I scrawl snippets of my life onto scraps of paper and tuck them between the covers of my unwritten books. How will I spin these muddled bits of memory into sturdy threads? How to weave the past into a tapestry that proves this exhausting journey—filled with battle scars and defective dreams—has been worthwhile? My thoughts pile and teeter in the margins. Words and images totter and finally spill across the empty pages.
Above me, the sewing machine purrs—tatta-tap-tatta-tap-tatta-tap. Crouched beneath the kitchen table, I lift the lid of Maman’s treasure chest. Inside, my fingers sift through the gloss of cool glass buttons where silver-toothed zippers mingle with leftover ribbons, rows of silky spools lie nestled with their baby bobbins in matching hues, and darning threads wriggle through lace.
Maman lifts her foot from the pedal, and silence replaces the hum. She peers down and softly cautions, “Fais attention, ma belle! On ne touche-pas les aiguilles!” My eyes fix on the pearl-tipped pins impaling the bright red pin-cushion, the seam ripper’s sharp-edged glint, and the flash of sewing needles poised like silver swords.
“Oui, Maman,” I say. As I settle onto the cracked vinyl chair, Maman pins a strawberry patch over the knee of my favourite jeans. Leaning forward, she pushes fabric beneath the bright bulb. Thunk! the metal foot strikes the plate and the rhythm resumes, Tatta-tap-tatta-tap-tatta-tap . . .
My head in the crook of my arm, I glide my hand across the worn tabletop until it reaches the bag of scrap material. Plunging in my hand, I close my eyes and decipher the braille of fuzzy ridges—picture the orange corduroy jumper Maman made when I was two. An hourglass remnant of crushed-velvet—imagine the soft pink dress I wore to the Christmas concert this year. Thin triangles of waffle weave cotton—see my big brother’s lapels—white with sprigs of blue. When my fingertips nudge a stack of denim squares, I think of how Maman says one day we’ll stitch them into a picnic blanket. Lifting my head, I arrange the swatches into a pattern, and a scene plays out in my mind. Maman will pack us a basket full of bologna sandwiches, celery sticks smothered in Cheez Whiz, freshly baked peanut butter cookies and a jug of grape Kool-Aid. I will pick a bowlful of strawberries from the garden and a jar of bluebells from the pasture. All of us will gather by the tall trees on the patchwork quilt for a picnic.
When I get to my son’s bachelor suite, he’s sweeping the floor. Last week, every surface was piled high with laundry or dishes, but this morning, his bed is already half-made. Like me, he allows chaos to build until a return to order becomes a daunting task.
My son’s shabby teddy bear is propped against the tattered blanket I crocheted long ago. “Haven’t seen him for a while,” I say, thinking of how, not that far back, he and his teddy were inseparable.
My tall, broad-shouldered hulk of a son grins. “Hey, Teddy helps me sleep better.”
I shrug my shoulders, pat Teddy on the head and smile. “No judgement here.”
As my son hands me a cup of coffee, he says, “Do you think we could make him some new clothes?” then points to the stuffing poking through Teddy’s threadbare belly. “He’s literally falling apart.”
I nod and take a slow sip.
As my son crouches to sweep up his pile of debris, I wonder how much of the past he’d remember if I stopped retelling our stories. Does he recall stuffing Teddy full of yellow plastic tubing from his halmonie’s pillow? How the doctor removed my “rotten spot” before sewing me back together? Or how my son used to tell me, “Soon the owies will be all gone, Mama” as he caressed the long scar on my back. How we soothed Teddy’s stitches in a similar way.
Trying not to sound too serious, I say, “Tell me what you remember about making his clothes.”
My mother was a skilled magician. She gathered parts and taught us how to create wholes.
She dug through her bags of scrap material, and, just in time for Halloween, my mother costumed me in a long floral skirt, a red kerchief on my head, and in my hands I clutched the crystal ball she’d fashioned out of tinfoil.
At the end of the month, our cupboards were half-bare, but the smell of brown sugar and butter wafted down the hall. Gathering us around the table, my mother said, “Thank God for stale heels of bread and unwanted crusts. Add a handful of raisins, milk and cinnamon, and you’ve pretty much re-created heaven.”
My mother scrounged her spare change. One day, she came home with a parcel from Sears. We tore the box open and discovered an orange canvas tent that would house childhood memories.
Early in the morning of my brother’s tenth birthday, my father called. The agreed pickup time was noon, but he was less than an hour away. Groggy with sleep, my mother sent us to ready our backpacks for our two-week stay at the farm. Within thirty minutes, the plate at my little brother’s spot was stacked with steaming pancakes, piled high with Dream Whip and studded with ten flaming candles. By the time my father’s Super-Cab fishtailed up the gravel road, we’d already wolfed down our breakfasts.
To this day, my mother swears there’s little you can’t overcome with a little elbow grease and a smidgeon of creativity.
My garage overflows with my desire to help discards rise from the dust.
A cardboard box brims with leftover bits of baseboard and wooden slats from the bed that cradled my teenaged son while he slept. I envision shadow boxes. Picture rails.
