Tristan, our then 21 year old son, arrived home for Thanksgiving on Wednesday afternoon looking, as usual, like a large pack animal, his big backpack strapped on his back, his computer case hanging from one shoulder, his CD case hanging from the other, and a huge load of laundry piled high in the basket between his arms. No one else was home yet, so after he unloaded, he and I had some time alone to talk. Despite the recent breakup initiated by his girlfriend, Ericka, Tristan seemed confident, sure of himself in his work, bright and “together,” as carefully observed from my mother-perspective.
He told me how much he has grown from his relationship with Ericka, that he’d do it all over again, and about the friendship he is trying to keep with her. This loyalty is characteristic of him. I think about the strong friendship he has maintained with Jake, his best friend, despite that painful year when they were both in love with and, periodically, dating the same girl and Tristan lost out. I saw how seismically he suffered from the loss of this first love, but I don’t think the friendship with Jake even teetered. Its foundation must have been either quite solid or flexible. Probably both. Tristan seems to act out of a conviction that romance is great, but friendship is even better.
He is meeting more people in his film department, and feels like he belongs there now. He loves his film work, and the combination of writing and film suits him perfectly. He continues to write poetry more or less prolifically, and after all this time of doing so, seems to now really own it as something that is his.
On Thanksgiving, my husband David and I got up early and began making the family’s favorite, Ethiopian Honey Bread. Loving to have a good excuse to cook together, we made turkey with oyster bread stuffing in one end and apple onion stuffing in the other, a rich sweet potato casserole, mashed potatoes with giblet gravy, a lush salad from the fall garden, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie, and persimmon pudding from the wild persimmons we’d picked in late October and frozen. The dinner and talk were both delicious.
Friday morning Tristan got up and worked on his full-length screenplay, half of which is due in a week or so. He mentioned that he also has a chapbook due for his poetry class this coming week. Being a former bookbinder, I offered to help him bind it if he wanted to print out his poems. When he enthusiastically agreed, David went to buy a new toner cartridge and some good paper while Tristan chose 20 or so of his poems and laid them out on the computer. After he printed them out, I showed him how to fold, assemble and sew them into a single-section book.
Then he spent an hour or more poring over the collection of marbled papers David and I had made over the years. After he’d picked one out, he spent even longer making a frame to select out the pieces he wanted for his covers. When he had cut out the covers, endpapers, boards and spine paper, I helped him make a semi-adhesive, flexible binding that felt really good in the hand. The colors of the text paper, endpapers, and cover papers looked beautiful together. We were up till two in the morning finishing it. It was so satisfying to work side by side with him on such a wonderful project and arrive at such an attractive finished piece.
The experience took me back to my former work with books—my love of the colors, materials, tools, and book-structures, and especially to my love of working with creative students and collaborators, like photographers, papermakers, and calligraphers, making beautiful books. I was surprised at how easily and harmoniously our work together flowed. It reminded me of when David and I used to work so compatibly together printing and binding books and making greeting cards with wonderful text and image combinations. I didn’t think I had it in me anymore.
Reading Tristan’s poems, I was impressed with the quality of the voice that comes through, their flow, their combination of beautifully described ordinary-life detail and soul. His depth of feeling and compassion is skillfully interwoven with understatement and irony. I liked some of them very much. As a therapist I admired how he uses this creative form to contain his struggle with thoughts, feelings, and issues—from trying to stop smoking to dealing with his girlfriend’s cold silences.
When he left on Saturday morning to go back to work, it seemed like we had spent much longer than two and a half days together as it was so rich and full, such a spontaneous, unexpected sharing. Later, while working in the garden, I couldn’t stop thinking about him, his poems, the experience of making a book with him, and about the book itself. What a surprise to so suddenly break through the emotional wall of pain that has surrounded bookbinding in the 10 years since I stopped doing it. What a relief to find I could still make a book after giving up the craft I loved because I couldn’t make a living teaching and creating hand-bound books.
When we had completed the book there were one or two small mistakes on the binding. I heard myself spontaneously say, “It’s not perfect, and that’s OK,” and meaning it! Later I noticed a couple of typos in his poems and started to feel bad about that, but I reminded myself about the “It’s not perfect” approach that allows the pleasure to still be there. While perfection is useful in a craft as intricate as bookbinding, I too often allowed my discouragement at imperfections to take the joy out of the making. Tristan has always been a sort of laid-back, imperfect kind of guy. Maybe he’s finally rubbed off some on me. My son gave me deep enjoyment for Thanksgiving—some unexpected healing, as well—and for that I’m grateful.
Text and photo (C) 2022 Betty Lou Chaika
Nancy Corson Carter
What a heart-warming story of mother-son collaboration (what a gentle, compassionate portrait of your son) and especially of a healing for you, Betty Lou, toward your gift of book-binding reclaimed!
Betty Lou Chaika
Nancy, thanks for letting me know your already big, warm heart was warmed some more! I guess we can never know when healing will sneak up and surprise us!
Wow! What a lovely experience. I didn’t remember that Tristan wrote poetry!
Betty Lou Chaika
Ellie, I’m so glad you enjoyed the story. Thanks for letting me know. Yes, he showed us a notebook of hundreds of poems. We spent the day with Tristan and Jessica and read the story out loud together. Tristan brought out the little book, and it was just as lovely as I’d remembered. So, it turned out to be a precious Thanksgiving family time all over again!
This is a lovely story to read on Thanksgiving. A wonderful reminder of how precious time together is.
Betty Lou Chaika
Donna, thanks for letting me know you enjoyed the story. I would like to remember to be mindful that our time together is precious. I once took a workshop in which the leader kept reminding us that we now, each moment, have an opportunity to make memories.
This story is so heart-warming as well as a poignant and tenderly revealing piece of writing that is personal and universal in its expression. I am so touched by the delicate feelings and sensitive approaches that you all took as guiding lights in the collaboration that opened a path for both mother and son toward healing, evolution, and creative development. A new door was opened with respect and care. A way forward. A giving of thanks for the uniqueness of each person as well as the ways the souls and personalities can interact like a biochemical/alchemical interaction to produce. . .the gold of love!
And oh, my goodness, that meal!!!
Betty Lou, I especially loved the devoted way you spoke of your bookbinding years and the craft and art that goes into activity. I know that I’ve observed in you an acutely focused eye combined with a loving heart that you bring to any activity, be it gardening, conservation, friendships, painting and drawing, and dance-leading. I celebrate you as a cook, artist, gardener, mother, friend, and lover of our precious Earth!
Betty Lou Chaika
Laurie, as always to anything I write, your heart-felt response lets me know you really absorbed it and let the meaning expand through you. I feel truly heard. Adding to that your empathic view of me, and I feel truly seen. Your rare gifts as a loving listener add to the alchemical mix the gold of friendship for which I’m very thankful.