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Tuesday, November 28, 2006


I am finally back at the New York desk, after flying home from London and going back to the Johnson family homestead in Philadelphia for the holiday. The mj signing workshop elves (me) were busy this holiday weekend. I spent half a day at a table full of paper, inks, and assorted crafty things making the cards myself.

“Why?” you ask. “Do you really have that much time on your hands?”

No, dear readers. It’s not that. The reason I am hand-making every single card (well, I am for the time being), is because, A. I love you, and B. I may have a genetic disease, brought out by the holiday.

It begins with my mother.

The holiday season brings out a few things in my mother, such as: her relentless organization, her insatiable craftiness, and her collecting habit.

My mom denies the fact that she is a collector. Even the most casual visitor to Chez Johnson will see through this in a second. My earliest memories include watching my mother dust the hand-painted German beer stein collection, which rapidly took its place alongside the precisely arranged ceramics from various European countries, the rugs, the swords, and the bagpipes. That’s just the one room. The next room is devoted to her Cat’s Meow houses (which, if you’ve never seen them, are flat wooden replicas of famous buildings, each with a small black cat painted somewhere on the front).

But my mom is also very, very crafty. Crafty like a fox. She’s one of those people who can make anything. She crochets. She embroiders. She does ceramics and oil painting. And she appears to have been born with the innate ability to do flower arranging, fancy bow-making, and wreath making. Her wreaths are famous in our town.

This craftiness has, on at least one occasion, led to disaster.

One year, when I was in college, I came home for Thanksgiving and my mom told me she needed some help. She was going to make one of her famous wreaths for a friend, and she needed to collect some pine cones. So, one afternoon, we went to the park with some bags to scavenge around.

I was wandering along, making some selections (my mom is very choosy, so there was a lot of, “No, not that one. That one isn’t fat enough.”), when I noticed that a little squirrel was loping along behind us. He seemed really interested in what we were doing. After maybe ten minutes of being followed from spot to spot, my mom was getting worried.

“What’s with that squirrel?” she asked.

“It’s fine,” I said.

“Scare it off with a pine cone.”

I threw a pine cone near, but not at the squirrel—just to give it the idea to move along. It didn’t budge.

“That’s weird,” I said. I threw another, a little closer. Again, the squirrel looked at the pine cone with contempt.

“Let’s get away from it,” my mom said.

We started speed-walking with our bags of choice pine cones. The squirrel sped up too. We went faster. It kept pace. We started to jog, and it followed right along behind us.

“There’s something wrong with it,” my mom said, the panic coming into her voice. “Maybe it’s rabid!”

My mom started fumbling in her purse.

“I’ve got pepper spray!” she said, holding up a little orange vial. “Stand back!”

My mom certainly doesn’t hurt animals, but there really did seem to be something wrong with the squirrel. And though pepper spray is painful, the effects fade. In any case, it was her idea, and the best one available.

The squirrel easily dodged the spray. It danced around the spritzing with the grace of that one person at every wedding who really, really knows how to do the Electric Slide, and is frankly just showing off.

Then it gazed at us and moved closer.

“Run!” my mom yelled.

We ran all the way across the park, the squirrel right on our heels. She managed to keep it from getting into the car with us by making it dance around the pepper spray again. We huddled there, breathing fast. It stood outside of the car and watched us.

Sometimes, little things can be scary.

“Here,” my mom said, handing me the spray. “Put this in my purse.”

I did this.

It was a cold day, and the running had caused our eyes to water. As she started the car, we were both rubbing them. She had just pulled on to the road when we both began to scream.

It turns out, when you spray pepper spray, it gets on your hands. It also gets on the container, so if you touch it, it gets on your hands. If you immediately rub your eyes, you will pepper spray yourself. This is exactly what we did. My mother was, by this point, actually on the road and trying to drive with pepper spray in her eyes. The first place to pull over was a Burger King. She wheeled into the parking lot, and we ran inside to the bathroom and started frantically washing our eyes out.

We generally do not discuss the squirrel-pepper spray incident. My mom is past wreaths now, anyway. All of her attention goes to the Village.

You see, this time every year, my mother’s collecting and crafting collide to make a perfect storm of holiday cheer in the form of her Dickens Village. The Dickens Village is a set of collectable houses and figurines based around “A Christmas Carol.” But when the figures got popular, they expanded it to include all of Merry Olde England, so you can buy London Bridge or Big Ben.

My mom has been collecting her village for a while, so she has quite a number of pieces. 25 storage boxes worth, to be exact. I know this because I moved them all from the attic on Black Friday morning.

The village is set up on a large wooden platform, which is covered in a thick, staggered layer of Styrofoam. The houses are set up in perfectly ordered streets, each one carefully chosen so that they are of different heights and types. The fishmonger goes next to the cobbler, which is next to Scrooge and Marley. The bigger buildings, like the church and the train station take up important positions. Then, she has to lay down the lakes, the railroad tracks, and the dozens of tiny trees. Then she arranges all of the little people. It takes almost a week to put the entire thing up.

As I was walking out the door, she asked me to stop at the craft megastore to pick her up a bag of something called “Buffalo Snow,” which is fancy, crafty fake snow.

Even at the slower times of year, the craft megatore is a little overwhelming. At the holidays, it brimmeth over. They can suddenly justify the fact that they have entire aisles devoted to ribbon and fake tree branches. And on Black Friday, the place was full of people with mad looks in their eyes. They had come to CRAFT.

