Tag Archives: making things

grandma stuff.

My grandmother has been so much on my mind the last few weeks. She was 96 when she died this past February, at home and at peace and ready to join my grandfather. I was so lucky to have her for such a long time. But I’ve missed her a lot this month, because she’s been around every corner.


At Thanksgiving, I wore her apron and used her rolling pin to roll out crust for apple pie, using her recipe. The following weekend, I made a double batch of bourbon balls for Christmas and set them aging. In the last few weeks, I’ve used her typewriter to make a gift for a friend, and to type labels for bottles of homemade applejack that I sent. And ever since Black Friday, I’ve been getting emails from a florist company reminding me to “send Roberta Christmas flowers!” I could unsubscribe from that, I suppose, but it seems strangely disloyal and so I’ve suffered through the tiny pangs that arise every time one appears in my inbox. photo 1 (23)IMG_0075

For as long as I knew her, Grandma hated having her picture taken, so the smiling photos I’ve posted here are rare and precious. But in the days leading up to her funeral, I made a collage of photographs for the service, and I discovered a photo album from the year before she married my grandfather up through the year that their oldest, my uncle Sid, was born. She’s smiling radiantly in almost every picture. She may still have disliked the camera, but there’s no sign of it in these enchanting pictures. I now have this photo album, and I love looking through it at the pictures of their early life, and her beautiful smiling face.photo 2 (22)

So no flowers for Roberta this Christmas, but she is remembered in everything I do, and in many of the gifts I give. Here’s her recipe for bourbon balls. Consume with caution; if you let them age properly, they’re heady.

*NOTE: the measurements given are for cookies and nuts after they’ve been ground, not before. I managed to forget that this year, with slightly soggy results. So for proper results with a single batch, you’ll need to buy two boxes of Nilla Wafers, and more than a cup of walnuts. Grandma used a rolling pin, because she was a badass. I use a food processor, because I live in the future.*

Bourbon Balls

  • 3 cups ground Nilla Wafers
  • 1 cup ground nuts (I mostly use walnuts, but anything works)
  • 1 cup confectioners sugar, plus extra for dusting
  • 3 tablespoons light corn syrup
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons cocoa powder
  • 1/2 cup bourbon

Grind wafers and nuts fine. Mix all ingredients thoroughly. Shape into balls about the size of a large cherry. Roll in confectioners sugar (I roll them twice). Age at least two weeks. Makes about 36; keeps indefinitely.


Several weeks back, I stuck a pin in my daily sentence project and left it sitting here. The pressure I’d built up in my head to make something of this, in combination with a couple of life circumstances, was crushing. I have a daily reminder in my calendar to do this, and seeing it at the top of my inbox every morning became intolerable. The freedom to delete that email without a second thought was very calming. Since then, I’ve been better about tweeting, about emailing and writing letters, about calling friends. I’ve also been doing a quiet make-a-necklace-a-day project that I didn’t really even notice I was doing until a couple of days ago. It’s filled the void of doing something daily, and has become a natural part of my day.

The break has also served to show me how much pressure I exert on myself to be public with the things I produce. That can be helpful to the process, and it’s great for expanding my circle of conversation about the life of making things. Definitely one of my favorite subjects. It’s certainly good for business. But it turns out I need a private pocket of making. I will probably eventually sell or talk about or publicize most of what I work on in silence, but I was surprised to discover how much I expect myself to be immediate with that process. Make and talk about, make and show, make and list for sale. There is a dialog that goes on just between me and my materials that has been getting crowded out, of late. I’ve lost a sense of ownership. Whether those materials are beads or metal or words or thread, I have been bypassing that private conversation of alchemy and construction that makes the work good and worthy of larger conversation.

Today it felt like time to make a start at this project again, so here I am, with words. But mindfully, and without a calendar.

day 23.

I spent most of today making sterling ballpins and new jewelry. For the last several months, I’ve been rationing my metal supplies and not making things unless I was certain they would sell. Today I threw caution to the wind and made whatever occurred to me. It has probably resulted in some lunacy, but it felt great, I have more ideas now than when I started, and I’ve had a really good day. When can I do it again?

day 21.

Last week I was taking some product photographs, and I was struck by the relationship between that process and the process of making something. It’s not a new idea for me, but it’s been some time since I experienced it so vividly. 

I take clear, attractive photographs of my own products, but I’m not a photographer either by training or by instinct. My framing is always lacking in finesse; I have no understanding of technique or the finer mechanics of cameras and lighting. All the same, when I’m photographing my own work, something happens in the act of looking at it through that remove. I see it with different eyes than the ones I use when I’m making it. It often happens that I don’t know what to name a design until I’m looking at it through the camera. I need that final step to make it gel into itself, in a way. The thing that happened last week is a less frequent occurrence, but an even more useful one. The piece I was photographing looked right when I made it. The colors were right, it balanced properly, the flow of it looked attractive to me. But when I looked at it through the camera, and took a couple of pictures, it was plainly wrong. The lines of it were wrong. It wasn’t hanging differently, it was in the same position it had been when I finished it and looked at it and judged it to be good. But the eye of the camera saw it cleanly, and there was something wrong with it. I took it apart and redid it, and the second time it came out right. 
I don’t know if that’s something to do with my inexpertise with a camera – it might be that my maker’s soul doesn’t enter into the process with the camera, so what I see with it is more empirical than what I see when I’m making something. Or it might be that the remove of the camera itself – an object between me and what I made – is distance enough to let me finish making something. It doesn’t really matter, but I know that the camera is a check, an editor that I need. It’s my partner in the story of what I make.