Stubs of two-by-fours tower like building blocks. Someday, they’ll be whittled into toy cars or coaxed into birdhouses.
A large limb, rescued from the neighbour’s maple tree, is parked where my truck should be. One day, it will become a sturdy banister.
This garage, a spin-off from my failed marriage to a man who insisted we build it, will soon house my pottery studio, and the scraps of gyprock stacked against the wall will make perfect plaster boards.
Maman scraped together our supper scraps. She dropped corn cobs, potato peels and the fat from pork chops into the slop bucket. My older brother, Lynn, and I raced down to the barnyard and splashed the stew into the trough. We giggled as the pigs squealed and snorted and smacked their chops.
In winter, Maman filled an Imperial Margarine container with curdled milk, chunks of stale bread and buttery peas. Lynn and I crunched toward the Quonset. Inside, our fray-eared kittens mewled and huddled beneath the red glow of the heat-lamp as we laid out their meal. The kitties waggled frost-shortened tails and lapped their now-frozen feast from the concrete floor.
My mother’s voice buzzes on the line, “Why can’t you come home this time?”
I’ve lost track of the many reasons “going home” makes my heart knock against my ribs and pinches my airway until black spots dance before my eyes.
Until I was nine and we left my father and the farm, I trembled in my mother’s shadow. But, when I was ten, I woke to the surge of my father’s anger raging through my veins. Once the most obedient of my mother’s children, I grew into the one most prone to scrap and squabble.
I’m the patch that doesn’t quite match the fabric of our family. For over thirty years, I’ve been the one ripping up seams, loosening my family’s edges.
Mom needs a break from the silence of her retirement, so she calls. I picture her perched on the edge of her white duvet as she sighs and says, “I’m surprised how little time one day contains.”
Like her, I’m disappointed by the lack of minutes in a day, but I say, “Just take your time, Mom. Enjoy your life.”
Mom’s voice chatters in the background. While she tells me about a trip she’s planning, I wonder how she’ll go about freeing the ghosts of her past. Perhaps the key to her happiness lies at the bottom of the figure-skate boxes crammed with photos—candid snapshots from our early years at the farm, blurred camping trips, family photos from which, as time progresses, I become more and more absent.
Her voice grows more animated when she says, “I’ve started to declutter my bedroom closet.” My mind grasps the handles of the old sewing box I placed on the top shelf years ago and I return to the kitchen table at the farmhouse where for hours I arranged denim squares into the blankets Mom never had a chance to stitch. Where I conjured ants that tiptoed across cellophane-wrapped sandwiches and cookies. I suspect the ghosts I fear are mine not hers.
I ask, “Whatever happened to those bags of jean patches?”
“I finally got rid of them the last time I moved.” Mom’s voice softens, and she adds, “I’m learning to let some dreams go.”
I think we were both frightened by the risk of me becoming your mother. I hope the time spent living in my womb was warning enough to prepare you for my endless cycles of tumble and soar. Maybe that’s why you tried to cling to my insides while the doctors prodded you out.
Yet the moment I held you, a joy-filled panic, like a relentless dog nipping at my Achilles tendon, overwhelmed me. Each week, I mourned your stacks of outgrown clothes. As I nursed you, I wept. How could I keep you safe and warm for the rest of your life when I had nothing to offer but the ache in my heart? I was twenty-two—the same age you are now—so what could I possibly know about life, about being a mother?
Intoxicated by your smell, I buried my face in the heaps of tiny outfits—your first smile and coo in this cocoon of aquamarine, your first propped sit in this white sleeper with a matching tam trimmed in sailor blue. And suddenly I knew—from your tiny clothes I’d craft a quilt that would forever swaddle you with my love.
Years later, an attempt to keep our family intact took us and your dad back to Korea, so I bundled your baby clothes—my treasures—and took them to Goodwill. But things don’t always work out.
By the time you started kindergarten, you and I returned to Saskatchewan. Thinking ahead this time, I pinned together segments of your childhood while you slept. Envisioning a duvet cover and pillow cases, I salvaged pockets from your cousin Luc’s hand-me-down jeans, the front of the khaki t-shirt with three rhinos from your Grade 1 school photo, the front of the mustard yellow V-neck sweater-vest you wear in our last family picture that includes your dad. But three years later, I bagged these scraps and donated them as rags. With a suitcase in each hand, my whimsy took us to Quebec.
Once again, we returned to the prairies by the time you were ten. I swore I’d learn to taper my dreams, to make future projects short-term, so I learned to crochet. In less than a week, I hooked you an afghan. It was shaped like Saskatchewan because, in my haste, I’d neglected to count stitches.
I’m the kind of person who believes there is always a way to succeed. I tell you this tale of botched blankets not so you’ll conclude my intentions were faulty but to illustrate that sometimes, in order to knit them into realities, dreams must be modified. Despite everything, I’ve never given up. Neither should you, my son. Rather than stitching together scraps of fabric, I plan to weave these words into a testament of our past.