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How Crafting Saved My Life
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Whether she’s playing an “age-defying” book editor on television or dazzling audiences on the Broadway stage, Sutton Foster manages to make it all look easy. How? Crafting. From the moment she picked up a cross stitch needle to escape the bullying chorus girls in her early performing days, she was hooked. Cross stitching led to crocheting, crocheting led to collages, which led to drawing, and so much more. Channeling her emotions into her creations centered Sutton as she navigated the significant moments in her life and gave her tangible reminders of her experiences. Now, in this charming and poignant collection, Sutton shares those moments, including her fraught relationship with her agoraphobic mother; a painful divorce splashed on the pages of the tabloids; her struggles with fertility; the thrills she found on the stage during hit plays like Thoroughly Modern Millie, Anything Goes, and Violet; her breakout TV role in Younger; and the joy of adopting her daughter, Emily. Accompanying the stories, Sutton has included crochet patterns, recipes, and so much more!
Witty and poignant, Hooked will leave readers entertained as well as inspire them to pick up their own cross stitch needles and paintbrushes.
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Get a Hobby
When the Boston Conservatory at Berklee asked me to give the commencement speech to its 2019 graduating class, my answer was an enthusiastic “Yes!” How could I respond in any other way when presented with the opportunity to receive an honorary doctorate from this highly revered music college? This was my second honorary degree, as my first was from Ball State University, where I am on the theater faculty, which is wild to me, considering I dropped out of Carnegie Mellon after my freshman year. As I sat down to prepare my speech, I thought about what I wished someone had told me when I was the same age as these bright-eyed, hugely talented, and hopeful graduates. What were the principles I turned to again and again when life felt challenging? It didn’t take me long to figure out what to say. I boiled it down to three pieces of advice:
Number 1: Say YES.
To any exciting opportunity! However terrifying or beyond your comfort zone. Say yes to life.
Number 2: Trust your gut.
Even if others don’t agree. In the end, no matter what happens or how it all turns out, it will have been your choice. Own your choices, because even if you fail, your gut will get smarter. But if you follow someone else’s gut and you fail, all you learn is…to trust your own gut.
Number 3: Get a hobby.
Or two or three! Find a creative outlet. Something that doesn’t require someone to give you permission to do it. Pick something that has nothing to do with what you do for a living. And pick something that brings you joy.
This last piece of advice is perhaps the most important, for me at least.
Most people know me as an actress, either as Liza, the forty-year-old divorcée passing as a millennial to get a publishing job on Younger, or perhaps as Reno, the tap-dancing evangelist-turned-nightclub-chanteuse in Anything Goes. Some know me as a singer and may have even come to my cabaret show at the Café Carlyle. But anyone who knows me well knows that I am as passionate about crafting as I am about singing, dancing, and acting. Ultimately, I see myself as a maker, and crafting is the art of making things—it can be crochet, cross-stitch, drawing, cooking, collaging, or even gardening. It can also be creating a musical, or an evening of song, or a book. What matters most is that there is something tangible at the end of the process. Plus, the very act of making these things is what keeps me centered.
Anxiety runs in my family—in me. I am the daughter of an agoraphobic mother. I make a living as a performer. It’s complicated. And yet, if I am feeling anxious or overwhelmed, I crochet, or collage, or cross-stitch. These hobbies have literally preserved my sanity through some of the darkest periods of my life. So when I thought about writing a book, it seemed like a no-brainer that crafts would play a major role. Each beautiful thing I have made over the years tells the story of who I was when I made it. (Mostly blankets! Dozens of blankets!) My crafts have helped hold me together and given me a place to pour all of my love or sadness into.
You’ll see in this book that when I talk about crafts, I mean a wide range of things, but I do have a favorite. I first got hooked (get it?) on crochet when I was on a national tour with Grease, playing Sandy Dumbrowski. I was nineteen years old and had lost my voice, so I was on a forced two-week vocal rest. I went to stay with my parents, who were living in Memphis, Tennessee, at the time, and since I couldn’t speak, I wanted a project to help me pass the time. I went to a craft store, likely Michaels or Jo-Ann Fabrics, which are now two of my favorite places on the planet, and bought a book called How to Crochet. It was New Year’s Eve 1994, and I wrote the following entry in my journal: “On this 1st day of 1995, I taught myself how to crochet. I think it’s neat. I want to make people things.”
