In 1982, my mother started tying bows to sell in her crafts shop. Back then, there weren’t any big-box arts and crafts shops; no Michaels or Hobby Lobbys. There wasn’t even a Walmart.
People came in to her store every day, asking for bows to put on their mailboxes and fences. They hung bows on grapevine wreaths and bedposts; they ran bows up staircase banisters. Bows were an inexpensive decoration for a lot of households in rural North Carolina. Even men came in to the store to buy bows for the fronts of their cars.
To keep up with this demand, my mother tied bows every night.
This is what I remember: After she closed her shop for the evening and came home, she kept working. She ate a warmed-up dinner plate of food, and then she gathered an armload of red velvet ribbon in 25-yard spools, stacking the spools next to her chair in the den. Most nights, I sat on the floor next to her and did my homework, and I remember hearing the soft whoosh as she tugged on a spool, uncurling five yards of ribbon at a time. She tied bows until about 11 p.m. every night, piling up a hill of them on the floor to take to work the next day.
My dad made bow boards out of 4-by-8-foot sheets of plywood Peg-Board and propped them against the walls in the shop. My mom sold her bows as fast as she could make them, as fast as she could pin them to that bow board.
She sold about 100 bows a day, but at Christmastime, she sold a lot more. 500 bows. 700 bows. All in one day. It’s hard to imagine.
She kept this up for another eight years, until she closed her shop 22 years ago.
I remembered all of this when we decided to put a bow on this month’s cover of our annual Christmas issue, and it seemed fitting that I ask my mother if she’d be willing to tie a bow we could photograph.
I bought a roll of red velvet, took it to my parents’ house, and watched my mother go to work. I watched her go through the familiar steps: unfurl, cut, gather, twist, and pull the loops. She tied a few to get the right one, and after a few minutes of watching, I stopped seeing the bow at all. I started to notice her hands.
My mother’s hands have seen a lot of work. They’ve tied a lot of bows, but before that, they strung tobacco and they picked peas. They scrubbed floors and they turned beet-red in hot dishwater and they held paintbrushes and hammers and they dyed hair and they pinched dough for piecrust, and they occasionally pressed against a little girl’s forehead, checking for fever.
When I was very little, she wore a diamond ring, her engagement ring, on her left hand. It slipped off, many years ago, when she was washing dishes. Her ring went spiraling down the drain before she could fish it out of the soapy water, and she cried out for my dad to help. He took apart all the plumbing, but they never retrieved her ring. My mother cried and cried.
Over the course of a lifetime, she has wrung her hands in sorrow and she has clapped them together in great joy. And on the evening I was at my parents’ house, watching my mom tie this bow, I remembered many more moments of clapping, many moments of joy.
She finished the bow and handed it over to me. “I hope this will work,” she said.
I think it does. I hope you, readers, think so, too.