So there I was, blocking out the frenzied rumblings of uncaged scrapbookers by turning on my iPod. I laughed a little as I picked up the fake snow.

“This stuff is silly,” I said to myself. “It’s a good thing I’m not into this.”

But then, I realized, I had the signing cards to get in order. I decided just to wander over to the paper aisle. The store had a wide selection, with hundreds of papers.

“This is good,” I said. “I’ll just take some of these, and . . .”

My eye landed on a sticker making machine.

“Oh,” I said, going over to it. “This could be good.”

I took the sticker machine and put it in my basket.

“I’ll just look around here,” I said. “There have to be some other things I can use.”

An hour later, I was sitting on the floor of the rubber stamping aisle, reading a book on embossing technique and asking the staff detailed questions about heat guns. I had this sudden rush of CRAFT ENERGY. I had to MAKE SOMETHING, FAST.

I was becoming my mother.

Something had happened to my mind.

“I have to get out of here,” I said, breaking out in a cold sweat. “I’ll go to the mall now. I’ll get some Christmas shopping done. That’s what I’ll do. I’ll go right now!”

I drove like a maniac to the mall, still buzzing with the need to accomplish something festive. I usually sit down somewhere and write a list before I shop, but I hadn’t done this. I entered the mall with a blind need. I spun around a few departments at Macy’s, trying pin down a purchase, but I was too frazzled to make any decisions. It was hot, so I wandered over toward the Clinque counter to take off my coat. A wide-eyed salewoman pounced on me.

“Oh my God!” she said. “We all just got off break! And I had, like, a bag of cookies. A little one! Like one of those 100 calorie packs! Anyway, I’ve had my sugar, and now I’m on a sugar rush! I tell you! Anyway! What are you looking for?”

I dropped the lipstick I had absently picked up and took a step back.

“I’m just looking,” I said.

“For what?”


“Okay!” she said. “How about this?”

She thrust a box of fifteen lip mini glosses at me.

“Great collection,” she said. “Everyone loves it.”

Except that everyone doesn’t love it, because fifteen lip glosses is way too many. It’s a guarantee that you will hate at least half the colors. You will use, at most, three of them. And they were mini lip glosses, which means they cost about thirty cents to make. This is a gift that says, “I really don’t know you, but I had to get you something. Have this crap.”

“No thanks,” I said.

She looked seriously peeved.

“Then what do you want?” she snapped.

“I don’t know,” I said. “I just walked over.”

“Okay,” she said, rolling her eyes. “I’ll be over there if you need me, hon.”

And then she went back to her Clinique coven and started talking about how indecisive I was. Really. This was totally out of order and way too much pressure, especially considering that my brain was still hurting from the craft store.

The Clinique lady had had too much sugar. Also, she was evil.

I bolted for the escalator, and wound up in appliances. This is truly the home of the bad impulse buy. This is where electronic massagers, tabletop waterfalls, and wafflemakers live.

Suddenly, I felt myself slipping again. I could feel myself being pulled toward a set of comically oversized wine glasses, as if drawn by a tractor beam. Not even the most medicated of my friends and acquaintances would have wanted these glasses. Yet, I picked them up. I had to buy something. I had to be festive, and I had to show that crazy Clinique lady that I could make a fast purchase.

“Maybe these,” I said quietly.

I felt myself grinning. Someone was getting a gift from this department. Oh yes.

I was getting the look that says, “There is a quesadilla maker in your future. Merry Christmas.”

I took the glasses to the register, but was beat there by a woman with a stack of cartoon reindeer plates. She proceeded to buy them individually, with cash and coupons, questioning the cashier about the cost of each plate, haggling over the price. I clung to my hideous glasses, watching the cashier fight back the urge to break into a homicidal rage. I felt a certain degree of superiority, because I was only buying one thing, and I wasn’t going to cause a problem about it. But then, my mind cleared again, and I saw the true horror of what I was holding. I set it down and went for the escalator again, this time going back down to the Clinique counter, where I PROMISE to you the woman said, “There she is again!”

I ran for the door.

Before I knew it, I was home with all of my purchases—stamps and inks and paper—making cards for you.

So, if you’d like a signed card to go in a book you’re giving this holiday . . . or for your own secret, nefarious purposes, let me know. I can craft it. I have the tools.


Blogger Rachel said...

So funny!

3:18 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My goodness! This post is eerily familiar . . .

10:19 PM  
Blogger Little Willow said...

While walking to the library yesterday, I saw the world's cutest squirrel. I was on the phone with my mother at the time, coincidentally, but her reaction to my mention of said squirrel was quite different from your mother's reaction.

Me: "Oh my gosh. This is the cutest squirrel in the world."
Mom: "Take a picture!"
Me: "I can't, because I'm on the phone with you."

(The only camera I own is that which is in my phone. I just happened to get a phone that had a camera function, rather than specifically purchasing a camera phone.)

Mom: "How close is it to you?"
Me: "About six inches away."
Mom: "You are the Pied Piper, I swear."

7:51 PM  
Blogger Cat said...

that was hilarious! Thanks, I needed that! LOL



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Anonymous Chelsea said...

This almost made apple juice come out of my nose. No joke.

5:00 AM  
Blogger Korianne said...

I own a sticker making machine! It is awesome! I use it to make bookmarks. Oh, and my CAPTCHA code is: hanknans... lol makes me laugh!

3:11 AM  
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