Since then, some of my proudest achievements are things I’ve created with my hands—whether it be the penguin baby blanket I made when my daughter Emily was born or the toilet-paper-roll cover I crocheted for Hilary Duff’s wedding present—because what else do you get Hilary Duff but a handmade albino octopus toilet-paper-roll cover (with rainbow button suckers on its cream tentacles)?
Most recently, I decided to cross-stitch a Christmas stocking for Emily, similar to one my mother stitched for me when I was a child. My mom and I had a complicated relationship. And while I cannot find that stocking, I still have the Strawberry Shortcake bookmark she made me when I was eight years old. That was during the peak of my obsession with the red-haired cartoon character. I had coloring books, figurines, and even a garbage pail, all store-bought. I find it so moving that my mother took the time to meticulously stitch that sweet girl in her poufy pink bonnet and white frilly apron into existence. She added my first and last name in red thread and a row of hearts in pink and green, then finished the piece with a calico border. I don’t recall my mother saying “I love you” often. But I do know that she poured her love for me into that bookmark. I tell my daughter I love her every day. But, following my mom’s example, I also make things for her as tangible proof of that love.
Similar to the list of roles I’ve played on TV or Broadway, I have a hobby résumé. For every production I was in or concert I have sung, there is a collage or stuffed animal that tells the behind-the-scenes backstory of my life. On set, I was making out with Peter Hermann, one of my love interests in Younger. In my dressing room, I was crocheting a pink dinosaur for Emily. Every piece I describe within these pages means so much more than the yarn or marker with which it was made. Each is a time capsule and heirloom, spanning my past, present, and future, and together they tell a fuller, more complex and colorful story of who I am and how I want to be remembered.
This is not your traditional memoir. I wanted to root my stories in the things I have made over the years, so the result is an overlapping, not unlike my most recent crafting feat: mosaic crochet. For this, you use two different colors of yarn at a time, switching back and forth often, working into previous rows. It is never straight across—you have to double back to make intricate patterns. The result is layered, colorful, and complex.
I wrote this book for my mother and my daughter. The first so I might better understand her; the second so she might better understand me.
A Family Affair
People often ask me if music or acting runs in my family, and the answer is no. Not even close! But as it turns out, crafting does. Not in the Home Sweet Home, “my mama taught me how to cross-stitch when I was little” way of Norman Rockwell paintings. My mother smoked two packs of cigarettes a day (as did my dad) and never taught me how to make anything, other than a beef Stroganoff using ground beef and Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom soup. (More on that later.) But I do have a very clear image of her sitting on the couch of our living rooms in both Athens and Augusta, Georgia—we moved often when I was young—smoking a Salem menthol, sipping on Pepsi, and cross-stitching. I’m not sure why my mom chose this rather old-fashioned craft as a hobby. Maybe, like getting married and having kids, it was just the thing to do. I wish I could ask her, but she died at the young age of sixty-six—eerily, the same age as her mother, Lenora, from whom I got my middle name. Lenora did intricate stitching called “tatting” on handkerchiefs and linen, and my Aunt Mary Anne, my mother’s older sister, is an incredible knitter and crocheter and cook. My mother liked to cross-stitch. I crochet.
I know this is all connected somehow. It’s why I wanted to write this book: I am looking for the common thread.
My mother, Helen Dale Jackson, grew up in a one-light town in North Carolina called Chadbourn. According to my Aunt Mary Anne, she was a social person and had a circle of friends in which, at times, she was even considered a ringleader. She could be bossy and an instigator, but there were no signs of the agoraphobia that so incapacitated her later in life. Her dad, an intimidating man whom we called Dada, was once the mayor of Chadbourn. He also owned the local department store, Jackson’s, which sold everything from clothing to housewares to furniture and fabric. Dada was known to be downright mean—and he was a millionaire! That was how my parents described him, and how I remember him. We visited him every summer during my childhood at one of his many houses (lake, river, and beach). When I close my eyes, I see him in his light-yellow Cadillac, wearing multiple gold chains. He was not warm and fuzzy. He believed children should be seen and not heard. My Aunt Mary Anne told me that growing up in Dada’s house, his children knew to do what he told them to do. He had a temper. In short, he lived up to his reputation.
