Welcome to Maker Ed’s “Growing up Making” community blog series that highlights how maker educators have been influenced by family and their community. By sharing stories of what inspires maker educators, we’re excited to showcase the impactful and multigenerational human history of making.
My Grandmother and Her Saw
By Emily Pilloton
I am many things: an designer, builder, runner, dog owner, and avid reader, and the Founder and Executive Director of the nonprofit Project H Design. Under Project H, my work focuses on teaching young people, ages 9-18, both in and out of school, how to design and build full-scale public architecture projects that will transform their own futures and their communities. Perhaps most importantly, I am the granddaughter of Margaret Mary Chung Lam, a name you have no reason to know, but a woman who by all accounts is the primary source of my love of making.
My grandmother was a tiny Chinese woman who came to the US as a teenager to attend college at Notre Dame. She was smart as a whip and got her degree in library science. Far more than a bookworm, though, she was infinitely creative in all media; at various points in her life she sang alto soprano, played the piano, cello, and violin, danced ballet, did tai chi, painted in Chinese calligraphy, race-walked, sculpted, and made our ancestors’ meals without recipes. When I was five years old, I started calling her Ping, which many thought to be her Chinese name, but actually had no logic to its selection.
Every time I pick up a saw of any kind, I think of Ping. She was not a carpenter. She did not actually use any of the woodshop or construction tools that I find myself using daily. For her, the saw was a musical instrument. She played it bent over her knee with a violin bow, altering and tweaking the arc of the blade to produce different tones. The sound of a saw being played is eerie and beautiful and very Chinese. It is also the soundtrack of my most favorite family gatherings from childhood. My grandmother was almost always the star of the show, sitting quietly eating dumplings until she whipped out her giant saw and began playing. Most folks didn’t know what to think, but I remember thinking: that woman is everything.
As a maker now, I appreciate my grandmother so much not for her musical abilities but for the way in which she quietly but committedly made creativity the lifeblood of every single day, no matter what tool was in front of her. She made hand-flattened Chinese scallion pancakes with the same experimentation and love with which she played concertos and made up origami patterns with her granddaughters. In my own work, though I am biased toward architecture and the built environment, I try to channel her creativity in all things. I also draw great inspiration from her patience with children (namely, my sisters and me, who were more than a handful), and her love of failure. When I took apart her rotary phone because I wanted to figure out how it rang, my mother scolded me, but my grandmother told her calmly, “It’s fine, I don’t get any calls anyway!”
It was her Venn diagram of creativity, love, and bravery that I pray to god runs through my own veins. She was my original maker hero, and if, as I believe, her spirit lives in every saw in my woodshop, I am a better maker because of her.