“What kind of beast is your salamander?” asked the Prince. “It is hard to tell their kind, your Honor,” said Golg. “For they are too…
A Stitch in Time
The battered package arrived, still intact despite its unknown travails throughout its ground journey from Cincinnati, Ohio to Topanga. Knowing it was yet another gifting to me from my mother, who has been seriously working on divesting herself of family artifacts and keepsakes in preparation for her move from her large Victorian home, I saved its opening to a quiet time on the weekend so I could savor the contents.
My mother was/is an only child but comes from a large family of aunts, uncles, and cousins, many of whom lived in Illinois. She clearly loved them all; perhaps this bustle of family is why she had five children of her own. (Of course, there may well be other reasons for that.) As the only child, she became the funnel down which the mementos, memories and valuables were dispatched.
She has now become the dispatcher.
Notably, several of the aunts and great-aunts—called spinsters in their time, though we would rather deem them as strong independent women today—were veritable artists of their crafts. During the late 1800s and early 1900s, young women were expected to be practiced in the needle arts as much as in language, literature and Bible studies.
According to my mother, these women together presented a tour de force in their mastery of all threads from needlepoint, to quilting, to embroidery and crochet. They regularly spent weeks and months, perhaps years, in preparation for the competitions that would emerge at state fairs—even world fairs—where they could display their works of art and frequently come away with honors and prizes. To this day, my mother has on her office wall an exquisite example of a Victorian crazy quilt preserved under glass inherited from these industrious and artistic women. This crazy quilt—so-called because of its irregularly shaped pieces of satin and velvet stitched to a foundation material then embroidered elaborately over all seams—will find its way to my home one day and with diligent care will be passed on to my daughters.
Sitting on the edge of my bed I started cutting through the old cardboard and multiple folds of packing tape. I opened the box flaps to find yet another box, but one not quite as intact. Lifting it out gingerly I realized it was even then unable to fully contain its treasures, as skeins of threads and sheets of parchment paper poked and hung from the edges. Under the lid was a mass of threads, cotton, wool and embroidery silks of every color. Several were captured in layers of muslin with channels filled with an entire range of colored silk threads.
I loved the cacophony of color and textiles but what was I to do with it all? I peeled back layer after layer, some interspersed with mail order parchment patterns for needlepoint designs and quilt patterns.
‘Lo and behold, I found several large blue ribbons with gold lettering. “Illinois State Fair, 1925, Springfield, First Place for Centerpiece Embroidery.” Another, “Twelfth International Soil-Products Exposition and Peoria Fair, Peoria, Ill., 1917. And then: “Illinois Centennial State Fair & Industrial Exposition, Springfield, Illinois – 1918.” This was clearly an important one, because the other side of the elaborate red, white and blue ribbon was labeled “Best Exhibit of Needlework, in Old Ladies’ Department”! A beautiful painted medallion depicting a Davy Crockett-like figure holding a musket held the ribbons together. Alas, they were not attached to the pieces that were entered in those competitions but here was the evidence of the tale!
As I reached the bottom of the box, my fingers fell upon a disorderly pile of wooden knitting needles of all sizes, crochet hooks, embroidery hoops and other sewing implements. They rolled and spilled from the box that could no longer hold them in.
I gathered them together, marveling at their smoothness, their worn ends, the slight darkening of the wood color wood close to the points. I felt a profound emotion in touching them. Like receiving a fine feather quill pen left behind by a novelist of yore, I held an inheritance of my past, my family, and the energy of a million stitches made before me.
Gift of the Present
I grew up in a two-story house built in the 1960’s down in Seal Beach. It was in the sort of neighborhood straight out of an old sitcom. It was home for many years, but it is no longer home. For two days, home was an old house in Oklahoma that I helped my parents move to. Ironically, I now live back in Los Angeles County, where I spent my very first years. I didn’t choose to leave Seal Beach, or to go to Oklahoma, but I did choose to come back home to Southern California. We don’t always get to decide what’s going to happen in life, natural disasters, losing loved ones, or falling ill can happen to any of us, but we can make the best of it when fate collides with us.
Life is like an ocean, vast and unknown. We think we are in control of our ship until a tidal wave hits us and knocks us off our intended course. But did that wave just steer the ship into sharp rocks, or out of the path of an iceberg? In my case, the tidal wave that hit me steered me away from an iceberg and back towards my family during a time of emotional hardship. It allowed me to spend time with my aunt and my grandmother that I had not been afforded in a long time. It brought me a lot closer to my boyfriend than I would have been in Oklahoma. It gave me the opportunity to work in my degree field soon after graduation, and to spend one last year taking in the beauty of the Golden State and of the Santa Monica Mountains before I move once again.
