My mother and I had got tangled up, like skeins.
~Jill Lepore, “The Prodigal Daughter”
How does one become a detangler?
I am chasing my mother around our house, trying to prevent her from discarding a heap of tattered nightgowns that belong to my older sisters and me. The nightgowns feel like part of me, and I can’t bear my mom throwing them away.
More than forty years later, I catch my breath in recalling the smell of the flannel, the urgency, the chase.
I am two years old, and my parents are on their way to Florida. My mom has just given birth to a stillborn, who would have been the seventh child in our family.
Feeling anxious about my mother’s absence, I stand on a chair at the kitchen sink and drink some green dishwashing liquid. One of my sisters cares for me when the detergent makes me sick. When my mother returns, she gives me a gift of clothing: a blue and gold striped vest and matching shorts.
My hat habit begins with the floppy, paisley beach hat that I’m wearing when my mother forgets me at the grocery store. My collection also includes a brown wool ski cap; a long, knitted stocking cap with white, orange, and brown stripes; a red and white captain’s hat from the Gateway Clipper Fleet; and a Russian fur hat with ear flaps that fold up at its crown. These hats are part of my everyday wardrobe until I turn seven. Big girls, I’m told, don’t wear hats.
At age five, I write daily letters to my mother:
When my mom finally takes her place at the dinner table, she rests her lit cigarette on the edge of her plate and falls asleep. I often linger at the table with one of my sisters. We love to lick our plates clean and return them to the cupboard before my mom wakes up.
I change my clothes several times a day, searching for the right outfit.
Sitting on the floor of my bedroom, I jab my mustard-colored sneakers with a pair of scissors. I’ve been making a new hole in them every week since I started first grade because I need to get some squeaky clean white sneakers like my cousins wear with fold-over white ankle socks.
Every afternoon, I chase my mother’s car down the street as she leaves for her evening classes at the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Social Work. Crying and desperately waving goodbye, I feel certain that I will never see her again.
Every night, I lie awake until I hear the sound of her voice.
Selvedge: the finished edge of fabric that prevents it from unraveling. A late Middle English composite of “self” and “edge” (selfegghe in early modern Dutch).
My mother Sally was born in 1934, followed by her sister Charlotte in 1936. My grandmother meticulously chronicled the first months of my mom’s life in a baby book, with captions such as: “2 days short of a month old!” “Her first snow,” and “Chewing the bed.” Soon, though, my grandmother’s weak heart left her bedridden and crippled by gangrene, and she died when my mother was seven.
Portrait of my mother, written by her sister:
My earliest memories of [Sally] were of a rather feisty, energetic soul who was always looking for something fun and adventuresome to do. She walked on the top boards of fences, shinnied all the way up to the top of the swing poles in the school yard, climbed the highest trees and could hit a softball the farthest. She and Pat Eckenrode set the standard for every day’s scariest feats. She never played “dolls”; she played “dungeons.” The dolls were captives, never babies. “Hide ‘n seek” was really “Cops and Robbers” or “Cowboys and Indians.” Only sissies cried and whined, and Sally never did either.
My mother doesn’t respond to my childhood letters. But when I perform heart surgery on my Raggedy Ann doll, my mom mends the doll’s wound with red thread and a thick patch of orange felt.
She also comes to the rescue when I discover that Suzy, my Holly Hobby doll, is bald under her bonnet except for a single strand of hair connecting her wispy braids. Using heavyweight, golden yarn, my mom makes Suzy a full head of hair gathered into two knee-length braids. Her expert repair makes it okay for Suzy to take off her hat.
Flipping through one of my mother’s magazines, I see an advertisement for a kit to make an old-fashioned china doll. When I buy the kit with my own money, my mom brings Gretel to life by sewing her cloth body and attaching her porcelain head, delicate hands, and dainty button-up boots. Using fabrics from which she’s made some of her own clothing, my mom sews an elegant wardrobe for Gretel: a long, Kelly green skirt; a green, blue, and white floral blouse with a grosgrain green ruffle down its front; a pair of matching floral bloomers; a velvet-lined, plaid bonnet; a velvet-lined, tweed cape.
