Not Far from the Tree

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I was around 11 or 12 when the recession in the nineties began. My parents, who had their own graphic design business with their main source of income from federal government contracts, suddenly found themselves phased out of departmental budgets. They had to reinvent themselves, but it didn’t happen quickly. There were a few years when my mother struggled to make sure that my sister & I wouldn’t notice any difference. No matter what, the school trips, the piano lessons, the picnics continued.

But what we did notice was the strain on my mother as she tried to keep everything afloat like a slippery raft– her shame at being on social assistance, her frustration that it wasn’t enough to make ends meet, yet we were prohibited from seeking other income. Tired and stressed, her face was intimidating, but we had mistook her weariness for sternness.

I don’t recall when or how it began, but all of a sudden our dining room table was covered in velvet ribbons and artificial flowers, and after dinner we could smell the hot glue gun as she fashioned chokers and earrings. She began selling at church bazaars, craft fairs, even the lobbies of government buildings downtown during the Christmas season. I was around eleven, maybe twelve, too young to be much help. Year after year, my mother continued to grow her business and experiment with different products and techniques. She ordered bead catalogs, bought used neckalces to dissemble, spent hours in bead supply wholesale stores while my sister and I wandered the aisles aimlessly, running our fingers through strings of crystal and turquoise and garnets.

After years of persistence, my mom won a lottery spot at the Byward Market in Ottawa during the summer months, and that’s when things really took themselves off. I earned most of my high school spending money sitting in front of the couch watching Masterpiece Theatre after dinner, threading liquid silver beads over nylon coated wire, making miles of flower necklaces for little girls, twisting headpins around earring hooks. On weekends, we helped load the car trunk with the collapsible display tables my father had set up. Each of us took our turn sitting in the hot sun, giving my mom bathroom breaks, holding up mirrors for the American tourists. By that time, my parents had found a cost-effective way to produce and shrink wrap prints of their paintings as well. Sales from one summer helped put me through my first year of university.

I never thought I had many skills as a salesperson. As a teenager I preferred books and trees to people. More than ten years later, finding myself unemployed with a MA in Creative Writing during one of the worst summers to be looking for a job, my mother’s hard-won knowledge came back to me. Almost without any real plan, I came across a small bead store and couldn’t help myself. I spent a few hours picking out about $30 worth of beads and waxed linen cords– enough to make necklaces for myself and my girlfriend’s birthdays for the next several months. In retrospect, it was a brilliant marketing move, though at the time I didn’t know it. To have my incredibly stylish, smart and discriminating Toronto girlfriends wearing my necklaces and praising my designs and shapes to their friends and family, and seeing how well the jewelry held up to daily wear and tear and  how it fit in with their outfits and lifestyles was incredibly valuable.

When I made the decision a few weeks ago to start selling on Etsy and at local sales, the anxiety of job hunting was replaced by a refreshing sense of busyness. I rushed around, buying supplies, booking a table at the Parkdale Bazaar, tracking down ribbons and dyes, learning the indigo shibori techniques, knitting up a storm while rewatching Downton Abbey (BBC is forever associated with craft time for me since my teenage years), blocking finished hats, taking photos with my roommates’ digital camera, setting up my Etsy shop, cropping banners and images, arranging for a photo shoot with a few of those amazingly talented women I’m so lucky to have in my life.

It’s been a stormy teacup of the past few weeks, and I’m already behind on blog posts about that super fun photo shoot in the blanketing Toronto humidity, about those blistering hours at the outdoor Parkdale Bazaar, about  how I almost made it into the Spot on Queen market last weekend and had my breath taken away when I didn’t, about joining the Toronto Etsy Street Team… but I don’t want to give away too much. Not that it’s much surprise to anyone where the apple’s fallen.

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About Phoebe Wang

Apollo's sister. A moon off Saturn, a small, sparrow-like bird, once a Titan.

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