered my blessings. I really missed my Grand and my Great. I wanted to be in the kitchen with them again, with the sun shining on the purple African violet on the windowsill. I profoundly remembered looking out to the garden, anticipating the harvest Grandpa would bring in. I took a moment to say hello.
Cooking for people has always brought me joy so I struggle to understand why so very many folks now don’t cook, at least not truly from scratch. Most people now don’t wear aprons anymore. I see them occasionally at fancy department store kitchen sections and the boutique cooking stores at the mall. The simple garment a child can make becoming cost prohibitive.
Did the apron, the one piece of clothing some women would never have to wear because of their station in life become a symbol of wealth? Now it seems more often to me adorned by people who can afford to wear one, who have the luxury of time to prepare a meal as though somehow the apron is evolving to be a symbol of the leisure class reminiscing in nostalgia that was never theirs. Weird.
That is an interesting shift for me to ponder, from necessity to nostalgia to status. We don’t have to wear a house dress and heels unless we want to, and we certainly have more than an outfit or two at our disposal. Laundry for so many of us isn’t the ordeal it once was, maybe that convenience has made the apron less important to people. Hopefully, we don’t feel the same amount of pressure to look presentable when the man of the house comes home from a hard day at the office. Ug the adds from bygone days. So many of us have forgotten how far we have come, and yes how far we have to go. The simple garment reminds me of difficult days past and gatherings to look forward to. The apron somehow gives me hope that through my kitchen I could make the world a better place.
We adorn an apron for protection, much as we dress for the crash not the ride when we head into the hills for some throttle therapy. For so many of us, donning our armor is a habit. Oh Monkey. A habit. We put on an apron and it gives us faith. Faith that our mistakes won’t forever be visible. Faith that our mistakes can be hidden, temporary and forgiven, and we can move forward. A gift that we know no matter how messy it gets, most people will only ever see the finished project. We are protected and the apron holds the memories of those miracle moments and mistakes.
We wear aprons as and among fellow kitchen witches, sharing in the alchemy and magic. We are seen by to those who have made mistakes before and allow us to be our true messy selves while we learn.
I am still learning. I will always be messy, because life is messy. I will wear the aprons of my ancestors like a habit and pass on the power of providing with pride.
I will continue to measure my blessings with tiny bendy spoons so I remember just how many I really have.
I will wear the armor of a matriarch like a warrior and fight the good fight.