My mother was nineteen years old when she told Dada that she wanted to move to New York to become a model. She was rail thin, like Twiggy, and would accompany her father when he traveled through the South to meet with dress manufacturers. Sometimes, they would go to fashion shows together. As she watched those women strut down the runway, a seed was planted in her that Dada squelched immediately, saying, “Absolutely not.” Instead, she went to community college, where she met my father. They fell in love, and when my mother told her father she wanted to marry him, Dada forbade that as well. That was too much. My mother clearly wanted control of her life, so she eloped. The story goes that when my mother shared the news with her father, his response was, “Are there any more surprises?” (Hunter, my brother, arrived a year and a half later, by the way.)
Marrying my father set my mother apart from her tight-knit family. She defied Dada, which no one else dared to do, first by eloping, then by being the only family member to leave her home state. After Hunter was born in Lumberton, North Carolina, my dad, a regional car salesman, was transferred to Statesboro, Georgia, where I was born six years later. We moved to Athens when I was five, and I have two distinct memories of that house: that our backyard had honeysuckle and blackberry bushes, and that our street was called Knob Lick Drive, which I still find hilarious. (I mean, come on.) I also remember riding my Big Wheel up and down the street until my mom made me sell it at our garage sale. She said I had outgrown it—I disagreed and was furious. She won, as would be the pattern for most of my young life.
My mom could be harsh, but she was also very funny, often both at once. She’s the source of the family legend that said I was bought at Kmart sitting between Godzilla and King Kong. Any time I misbehaved, my mom would threaten to send me back to the store. It worked, because I believed her. She also told me she had lizards in her purse to keep me from going near it. And that if I ate a grape seed, a plant would grow inside my stomach and out of my nose. I accidentally swallowed a seed one afternoon at school and panicked. I was so upset that the nurse sent me home, and I was too ashamed to tell my mother what had happened. I waited for days and weeks for that tree to grow! (I’m happy to report that it’s been over forty years since this incident and I am still tree-free.)
When I was in my twenties, I discovered a snapshot of Hunter as a child, dressed up in a housecoat, wearing a wig and glasses. He called this character “Bobo.” I asked my mom about it, and she clarified that it was in fact her costume.
“I would dress up in disguise when you were a toddler,” she explained in a matter-of-fact way.
“Why?” I asked.
“So you wouldn’t recognize me,” she said.
“What?” I was dumbfounded.
“I was stuck at home with two kids,” she said. “And you wouldn’t leave me alone. You were annoying.”
I was a toddler and have no memory of this at all, but it definitely tracks.
My mother enrolled me in ballet class at age four. She had taken dance lessons as a child as well, so she thought it was the right thing to do. But she also believed that it would help focus me, my dad recently explained. Apparently, I was “too energetic,” he said. And I ran into things.
According to him, I almost missed out on my first brush with musical theater because of this boundless childhood energy. Hunter had gotten the part of Linus in a local production of You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown being performed at our church in Statesboro. My parents were nervous about bringing me to the rehearsal since I had such a hard time sitting still. I’m grateful they took the chance, because I will never forget seeing my big brother up there on that small stage, singing his heart out. I was so mesmerized—I wanted to do that. The pull was magnetic. It looked fun.
The story goes that I didn’t move for the entire run-through, and this left such an impression on my parents—especially my mother—that, soon after, she started looking for similar opportunities for me. This was the beginning of my mother living her own unrealized dreams through her children.
In Augusta, she found a local theater company, the Augusta Players, for both me and Hunter. My first time onstage was in their production of A Christmas Carol. My mom also found the Augusta West Dance Studio, where I started taking jazz and tap in addition to ballet. I was very good at following directions and wanted to do everything right, so my teacher put me front and center for our first performance. It was the first time in my life I received applause, and it will not surprise you to hear that was a standout moment for me: I was like, What is this fabulousness? I was hooked. And my parents were, too. They were always in the audience with flowers or a balloon, so proud.
I started experimenting with humor on the stage from the start. My dance studio did a holiday show where I was cast as an elf. I wore a green-and-red suit and curly-toed shoes that had bells on them. My job was to open a giant box that released toy soldiers. The first time I did it in front of the audience, I fell down when I opened the box—on a whim. The audience gasped, and then erupted in laughter when they realized that I had done it on purpose. I credit Carol Burnett for inspiring me with her physical comedy—my family watched her variety show religiously, and I identified with her. I was the tallest girl in my dance class, and she was a goofy, funny, tall clown! In another performance of that pageant, I pretended to struggle to get the lid off, which got a lot of laughs as well. I soaked it up! These were my first memories of cause and effect. I do this, and the audience responds. I have been using humor in my performances ever since.
