If it hadn’t been for the mouse, I might never have had the memories.
Caught by its tail beneath the kitchen sink, desperate to escape but unable to flee because of the plywood and metal spring holding it fast, the poor creature cowered before the shrieking woman who’d discovered it. Unable to bring herself to carry it outdoors to free it and even more unwilling to dispatch it in place, the woman – my mother – made a reasonable choice. Grabbing her white enameled dishpan with the rusting edge and the unfortunate dent, she plopped it over the mouse. Slamming the cupboard doors closed she turned and looked at me, the only witness to her bravery. “There,” she said. “That’ll hold him until your father comes home.”
No one knows what became of the mouse, but its companions, an entire nest of wee, sleekit memories, still are running free after so many years: the wash of morning sunlight across worn linoleum, a vinyl tablecloth dotted with blue and yellow windmills, a nook-sized oak table and glistening feet of perfectly clean woodwork. It was 1947, or 1948, when I watched the drama unfold from my high chair. I was waiting for breakfast. Too young then to tell time, I see the clock’s hands now and know the hour: eight-fifteen. The kitchen is filling with light, and the breeze stirring through the window is restless and fresh.
To my child’s eye, the kitchen was perfect. Relatively small, it pieced together like a puzzle. Limited counter space meant the aluminum coffee pot stayed on a back burner of the stove. Just to the right of the pot and within an easy arm’s reach of the work counter were the canisters – flour and sugar, coffee, tea, spices - and pushed into the corner but still accessible was my mother’s pride and joy, a modern two-slice toaster. The same yellow gingham that fluttered at the windows had been fashioned into hot pads, aprons and trim for the muslin dish towels. The toaster, of course, sported its own gingham cover.
Like plastic-covered furniture, ironed bed linens and crustless sandwiches, toaster covers were de rigueur in the 40s and 50s. Even after developing technologies allowed tumble-dry to replace weekly ironing and the bridge club’s taste changed from tiny, triangular olive-and-cream-cheese-on-white to fruit salad and quiche, the toaster cover soldiered on.Years after leaving home, I still was carting one around.
When I moved back to Texas in the early 80s, a friend volunteered to help me unpack. Late in the afternoon of the second day, she pulled a rectangular bit of fabric from a pile of kitchen towels, holding it up by one corner. “What’s this?” she asked. ”A toaster cover,” I said. “What do you do with it?” “What do you think I do with it?” I said. “I cover the toaster.” Bemused, she turned the cover this way and that before fluffing it a bit and setting it upright on the table. “Why would you do that?”
As far as I knew, no one in the whole sweep of human history ever had questioned the practice of toaster-covering. My first explanation, that the cover was meant to prevent dust, was dismissed out of hand. ”I’ve never had dusty toast in my life,” she said. ”No, not the toast,” I explained. “The toaster. It keeps the toaster from getting dusty.” She wasn’t buying the explanation. ”Nothing else in a kitchen gets dusty, except maybe the top of the refrigerator. Maybe the vent hood. But a toaster? How could a toaster get dusty?”
She had a point, and I was willing to grant it. ”But that’s not all,” I said. “The cover keeps it from getting splattered when I’m cooking or using the mixer.” “If you get batter or spaghetti sauce all over it, don’t you have to wash it? Doesn’t that end up creating more work?” Just slightly miffed, I snatched the cover from the table and tossed it into the corner, mentioning in passing that I didn’t intend to spend the rest of the afternoon defending the honor of toaster covers. When she promised to stop giggling her way through a list of household items that could be covered – blender, coffee pot, mixer, sewing machine, vacuum, paper towel holder, broom - we went back to our work, and eventually the unpacking was done.
With the coffee pot re-programmed and the neatly-covered toaster secure in its corner, all was right with my culinary world until the morning I pulled the cover from the toaster and saw that it needed another washing. Smudged with jam, it had picked up a coffee stain, and there were tiny crumbs of toast in the piping. I laid it down, thinking I’d carry it to the laundry basket later, then noticed one corner had edged into the butter dish. Sighing, I picked it up, wiped off the butter and glanced around for an out-of-the way place to stash it while I finished my breakfast. Suddenly, I saw the trash can.