As I sort through my childhood memories, I discover other detanglers. Members of the online community “Knot a Problem” untangle yarn for free as long as the sender covers shipping costs; some members even pay knitters to send their knottiest balls of yarn. Detanglers describe their work as deeply satisfying, a means to create order from chaos and turn a “mess” into “something lovable.” Techniques vary: spreading the yarn on a table, looking for the ends of the skein, using a pin or crochet hook to loosen knots, or freezing fuzzy yarns to prevent their fibers from locking together during the untangling. What does not vary is this cardinal rule: one should never resort to scissors.
“Parties, parties everywhere!” my mom exclaims in the weekly newspaper column she wrote as a high school senior, describing a “slam-bang” social calendar that “even a debutante or a politician” would find daunting. In their yearbook inscriptions and in their recollections fifty years later, my mother’s friends emphasize her “ever-ready laugh,” “gutsy” escapades, and personality “as flashy as her red hair.” As “the card of the Freshman class” and as a college senior who “stood on the picnic table, and with a cigarette in one hand and a can of Rolling Rock in the other, began to serenade her friends,” my mom took seriously Auntie Mame’s credo to “Live! Live! Live!”
I recall my mother loudly laughing at the wake for her half-brother, who drowned as he rescued two of his children from an ocean rip tide. I recall her loudly laughing again, fourteen years later, at the wake for her favorite brother-in-law. I have only two memories of my mother crying: 1) when she made a besotted New Year’s Eve plea that my siblings and I keep in touch with each other, and 2) when we sprinkled her lakeside garden with the ashes of my sister’s dog.
She bore seven children in nine years—six of whom survived—and helped to raise four foster children. My parents were poor, but my mom relished trying to make ends meet as my dad worked during the day and earned his law degree at night. As my dad’s legal career burgeoned, so did his drinking. By the time I was old enough to notice, my parents were sleeping in separate beds. I first saw them kiss when I was eleven years old, after an overseas business trip momentarily rekindled their romance.
With her husband lost to his liquid, I was my mother’s companion, confidante, and coconspirator. The thirty-three years stretching between us vanished as we folded laundry on winter afternoons or sat outside on summer nights singing along with our favorite records and eating butter pecan ice cream. By age five, I was an expert at making my mother laugh. As if reciting serious verse, I’d do a deadpan recitation of the full lyrics to Simon and Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson.” “Coo coo ca choo, Mrs. Robinson, heaven holds a place for those who pray. Hey hey hey.”
When she had a semi-permanent layer of dirt under her fingernails and had been stooping for so long that she couldn’t straighten her back, my mother seemed happy. Poring over Wayside Gardens for weeks at a time, she would draw meticulous diagrams of flower beds, rose gardens, meandering stone paths, and shady nooks with bird baths and stone figurines. Then, fueled only by cigarettes and the heat of the sun, she would wrestle with weeds and stumps (the more tenacious, the better), cart wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow of soil, and use every iota of her strength to wrest beauty from the soil. She was in her element when choosing the perfect peony blossom to grace a glass bowl, hosting a “Strawberries in the Garden” gathering, or yanking weeds while fully dressed for a wedding. Even in her later years, when cancer was blossoming in her lungs, my mother seemed full of life when tending her garden.
My aunt claims that as a child, my mom pulled out her own tooth on the way to the dentist. True or not, this story confirms what I know about my mother’s relationship to her body. She went non-stop, running on fumes and then falling asleep when she finally sat down, whether at dinner or on the altar at church. She often ate her first and only meal—sugar-heaped cornflakes—around 9:00 p.m. She indiscriminately blasted various skin conditions with wart medicine that expired years before. And when pulmonary disease left her gasping for breath, she drank Chardonnay to “loosen her pipes” rather than using her oxygen mask.
At a very young age, I learn that bodies are TROUBLE, with inconvenient needs that should either be ignored or kept at bay. I don’t tell anyone about times when my foster brother locks me in the bathroom and removes my clothes, but my library books about saints help me to understand body trouble: suffering is holy, something to strive for.
To increase my daily hardship, I do hours of homework that my teachers have not assigned, say “please” one hundred times when I pray for God’s help, fasten every button on my cardigans when I hang them up, wash dishes at family parties instead of playing with my cousins, and go to church in the morning before school starts rather than joining other kids on the playground. As I pray the rosary on weekend mornings, I stand on my bed with my arms extended like Jesus on the cross, gouging my hands with my fingernails to simulate the nails that pierced Jesus’s hands.
I also discover that bodies can speak, sometimes louder than words.
At age four, I wrap my knee in an ace bandage and sit in our neighbor’s yard, hoping that a neighbor or passerby will notice me.