My mother saw how comfortable I was on the stage and continued to seek out more ways to support the spark she saw. I was ten years old when she spotted the flyer for a production of Annie at the Augusta Players. They were casting the orphans and looking for child actors who could dance and sing. The auditions were that same day.
“I think you should try out,” my mother suggested.
“What do I have to do?” I asked.
“Just go sing a song,” my mother said.
I had never sung in public before, but music had always been a huge part of my life. There was always a record spinning or an eight-track playing in my household: John Denver, the Bee Gees, the Beach Boys, James Taylor, and Dan Fogelberg were in constant rotation. Hunter, who was sixteen, took it further by forming a parody band called Hunter Jackson and the Knights of Jam, inspired by Weird Al Yankovic. (He loved Michael Jackson, so it was only fitting that he used our mother’s maiden name, Jackson, for his rock ’n’ roll persona.) So I was exposed to music, but I had no training whatsoever. That said, I had seen the Annie movie, with Carol Burnett as Miss Hannigan. I knew and loved all the songs, and would sing “It’s a Hard-Knock Life” and “Tomorrow” in the tub, using a hairbrush as my microphone while I belted at the top of my lungs.
I was torn, though: my friend Bethany had just come over for a playdate.
“Bethany can audition, too,” my mother suggested.
It was late summer, and I was dressed accordingly in cutoff jean shorts, jelly shoes, and a fringed T-shirt with Myrtle Beach spray-painted on it in neon colors. Bethany said she thought it sounded fun, so we all piled into the car.
The theater looked more like a barn. There was a small stage at the bottom of two sets of risers. After my mother signed us in, Bethany and I followed her toward the top tier.
There were roughly eighty girls auditioning that day. A man called out names from a clipboard and I watched as one girl after the next walked down to a spot near the piano. The director asked each girl to sing a few bars of “Maybe.” I knew the song from the movie but had not prepared it. Still, as I listened to each girl sing, I thought, I can do that.
The director called my name. As I got up from my seat, my mother said, “Sutton, when you’re down there on the stage, make sure to sing up to me, so I can hear you.”
I didn’t know she sat in the back row on purpose—my Aunt Mary Anne told me this years later.
“And don’t forget to smile,” she said. This was something both my parents often reminded me to do.
“Yes, ma’am!” I may have said, and then walked down the risers and took my place by the piano. I wasn’t nervous at all—it felt like the most natural thing in the world.
The pianist played the intro chords and nodded at me when it was time for me to sing: “Maybe far away! Or maybe real nearby.”
I noticed that all the chatter stopped and the room got really quiet—and remained so as I sang through the entire song. When it was over, the silence followed me back up the risers. Everyone was just staring at me, including my mother. She looked pleasantly surprised, not by my performance but by the room’s response.
As I took my seat next to Bethany, I asked, “How did I do?”
Her eyes were wide as she squealed, “You were amazing! I had no idea you could sing!”
Bethany auditioned as well but did not get a callback.
Later that evening, my mom told me that I had—for the role of Annie. I knew I should have been excited, but when I first heard the news I was disappointed, because I’d had my heart set on playing Pepper, the tough, sassy orphan. I wasn’t sure I wanted to play the lead role.
She said they wanted me to sing “Tomorrow” at the callback.
“You need to practice, Sutton,” she said.
Over the next few days, I sang along with the soundtrack, in our living room, standing on the cheese crate on which my father’s mother, Maw Maw, had lovingly stenciled the word Mommy, her gift to my parents when Hunter was born. (See? I told you crafting ran in the family!) That cheese crate became a de facto stage for so many of my childhood performances. I loved hitting the high notes and belting: “To-MOR-row, to-MOR-row! I love ya, tomorrow!”
My mom sat on the couch and gave notes:
“Sing to the back row.”
“Make sure to smile.”
“Raise your right arm up on the last note.”
She also made me sing it over and over until I got it just right.
It worked. I got the part—and wound up being interviewed on local TV as a result.
“Have you any plans to go into the theater as a profession later on?” the reporter asked me.
“Maybe just a little,” I replied.
I had no idea that being onstage and singing could be a profession. I just thought it was something you did for fun.
