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story.lead_photo.caption Karen Martin

It's easy to find out how to do just about anything on YouTube. Type in a problem and a video pops up to demonstrate techniques for cutting hair, repairing a zipper, mixing a martini, mowing a lawn, and much, much more.

Still, there's something to be said for discovering how to do things from an actual human being, preferably someone who cares about you.

This is especially relevant when it comes to cooking. Many of us learned our way around a kitchen from our mothers, sisters and other relatives (I'm not being sexist; it's just that none of the men I grew up around could teach me much beyond how to ride a dirt bike, shovel a sidewalk, and wax a car).

I was lucky that my mother, a competent but not especially creative cook, patiently transmitted basic skills to me. By the time I grew up and headed out on my own I knew how to scramble eggs, make a meat loaf, bake a cake from scratch, put together a spaghetti sauce from tomatoes, onions, peppers, and seasonings, fry fish, and brew a decent cup of coffee.

Our household of five (mom, dad, three kids) sat down together almost every evening and gladly ate what was put in front of us. My mother's only disaster, as I recall, was getting the idea to make a huge pot of pea soup. This was new to the family and not well received. She was not the type of mother to throw anything away, so for days anyone opening the refrigerator was greeted by the sight of two sizable Tupperware containers of the grayish-green concoction, miserably awaiting someone to spoon it up.

She also tried to get us to consume liver and onions regularly. We were fine with the onions; our beagle/dachshund Pal was fed so much liver under the table that even he retreated and crawled into his wicker bed.

More inspiring was my German-born grandmother, who happily shared methods of making kuchen, cabbage rolls, pot roasts, potato salad, pork schnitzel, and breads, all the time demonstrating the benefit of staying calm in the midst of producing a multi-dish feast for Thanksgiving and Christmas and Easter.

Guests included members of our extended family as well as two nearly silent elderly men--Mr. Spangler and Mr. Sinclair--who were boarders in her west Cleveland foursquare home. Having grown up with them around, we didn't think having boarders was unusual.

Another instructor of note is my sister, who because of her passion for fashion is a skilled seamstress. I like clothes but lack her talent for figuring out the intricacies of dressmaking. So when I was a teenager, I bought the easiest possible patterns from Simplicity and McCall's and Butterick and made as much progress on them as I could before handing them over to her or my mother so they could add a zipper or set-in sleeves. I had so many cute dresses in high school that I kept a list of what I wore so I wouldn't repeat an outfit more than once every three weeks. My prom dress was a Vogue pattern, made from tie-dyed chiffon.

And sewing on buttons, fixing tears, stitching up ripped-out hems and snags in sweaters, and other basic clothing repairs are skills that never cease their usefulness.

Other crafty lessons from my mother and grandmother included crocheting (they could add lacy edges to pillowcases using fine thread and a metal crochet hook that was so tiny the hook part was barely visible; I can use a jumbo plastic crochet hook and thick acrylic yarn to make chunky winter scarves and throws), do basic embroidery (cross-stitch was too precise for any of us), and knit (although my knitting always turns out to be purling; I obviously didn't pay enough attention).

Moving to Arkansas after college opened the way to more learning: A former boyfriend who'd worked on an oil rig in the Gulf where he learned to cook Creole and Cajun dishes shared the secrets of making a creditable roux (my gumbo is mediocre, but I'm still trying); a bartender demonstrated how to make an incredible cocktail called the Flaming Italian that involved 151-proof rum, Amaretto, and a lighter or match to ignite it (I'm pretty sure you can't get one of these in a bar any more).

Another boyfriend would bring home bounty from duck hunts and take me on trout-fishing expeditions, then showed me how to make each of them semi-palatable (the trout fared better); he also tutored me in how to shoot shotguns at targets (I didn't like his 12-gauge's blowback, but fell in love with his 20-gauge over-and-under Browning).

Paddling a whitewater canoe, backpacking, rock climbing, competing in all sorts of races from a 5K to a marathon in Jackson, Tenn. (described as having "gently rolling hills"--I wish) to the Lake Norrell Triathlon (I got a medal for coming in third in my age division, but I suspect that's because I was the third person in my age division; there were no others), as well as a previously undiscovered love of wilderness as experienced in this beautiful state, are all learning opportunities I wouldn't have had if I'd stayed in the city on the Great Lakes where I came from.

I cherish all my teachers, past and present, and hope to continue to learn.

Karen Martin is senior editor of Perspective.

Editorial on 12/29/2019

Print Headline: Learning from the ones you love


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