When my mom tenderly treats my brother’s poison ivy rash, I rub my entire body with poison ivy leaves, including my eyes. For more than a week, I am covered head to toe with a severe rash.
At age seven, I feign that I have lung disease and miss three weeks of school.
It’s a Laura Ingalls Wilder dress—thrilling enough—but even more thrilling is the fact that my mom is making it for me. I choose a crazy-quilt fabric for the dress, Kelly green fabric for the pinafore, white-and-yellow polka dot fabric for the lining and sash, and tiny, yellow buttons that my mom sews down the front of the pinafore.
I find the finishing touch in a travel stop gift shop: a denim blue bonnet decorated with fuzzy red butterflies.
When I become obsessed with knickers, my mom cuts my pastel plaid pants just below the knee and sutures each leg with an elastic band. She also makes me a grey wool “tabard”: a sleeveless, open-sided vest that slips over my head and fastens on each side with a fabric tie. I love the exotic word “tabard” as much as the garment itself.
Bundling: when “a given quality is contingently (rather than by logical necessity or social convention) bound up with other qualities” and this cluster of qualities is attached to an object.
~Webb Keane, “Signs are Not the Garb of Meaning”
My other favorite clothes are gifts from my mother: a hunter green velvet dress with a crocheted ivory collar, a green and red plaid kilt from England, and an Irish wool cardigan with round leather buttons and two front patch pockets. I wear the dress until the velvet disintegrates and the kilt until I can no longer fasten the straps. The cardigan is my second skin; I even wear it for a spelunking trip that involves crawling through narrow passageways and wading through muddy pools.
A shoelace to brace the dishwasher rack, a bobby pin to fix the toaster: few things satisfied my mom more than “making do” with whatever was at hand. She repeatedly reupholstered an antique loveseat, re-stained humdrum furniture to make it “rustic,” and for fifty years, covered and re-covered the seats of dining room chairs salvaged from a neighbor’s trash.
When my dad suggested that my mom try a professional decorator since money was no longer tight, the experiment lasted two days: one day for the decorator to haul in her décor and one day for her to haul it out. The white leather couch, furry pillows, glass-topped table, and plush, fish-shaped rugs charmed my dad, but the rest of us found them atrocious, hilariously off-the-mark, and we couldn’t wait to get them out of the house. My mother’s taste centered on lived-in comfort: a faded brown corduroy couch, hodgepodge of repurposed furniture, do-it-yourself wallpaper, and thread-bare oriental rug.
Rarely a day went by without my mom making a list. After she died, I found lists all over her house:
- Ligularia: The Rocket
- Iberis: Candytuft
- Tradescantia: Spiderwort
- Stachys: Lamb’s Ears
- Old Man Cactus: has beard
- Spanish Dagger: use spines as needles, fibers for cloth
- Aloe: Columbus called it “the Dr. in a pot”
- Pencil tree: branches in water stun fish to catch
- Rose Madder
- Burnt Umber
- Cerulean Blue
Home improvement supplies:
My childhood letters to my mother mark the passage of time as a series of endings: “This is my last letter to you on a Monday in March in 1974.” “Today is the last time that we’ll have grilled cheese on a snowy Thursday in February.”
“My biggest worry is when my parents will die,” my fourth grade autobiography states. But when I look more closely at the page, I see that I originally wrote, “My biggest worry is how I’ll act when I’m a teenager.” Surrounded by teenagers who challenged my parents’ authority, I must have found it less threatening to imagine my parents’ death than to imagine a time when I, too, might want some distance.
Portrait of my mother (found poetry from Wayside Gardens, 2017):
The Rising Sun
Contrast in Styles
Journal entry, 2/01/78:
This passage is the final entry in my childhood journals.
The French word for selvedge is “lisière.” Holding a child “en lisière” refers to the centuries-old practice of fashioning a harness from the edge of a sheet to support a child as she learns to walk.
My mom forgoes discussion of the birds and bees, and I grow increasingly estranged from my developing body. In sixth grade, I learn that I need to wear deodorant when I see boys in my class laughing as one boy holds his nose and points at me. In seventh grade, my entire body visibly shakes during a ballet recital, and my hands shake so badly while I am playing piano for a full-school assembly that I have to cut my performance short. In eighth grade, I attempt to make peace with my ungovernable body by trying out for the basketball team, but my glasses are knocked off and I miss a free throw during my only two minutes on the court. In ninth grade, a classmate whispers, “Turn red!” every day during band class; in this context, my body always complies.