That was when the musical theater seed took root. Not just for me, but for my entire family. It was something we all loved, and it brought us together. Hunter had natural talent too. He was cast in Godspell and then did Bye Bye Birdie at his high school, followed by Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. We both auditioned for the Augusta Players’ The Sound of Music: I played Brigitta and he played Rolf. My dad bought a giant video recorder to film our performances. (He still has all the VHS tapes.) We would host cast parties at our house, eating pizza and drinking Pepsi, those grainy tapes playing in the background. My parents enjoyed it as much as Hunter and I did.
When the director of the Augusta Players asked for help building the set for a production of Jack and the Beanstalk, my father volunteered. He was incredibly handy and was always fixing something around the house and in our garage. For the play, he fashioned a twenty-foot vine the width of a fat tree trunk out of chicken wire and green fabric, complete with offshoots. In the production of Grease, Hunter was cast as Danny Zuko and I played Patty Simcox, the obnoxious cheerleader. For that, my father salvaged two fenders off a VW he found at the junkyard, and four old tires. He took it all to Milton Ruben Chevrolet, where he welded several pieces of sheet metal together to fashion a car frame that he painted cherry red and slipped on top of a golf cart. That was Greased Lightnin’.
He was very much that dad.
When I think back to my childhood, I see how theater was the happy glue that kept us connected.
But not for long.
I have no idea what my parents’ anniversary date is. Growing up, I never heard any mention of their wedding or even saw a photo of that day. I also never remember them holding hands, never mind kissing. I didn’t think anything of it then—it’s just the way things were. As a kid, you don’t question your parents’ relationship.
We moved to Augusta when I was seven, and I consider that period our golden years. My father was a district sales manager for Chevrolet by then. He drove a giant ice-blue Monte Carlo with a single front bench and back seats without seat belts. Our house had wall-to-wall cream carpeting, an intercom system, and a vacuum that was attached to the wall. I loved that house, and that car, and I often wonder if that’s because I associate them with a time when everyone in my family seemed happy.
Every spring, our front yard erupted in bursts of orange and yellow marigolds and daffodils against a hot-pink azalea background. The garden was my dad’s great joy, a hobby he looked forward to each year, and I loved helping him plant the marigolds from seed. My mother loved them too, and what I didn’t know until I began writing this book was that she would harvest the seeds in the fall from the plants my father had grown the spring before. (If you pop the head off a marigold, all the seeds are in the pod at the base of the bloom.) She’d collect these seeds in small packets and dry them over the winter so they’d be ready to plant the next spring.
My dad would dig a small trench in the narrow garden beds that lined the walkway up to our front door, and then I would sprinkle the seeds down the center and cover them with earth before watering them in. I loved watching the green shoots poke their way through the soil, followed by a sturdy stem and finally a blast of sunshiny orange or yellow blooms. It was a thrilling payoff for this annual ritual.
My dad kept a garden in our backyard, too. There, he planted beefsteak tomatoes, as my mother’s favorite meal was a tomato sandwich made with two pieces of soft white bread, a slather of mayonnaise, and a sprinkle of salt. When I close my eyes, I can see the row of tomatoes sitting on the windowsill waiting to ripen. Most summers, he also experimented with green peppers, corn, okra, and sometimes sunflowers—a smaller version of the garden his parents, my Maw Maw and Paw Paw, grew in their backyard. Traditions passed down. But tomatoes were a staple, and his goal was to grow them big enough so one fat slice covered the entire piece of bread.
My mother was a picky eater, but she loved those tomato sandwiches. She was worried about the pesticides my dad used to keep the bugs at bay, so she would peel the tomato before eating it. I never thought much of it then, but like the missing wedding photos, these were all tiny clues about who my mother was and perhaps harbingers of things to come.
I was in sixth grade when things in my family took a dark turn. I can pinpoint the moment.
Bethany and I were still close friends, and she invited me for a sleepover. My mom didn’t like me going to other people’s homes, even for playdates. She never explained why. But looking back, I now realize that she didn’t see the value in nurturing these friendships because she didn’t have any friends beyond my Aunt Mary Anne, whom she spoke to on the phone weekly. I can’t recall my parents ever going out to dinner with other couples, or my mom even having coffee with a neighbor. So it was always a battle whenever I asked to hang out with my friends. But on this night, I was determined. I marched into her room and was stunned to see her sitting cross-legged on top of her neatly made bed, sobbing.
I had never seen her cry.
“Mommy?” I said.
She turned to me, tears streaming down her face, and said quietly, “He doesn’t love me anymore.”
I had no idea what she was talking about.
- On Sale
- Oct 12, 2021
- Page Count
- 224 pages
- Grand Central Publishing