As I’ve resurfaced from the impact of the tidal wave, I’ve been facing ghosts, the ghosts of loved ones who are no longer with us, and ghosts of the past. While the past is painful, I’ve come to realize that that pain is part of who I am, the good and the bad together. As for the ghosts of loved ones? They may leave us in body but in spirit and memory they linger. I think of my mother’s father when I play golf or eat M&M’s, and I think of my father’s father when I eat apricot jam or wear a bucket hat. We see glimpses of these people every day, and while the pain of loss is very real, it is comforting to be reminded of happy times spent together, and to know that they will remain watching over us as we continue along our own path.
I think of the future, to a long-awaited move, to seeing new parts of the world, to going back to college to earn my master’s degree, and I feel excited to see what life holds in store for me, but I’ve also come to realize that the future will always be just that, the future, and while I am excited for it, I’m also enjoying the time I have here and now. I know this time is fleeting, and we never know how much time we’ll have with the ones we love. If we can only look ahead to the future and we can’t take the time to enjoy the present, we condemn ourselves to the punishment of Tantalus, reaching for something that will always be just beyond our grasp.
All that we have is the present, though we may yearn for the past or be anxious for the future, tomorrow isn’t promised, and we can’t go back in time, no matter how much we may want to. All we have guaranteed is now, so stop and smell the flowers, enjoy a sunset at the beach, and surround yourself with the people you love and who love you in return.
How We Leave
While sorting through my collection of books, a note spiraled down to the floor from one of its pages. A small card read, “It is how we carry the things we carry. In the end we are how we leave.” I often keep ephemera; cherished notes, concert tickets in books.
A friend had typed this note, placed it on the windowsill and when he moved back home, I asked if I could keep it.
I have always been fascinated by what other people keep, and at a young age made the connection between our own mortality and what we collect. When I was five years old, our neighbor across the street lost his wife. He was a kind man, a veteran who kept to himself mostly. A few times a year he’d cross the street to share some venison or fresh fish with our family. I had seen his wife once or twice. One summer afternoon as all the neighborhood kids were playing ‘hot lava’ on the street, he approached us in his wheelchair and told us his wife had died, and he would like for us to each pick one thing from her belongings. We were much too young to understand the gravity of loss, more interested in, “you can each have…”
When we passed the wooden gate to his backyard, we found everything amassed in black trash bags. Some of the kids began untying the bags looking for their ‘one’, filled with baseball cards, others hunting magazines, farmer’s almanacs. When no one was looking, I opted to peek inside his home, brazenly, as it was a very clear direction from my parents never to go inside another person’s home. I had never stepped inside an empty home; I had hoped to see what postcards and photo magnets I would find on his refrigerator, what he kept in his kitchen pantry. Everything except for the curtains was gone. It smelled like cigarettes smoked inside and where picture frames once hung, there were imprints on the wall, white paint beneath the yellow.
“Did you find your one thing? Better be quick!”
I leapt up startled, skipped outside, opened one bag and to my delight, found a large wooden jewelry box nearly half my size. “Can this be my one thing, Walter?”
He laughed, “Clever girl, but that wouldn’t be fair to the rest of the kids.”
“What if I took out all the things inside? Then it will be one thing.”
“Find something that fits in the palm of your hand.”
Inside one of the drawers of the jewelry box was a gold locket, heart shaped engraved with a crucifix and no picture inside. “This is it,” I said assuredly. “She loved that locket.” A FOR SALE sign went up on their lawn days later.
In the following weeks I started making secret visits to my grandmother’s room, filled with her belongings stored in boxes. I studied intently her small vanity on a dresser, the doily cover to protect the wood, her large bottle of lavender perfume, prayers on cards and horoscope magazines in Spanish. I threw myself into her closet and hugged everything hanging in there all at once, enveloped in her warmth.
I got the urge to look under the bed, pulled a storage box out from beneath, opened it and just as my grandmother walked in found a folded piece of embroidered silk. ‘Looking through other’s things is not the proper thing to do,’ she said in her stern yet loving way. ‘The fabric is very delicate.’ I apologized and asked why it was under the bed. ‘One day when I have a house of my own, I’ll hang it up.’ ‘But you have a house now?’ She smiled at me and said one day I could have the silk embroidery.