I’m standing in a checkout line at age thirteen, trying to decide whether to buy the white polo shirt decorated with strawberries or the one decorated with whales. For more than fifteen minutes, my sister patiently waits as I wrestle with my decision: Which is the right choice? Am I a strawberry person or a whale person? What kind of person do others think I should be? After settling on the strawberries, I go all-in during the months to come with strawberry-laden earrings, shoelaces, and barrettes.
On my first night at home after being fitted for the back brace that I’ll wear throughout ninth grade, I’m crying in my bed, feeling panicked, alone, and trapped in my metal cage. Wondering how I’ll make it through the next hour, let alone the next year, I listen to sounds of the party that my parents are attending across the street. As the night wears on, I hear raucous singing as my neighbor bangs out ragtime songs on his piano.
“Are you the Bionic Woman?” a boy in the neighborhood asks when he notices the padded metal ring circling my neck, thick metal rods extending from my chin to my pelvis, and hard plastic encasing my hips. I am a hermit crab inhabiting an ill-fitting shell.
To make my shell feel more like home, I keep a record of the clothing that I wear every day during ninth grade. In the margins of my record, I draw faces and write encouraging notes to help me overcome my extreme shyness:
The body is an “osmotic shell,” write fashion theorists Warwick and Cavallaro; we “assimilate” garments and make them “our flesh.”
On my first trip home from college, my mom hoots with laughter when she spots me in the baggage claim area. I’ve just changed my clothes in the airport bathroom, trading my sweater and jeans for a halter-style, 1960s jumpsuit made of fluorescent magenta, orange, yellow, and lime polyester. I want to make light of the idea that kids drastically change when they go to college, and I know my mom will get the joke.
That Christmas, my mom gives me a sewing machine and some luxurious wool fabrics with paisley and abstract prints. My roommate and I spend our entire spring break sewing clothes into the wee hours of the morning.
According to the Pittsburgh Press reporter, “The 52-year-old Bethel Park woman, mother of six grown children and a social worker by profession, is slim and freckle-faced, a blue-eyed blonde with the American look of Amelia Earhart.” My mother is one of only six women in her flying club, and after a year of studying the flight manuals strewn on our kitchen table and a year of withstanding her belligerent, belittling instructor—an air force veteran who punches her in the arm when she does something wrong—she demands the reporter’s respect: “Nobody plays games with airplanes. The eye-brain coordination is challenging. It’s a lot different from driving a car. Four dimensions instead of two.”
I serve as co-pilot for my mother’s first solo flight in her two-seater Cessna. As we circle and circle in the air, my mom’s upbeat chatter suggests that everything is A-OK. But after twenty years as co-pilot, I’m well attuned to danger. Caught between my desire to support and my will to survive, I suggest that it’s alright if we can’t locate my aunt’s house—we’ve had a great adventure. My mother cannot countenance fear or defeat, but we’re running out of fuel. As the plane descends, my mom’s panic rises, and she fiercely grips the controls as we veer off the runway. We catch our breath, agree to spare my dad the details, and head home.
While studying in Paris during my junior year of college, I buy a thick, navy, knit dress with a Henley neckline and drop-waist skirt. The dense fabric conceals my prominent hip bones and helps me to manage feeling incurably cold. As the year continues, I layer skirts on top of my dress in an effort to stay warm.
Fashion is not what captivates me in the fashion capital of the world; I’m held captive by the flesh beneath my clothes. Clothing has become a means to cloak my disappearing body, a body that increasingly consumes me the less I consume.
My parents never contact me during my year abroad.
Wordlessly screaming, I am standing at the threshold of adulthood trying to stop time in its tracks.
A stern taskmaster, I bring my body to heel. I won’t broker with hunger, need, or desire, and I let Father Time know that I am in charge.
Like a fragile net, my clothing seems to be all that prevents a total unraveling of the edges of my self.
When I return from France, I visit one of my sisters to attend her graduation from business school. My sister makes me try on several dresses that belong to her roommate because she wants me to wear something that will conceal my body. She finally chooses a boxy, green dress with thick shoulder pads, large gold buttons, and a wide black belt.
“Write a description of yourself,” my counselor says. I write a description of one of my sisters and then compare myself with her point by point, largely in terms of what I am lacking.
