Sunday, July 20, 2014

Stitching and Starching My Way Through Story

In the last few weeks, mom has been sorting through her linens, opening up blanket chests, linen closets, under-the-bed storage thingies. Out come the linen table clothes and napkins, the hand embroidered or tatted or pulled-thread finger tip towels, the crocheted throws in some of the most hideous shades of vomit, dad's layette set - all in pink because for whatever reason, my grandmother Gwen loved dad in pink (which in honesty with his dark hair, pail skin and blue eyes, he did look good in pink - or muted red as he preferred to call it), Victorian children's clothing, a cotton and lace underskirt from the turn of the last century which mom promised would look wonderful under a long skirt (...). And it goes on, with representation from both sides of the family. I felt like a Betty Neels heroine counting the linens. Mom has kept a few pieces, but mostly my siblings and I took what we wanted. Because you can never have too many linen table clothes or napkins. And my powder room just screams finger-tip towels.

When I was in high school, I was introduced to the idea that all of history, all the past, everyone's past, gave rise... to me. I could draw on anything and everything for my writing and my creativity. I simply had to own it. The other idea was finding my place to be - which I think was from a poem/short story about the bull in the ring, pitted against the matador, finding his place to finally die. I know, that is one of the random bits I learned in English and creative writing under the mustachioed gaze of Dr. Martin Galvin. (Another was putting in a detail about a character - like he always sat with both feet flat on the floor - to add authenticity. But that is getting off track.)

Some people feel that sense of past when they walk into an old church or cathedral. Others, it comes from walking down a street in Europe or Jerusalem, feeling the footsteps of those who walked before. For me, it comes from handling these old objects, sometimes accompanied with notes. I imagine how proud Grandmother would have been, how carefully she ironed each towel or clothe.  I imagine the frugality of a wise housewife, sewing a small flower applique over a cigarette hole in a tablecloth.

In Kathleen Gilles Seidel's book, Please Remember This, heroine Tess Lanier opened a shop selling vintage linens. That character always rang true with me, because I understood the quiet love for women's handiwork. She wasn't a "big" heroine, who at a relatively young age ran a national chain of stores, or even the type of heroine that everyone wanted to shag. She opened a small store in a small town where she was a stranger and her mother had achieved notoriety. The book was about the relationships of mothers and daughters, and isn't that what linens are all about?

Sure, sure, my brother took one of our great-grandmother's bed spreads because he totally respects the hours of work that went into it. But by and large, these items, particular the very old pieces, were no doubt part of a dower chest, like the one my grandfather made for his bride, with the sheets and pillow cases the young girl started making for her home.  This sense of future, of running her own home and raising her own children, is woven tightly into the pillow cases and dresser scarves. They are haunted, in a sense, by the hands that made them, the hands that used them and the hands that carefully folded them away in tissue paper. 

When I create a character, and write that his foot is always tapping, jiggling, twitching, somewhere in him is a matriarchy that at some point carefully folded away tea-towels. Maybe they were poor, maybe they were unbelievably wealthy, maybe they hated every moment holding the needle. But they were there. I may never, ever mention his feminine antecedents in the whole of the book, but his history is still comprised of them.

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