The vertiginous impulse to live with a naked toaster was completely unexpected. I might as well have developed a sudden hankering for yak milk to go with my coffee. On the other hand, looking at my toaster – the gleaming stainless steel surface, the luscious curves, the perfect integration of form and function – I realized that in any competition with a slightly faded, smudged and edge-worn cover, the toaster was a sure winner. It wasn’t the cover’s fabric that was the problem. It wasn’t poor construction or an out-of-date “style” - it was the very concept itself. “Toaster cover,” I thought, as though hearing the words for the first time. Which bored or obsessive hausfrau was first to imagine such a thing? Why had we adopted it? What, really, was the point? Like Paul on the road to Damascus, I’d had my vision. The cover had to go.
Years later, long after an introduction to the Arts & Crafts movement led me to an affection for bungalows, Stickley furniture, exquisite tiles and back issues of Elbert Hubbard’s magazine The Fra, I discovered that textile designer, bookbinder and writer William Morris had laid down in the mid-1800s a perfect rule of thumb for 21st-century folk nearly overcome by the waves of “stuff” washing over our lives. Never mind toaster covers – are you tired of piles of useless pillows, flimsy furniture, too-cute curtains, rugs on top of rugs, matching plastic bath goods and cheap Chinese imports? William Morris has a word for you:
It’s a high standard Morris sets, yet his advice is perfectly adapted to human reality. What is useful to one may not be considered useful by another, and the definition of beauty varies from person to person. Still, Morris says, we are responsible for the environment in which we live. We give assent to this and reject that, and to whatever degree possible we should strive for a unity of pleasing design and useful purpose in our choices.
Reading his words today, I can’t help but think of my poor toaster cover. In the end it landed in the trash because, for me, it violated both of Morris’ criteria: it wasn’t useful and it certainly wasn’t beautiful.
On the other hand, I’ve cherished for years a certain watering can that perfectly represents the arts & crafts ethos. Made of copper, it’s developed a lovely patina that glows in even the dimmest winter light. Weighty yet balanced, its looped handle is a pleasure to hold and its long, tapering spout that nestles so easily into African violets or ivy never fails to remind me of the outstretched necks of heron or egret. Because of its design, watering never is a chore. Because of its beauty, the chore is a delight.
Unfortunately, these perfect combinations of function and form aren’t always possible. As the arts and craft movement learned to its dismay, the work of artisans may be superior to mechanized production but its products can be inordinately expensive - a problem that helped bring about the demise of the movement.
On the other hand, when beauty joins with utility to inspire, to delight the eye, to rest the spirit and provide enjoyment, the wisdom of seeking quality over quantity becomes apparent. The combination of art and craft – an eye for beauty, a skilled hand joined by patience and a hunger for perfection – leads to something far greater than the simple “arts and crafts” projects of our childhood.
Morris clearly assumed that what holds true for the architect or designer is equally true for the crafter of wood, the potter or painter. Even as a bookbinder, printer and illustrator he was consistent in his convictions, saying,
‘I began printing books with the hope of producing some which would have a definite claim to beauty, while at the same time they should be easy to read and should not dazzle the eye……I found I had to consider chiefly the following things: the paper, the form of the type, the relative spacing of the letters, the words, and the lines; and lastly the position of the printed matter on the page’
I suspect Morris even would have a smile for the notion of writers adapting his words to suit their own purposes. “Have nothing in your work which you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful,” I imagine him saying. After all, not every word is useful, and not every phrase lilts with beauty. A comparison that shimmers in one context, shudders in another. A sentence that fits perfectly “here” becomes disastrous “there”. Words need to be worked as surely as copper or oils if they are to resonate, as Morris clearly understood.
“It took me years,” he said, “to understand that words are as important as experience, because words make experience last.”