My mother starts to voice strong opinions about my clothing. “You need something red in your life,” she insists, and for my twenty-first birthday, she buys me a three-tiered black dress saturated with gigantic red poppies. When I admit—after some pressing—that I do not like the print, my mom says with finality, “Well, I love it.” The following Christmas, my mother gives me an enormous, drab-colored flannel shirt and man-sized sweater, explaining that she is trying to match my “bag lady” aesthetic.
“[T]he rendering of gifts, in expressing the expectation that acceptance commits the recipient to be what the giver wants them to be, is in some respects an act of aggression.”
~Annette Kuhn, Family Secrets: Acts of Memory and Imagination
As part of her “Uninvited Collaborations with Nature,” artist Nina Katchadourian started repairing broken spider webs using red thread:
All of the patches were made by inserting segments one at a time directly into the web. . . . I fixed the holes in the web until it was fully repaired, or until it could no longer bear the weight of the thread. In the process, I often caused further damage when the tweezers got tangled in the web or when my hands brushed up against it by accident. The morning after the first patch job, I discovered a pile of red threads lying on the ground below the web. At first I assumed the wind had blown them out; on closer inspection it became clear that the spider had repaired the web to perfect condition using its own methods, throwing the threads out in the process. My repairs were always rejected by the spider and discarded, usually during the course of the night, even in webs which looked abandoned.
Red is not my color.
The front of the card says: “For the One I Love: We may fight sometimes and have our little disagreements, but through it all there’s one thing that will never change—” and the inside says, “I’ll always be right.” Under the punchline, my mom wrote, “Your loving & non-controlling Mother!” She then added:
Was looking for a card for Maureen (she passed the bar!) & found this, which was not to be passed up! It probably wasn’t meant to be used for mother-daughter relationships but it sort of puts the whole irrational thing in a nutshell. . . . I hate to hear so much pain in your voice & not be able to fix it, but we both know that I can’t. Even if I had fewer personal limitations, I still couldn’t make it better. But you can & will, eventually.
Toni Morrison’s Sula views her friend Nel as a spider who is “terrified of the free fall” and “blind to the cobalt” on her own back. Sula cherishes the free fall because it demands “invention” and “a full surrender” to the downward flight.
I’m twenty-two years old, and I’ve just come home from dinner with some former roommates. Seized by the conviction that I wore the wrong clothes, I spend the next two hours trying on various outfits that I might have worn instead, eventually concluding that my maroon pants and paisley blouse would have been the right choice. If I’d worn that outfit, maybe I wouldn’t have needed to look in the bathroom mirror every few hours to reassure myself that I was okay.
Clothing alerts us to “our internal plurality,” argue Cavallaro and Warwick. Choosing what to wear mirrors the “much more momentous task we undertake” as we try to encompass our “psychological and historical ambiguities.”
In October of 1958, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette announced that Arthur Dimond “escorted not one, but two red-haired daughters to the altar.” The brides, my mother and her sister, “wore identical princess line gowns of light ivory silk mist taffeta and Alençon lace.”
One of my sisters wore my mother’s dress thirty years later, and I decide to wear it for my own wedding in 1993. Inhabiting history is appealing, but I feel tangled in my inheritance when I put on the dress.
On my wedding day, the tension between my mother and me erupts in a tearful argument about shoes. For my First Communion in second grade, my mom insisted that I wear patent leather buckle shoes instead of my wooden sandals. For my wedding, she insists that I wear her pumps instead of the 1940s-style shoes that I bought for the occasion.
The expression “tenir quelqu’un en lisière(s)” (to hold someone “en lisière”) means to limit her freedom and hold her in a state of dependence.
“Oh, Meg,” my mom says in dismay, audibly sucking her teeth as I enter the church vestibule for a cousin’s wedding. With intricate pleats, a double-layered collar, and a row of tiny wooden buttons, my dress is the most challenging garment I have ever sewn, but my mom finds it unsophisticated. A few months later, when I arrive for another cousin’s wedding in a vintage dress that I bought at a thrift store, my mom pumps her first in the air and shouts, “Hooray!” Her approval seems to stem from the glamorous shape of the dress: a sleeveless sheath that dips low in the back.
To unravel (as object) is to become fragile and helpless, to come apart at the seams, to shapeshift and threaten to disappear: a cloth reduced to a single strand.
