In many ways, entering Annie Armstrong’s living room puts one in mind of a house in another age. Though there is ample evidence of the modern world, the room is brimming with decorative and handmade items. The cozy room’s walls form a gallery – testament to Annie’s legendary skill with a needle. The promise of something delicious floats on the air from the nearby kitchen. Everywhere you turn, there is indication of the time, patience and care that went into making this house a home.
A changing world
Annie has well earned her reputation as a frugal and talented homemaker. She has created a lovely home and raised three children. She has spent a lifetime using her practical gifts to serve others. Yet, these days, people like Annie have become the exception rather than the rule. Making a home has become something of a lost art.
At the turn of the twentieth century, keeping house dominated women’s lives. As modern conveniences and prepared foods freed up much of that time for other endeavours, fewer people learned to cook and keep house. Fewer people learned decorative handcrafts and other arts for decorating the house.
These days, society’s fast pace leaves most people running ragged. Two-income families try to keep up with life’s demands and financial pressures. The idea of making time for needlework or homemade cookies seems almost frivolous.
A growing market
In recent years, popular media icons such as Martha Stewart have inspired a renaissance for these practical arts. It is chic to reorganize cupboards and label storage boxes. Making a variety of simple household items by hand is not only frugal – it’s fun! Time spent mixing and cutting decorative cookies is not wasted; homemade cookies are “a good thing.”
For many of later generations, however, homemaking is easier said than done. How do you learn when there is no one to teach you? What if your own parents did not have the time or were never taught themselves?
Recipe books can be a mystery if you have not done a great deal of cooking, and they rarely contain the tips personal experience can provide. Patterns for sewing can be just as vague. And where do you begin to learn about buying groceries, doing laundry or cleaning toilets?
Sharing the wealth
Like many of her peers, Annie learned to cook and clean, grow and make things at home. Lots of people were poor, but they grew their own vegetables and raised their own meat. They made their own preserves; they stitched their own cushions and clothing. Even the smallest child knew how to catch and clean a chicken for supper – Annie’s job.
As the years have passed, Annie’s practical gifts have come to serve many of the people who’ve passed through her life:
Annie is just as generous with her time and wisdom. Her home is open to anyone who wants to learn.
“I’ll teach anybody anything they want to know,” she says frankly. “I’ve taught couples to do petit point, young people how to cook. It doesn’t matter to me.”
Annie’s philosophy is simple: “I don’t want all this to die with me.”
The people who benefit from Annie’s expertise may have some skill or none at all. One young woman, who was already a good cook, simply had no idea that you could make pastry from scratch. She had always assumed it was only available from the freezer section of the grocery store, since that was always the way it came at home.
Another young woman, seeking cooking lessons from Annie’s daughter in California, was having a hard time just grasping the basics. She would manage well with someone to help, but would falter at home on her own, randomly substituting ingredients with frustrating results.
Many capable shoppers have learned to stretch their grocery dollars even further as a result of applying Annie’s tips for menu planning, using coupons and making the most of in-store specials. She can teach anyone how to cook a succulent holiday turkey and turn the leftovers into a freezer full of pot pies. Her recipe for homemade granola bars can satisfy the most discerning young palates as well as save money.
Regardless of the need, interest or ability, Annie is willing to share. She has even employed technology to offer her skills to an even larger group. Her husband, Ken, has designed a website dedicated to sharing Annie’s recipes for her most-popular Christmas cookies. Step-by-step instructions with photos guide viewers through each process.
“People think they don’t have time to do things like this,” Annie muses. “But you have to make time. It’s worth it.”
And she knows whereof she speaks: she recently tried frozen tart shells for the first time in her life. The result? “They were…okay.”