I didn’t know much about my family history, like most others, we’re still piecing together all the intimate pieces of our fragmented stories. It took time for me to learn that I was an immigrant. That my family moved from place to place, and being in a home, didn’t quite mean it’s yours until it finally is. Immigrants for the most part, leave everything behind when they leave their motherlands. You bring with you the important stuff, documents, the things you can carry, with the hopes that when you land in the next place of rest, you can start anew.
Marie Louise-Von Franz, a colleague of Carl Jung, wrote “that each individual carries within him, stored in his unconscious, the entire historical past of his people, even humanity as a whole,” I find this to be true. The silk embroidery my grandmother gifted me when we moved away is framed in my home today. There are dots of blood on the fabric around the peacocks where the embroiderer pricked her finger, tears near some of the orchids and tree leaves, it is perfect in its imperfection. My grandmother carried this with her when we left our home. In recent years, when wildfire smoke looms above, it is the first thing I place in the car. Like many before me and to come, I have examined every inch of home, what I will leave behind and what I can carry.
There’s a last time for everything. A last walk, a last embrace, a last memory. When we put away a favorite article of clothing we do so on with the blithe assumption that we will be taking it out to wear it again. Perhaps that’s what makes it so difficult to clear out the clothing of a loved one who has died, because that coat or that sweater or that ridiculous hat was put away by that loved one’s hand, and removing it breaks that connection, even if it is only a frail thread of memory connecting us with them. The clothing and the memories of the person who wore it can be so deeply interconnected.
My father died five years ago, after a long illness that consumed the last decade of his life. I’m just now going through his clothes. My mother’s declining health has made it impossible for her to complete this task. A leaking pipe has lent urgency to a job I, too, would have gladly postponed indefinitely.
Here is the red wool sweater Dad wore at Christmas; the blue velour dressing gown, shabby now and faded; that crazy shirt from the 1970s printed with the Lascaux Cave art; and the hiking boots that traveled a hundred miles along favorite trails. All of these things are vivid reminders of the man who wore them. As long as they were here it seemed as if he couldn’t be gone.
The ancient Egyptians believed part of the soul remains in our world, tethered to the things the person loved in life. Perhaps this is the same feeling. But no one, however much we loved the departed, wants to live indefinitely with ghosts.
I set aside the sweaters, wool and cotton, colors still bright, to give away as keepsakes. My brother, visiting from Oklahoma, took the navy blue one and a couple of coats—they were always the same size, he and Dad.
I kept a cardigan for myself, an old one that’s missing two buttons. It’s one I remember from my childhood. It’s an old friend, something that signifies comfort. I remember the scratchy texture of it from when I was a very small child, taking walks with dad holding my hand, listening to him tell me the names of plants, flowers, and constellations—when he read you a bedtime story it was more likely to be Scientific American than Winnie the Pooh or The Golden Book of Fairytales. Those walks planted the seeds that would grow into a lifelong love of nature and natural history, but I took them for granted then, the way I took for granted that my father would always be there beside me.
I couldn’t get rid of Dad’s beekeeping suit, although I don’t know what I’ll do with it. He loved his bees. I can shut my eyes and see him with the suit and hat with the veil, smell the sharp, sweet scent of the bee smoke and hear the drone of the hives. I kept the cave art shirt, too. “Maybe I can make a pillow out of it,” I think to myself, vaguely. In reality, it will probably hang in my closet until some harried relative comes to clear things out when I am gone.
I also kept his preposterous tweed bucket hat. It is battered because it was much loved, and moth-eaten because it was in the closet ever since the last time he wore it, more than a decade ago. I find myself wishing that the memories, and the brilliance, and the kindness that resided in the head that wore it were part of the inheritance, but at least it evokes his memory.
The rest is being washed, sorted and donated: shirts and pants and coats and shoes. These are just things, empty shells. The important part is the time we had together with the people we love, not the things that are left behind, but I still can’t help crying, and maybe that’s OK.
I’m blessed to have my niece Lizzy here, helping me. Doing this together makes it easier. I gave her a sweater, a blue one that she remembers her grandfather wearing when she was small. She kept his ties, too, with the thought of using the bright colors and patterns in a quilt.
Perhaps someday this day will be a memory for her—a silly one of me wearing that stupid hat, a poignant one because she had so little time with her grandfather, my father. This time spent together is intangible but worth more than the contents of all the closets, or dressers, or treasure houses in the world.
I miss you, dad.