To disentangle (as subject) is to release or extricate from snarls, to disengage or detach, to free. The single strand that emerges is supple and resilient, ready to fashion itself into an array of designs.
My mother and I are standing about fifty feet away from each other, repairing a fence in my sister’s back yard. Out of the blue, and in a voice loud enough that I can hear her across the yard, my mom shares her suspicion that one of my siblings has been abused. “I’ve wondered if you were, too,” she adds. Pliers in hand, I briefly explain what happened thirty years earlier. We finish repairing the fence and never speak of the matter again.
When my edges begin to fray and the old fears of disappearance return, my contours come back into shape as I assemble an outfit, feel the fluid drape of silk on my skin, rub my finger across the intricate texture of brocade, absorb the exuberant energies of purple and mango or the peaceful depths of copper, slate, and dove. Experimenting with clothing, I slip out of the grooves and invent things as I go.
Later in her life, watercolor painting seemed to capture my mother’s imagination as much as gardening. Her sketches and practice paintings include notes about color choices (“grey-green ferny,” “very airy,” “darker than sap”), technique (“fan brush pushed up,” “sponge”), observations about the scene she’s depicting (“leaves turn up when drying,” “purple brown in light”), and emphatic commentary for future reference (“was great!” “reworked a lot!” “closer!” “paper wouldn’t cooperate!”). She painted everything from Gingko leaves to bullfighters but frequently returned to the same subjects, including a cherub statue from her garden, her youngest grandchild, and haunting figures who became the centerpiece of her painting titled “Faces of War.”
Maternal Advice (Spoken):
Do you think he really wants to get married? I bet you’re taking the relationship more seriously than he is. (when my husband and I decide to marry)
There’s many a slip twixt the cup and the lip. (when my husband and I successfully bid on a house)
Oh, please! This doting is making me sick to my stomach! (when my husband’s ankle is broken and I offer to bring him lunch)
Maternal Advice (Unspoken):
It’s difficult to forge an independent identity.
Her own mother died at age 37, her half-brother at 39, her father at 53. Perhaps my mother never imagined that she would live to the age of 70. For a time, grandchildren gave shape to her days. There were chalk drawings to make on the driveway, silly games to play in the basement, ice skating rinks to create in the yard. But by the time she died, my mom seemed to have lost her footing; she was a helium balloon that no one or nothing could tether to the earth. After her death, I found a letter that she wrote to a friend (but never sent) in which she acknowledged needing alcohol to make it through the days. Like Toni Morrison’s Sula, my mother seemed to become an “artist with no art form,” and her “idle imagination” made her self-destructive.
Maternal Advice (Spoken):
Your kids will be seventeen before you know it! (when she is cajoling me to have children)
Isn’t it about time for you to finish that dissertation? (when she is cajoling me to have children)
If it weren’t for you kids, I’d be drinking under a bridge somewhere. (when she is cajoling me to have children)
In October of 2004, two months after my mother has been diagnosed with advanced-stage lung cancer, I receive an olive branch: a package—with no note or explanation—containing an olive suede skirt and jacket that my mom especially loves and a blouse that she made from one of her favorite fabrics, an impressionist swirl of cream, grey, and peach. I resize and reshape the skirt, alter the jacket by relocating the buttons and pulling one front placket over the other, and add the blouse to my collection of fabrics awaiting reincarnation.
Maternal Advice (Unspoken):
Find a way to live with passion.
In December of 2004, I attend my mother’s funeral wearing a black skirt brightened with a few orange and red peonies. Three months later, while my father is hospitalized for alcohol withdrawal, I take two items from my mother’s bureau: her Irish wool cardigan with round leather buttons and two front patch pockets (stuffed with used tissues), and a simple silver ring fashioned from a cuff link that belonged to my great uncle. I can’t envision my mom’s hand—or my own hand—without this ring.
Time steadily unspools, leaving its trail of whispers. A leather kilt strap worn thin with age. A beloved handmade dress that no longer fits a growing girl’s body. A crooked spine that gradually becomes straight. A young woman who impedes her body’s maturation in a desperate bid to arrest time. A mother who struggles to view her child as an adult. A mother and daughter who run out of time to create a shared present. A woman who is claiming her present and future by sorting through remnants of the past—traces of loss, misshapen grace, and menders’ tender ministrations.
My eclectic wardrobe includes garments that I’ve sewn myself, bargains from thrift stores, Edwardian blouses, beaded dresses from the ‘20s, diaphanous gowns from the ‘30s, tailored suits from the ‘40s, wiggle dresses from the ‘50s, patterned skirts from the ‘60s, one-of-a-kind creations from local designers, and contemporary haute couture fashions. “Which outfit feels like ‘me’ today?” I often ask as I decide what to wear, attending to the lines and shapes that garments create, and the ways in which they make me feel elegant, playful, strong, or alive.
When I earn tenure at my university, I buy a fancy sewing machine and take a sewing class that focuses on adapting patterns to fit individual bodies. I make a sleeveless sheath from olive wool embroidered with turquoise and ochre threads that extend like flames from the hem toward the bust. For a jacket, I choose a lustrous bronze fabric constructed from mango-colored yarn sandwiched between two layers of thin black gauze tacked together every quarter inch with tiny stitches of gold thread. The jacket has an asymmetric collar and asymmetric hem, with a shorter side that overlaps a longer side and fastens with a vintage button.
Detanglers call it the “Stash Disaster of Epic Proportion.” In 2011, a California knitter inadvertently left her entire yarn collection outside during a rainstorm and then tried to salvage it in her dryer, producing a knotted mass “the size of a lamb.” For months, detanglers gathered in public libraries and parks to undo the tangles. When they finally succeeded, the detanglers felt “ecstatic, but also sad.” As one posted, “I am surprised by my sense of loss.”
In Ellen Bass’s poem “The Orange-and-White High-Heeled Shoes,” the daughter feels “keen pleasure” in recalling how she and her mother slid into their shared pair of shoes “like girls diving into a cedar-tinged lake, like bees entering the trumpet of a flower, like birds disappearing into the green, green leaves of summer.” Reading this poem, I ache with longing.
“One of the tragedies of death,” writes Edwidge Danticat, “is that it interrupts a lifelong dialogue, rendering it a monologue.” But as I sort through memories and keepsakes, I hear my mother’s voice in every anecdote, newspaper column, and letter, and she inspires every piece that I create in my art class: collages that feature her in various roles: gardener, painter, jazz lover, pilot, life of the party; a meditation on “The Orange-and-White High-Heeled Shoes”; and a bouquet of clothing strips that blossom from the sleeve of our wedding dress, inhabiting the intimate space that my mother and I shared as traces of our bodies commingled in the garment’s threads.
Searching for language to describe my evolving relationship with my mother, I Google “entanglement,” expecting to read more about yarn. Instead, I discover that in quantum mechanics, entanglement describes particles that behave in tandem no matter how far apart they are; affecting one particle instantly affects the other, and information about one improves our knowledge of the other. Entanglement arises naturally, physicists explain, as in the aftermath of particle collisions.
Yes, long after our collisions, my mother and I are paired particles, separated by the galaxy between life and death yet linked by uncanny connections: our shared penchants for detail and documentation, our artistry, our skin-deep sense of a good fit. As I gain a fuller sense of her, of us, of me, it feels like falling in love again after a painful separation.
The wall behind my sewing table displays a collection of artwork that I’ve gathered over the years. There is a joyful self-portrait, printed on cloth, made by a third grader who discovered her artistic talent while I was working with her at an arts center in Mississippi. There is a piece of linen—a gift from my sister-in-law—embroidered with a line from Proverbs: “She seeketh wool and flax, worketh willingly with her hands.” There is an intricately patterned Scandinavian mitten resting on purple velvet; I knitted the mitten at the hospital where my father-in-law was dying, but I could not summon the energy to make its partner. And there are three vintage prints from Vogue—finds from a thrift store—that feature elegant women from the 1920s, one of whom is improbably perched on a peacock.
There is also a plaque that I made as a child, with circles of glued-on spices and tiny pieces of pasta that say, “I love you Mom, 1978,” and a color study that my mom made in her later years, with swatches of watercolor paint paired with labels such as “burnt sienna,” “alizarin crimson,” “viridian,” and “Windsor green.”
In these pieces, I see my mother’s bequest. In the spice plaque: my elusive mother; in the color study: my mother the artist, who helped me to discover the alchemy for converting need into passion.
Self-portrait (found poetry from Mary Thomas’s Dictionary of Embroidery Stitches, 2017):
Knotted chain stitch
crown stitch, braid stitch, bonnet stitch
spine chain stitch
Paris stitch, French knot
interlaced insertion stitch, knotted insertion stitch, twisted insertion stitch
spider’s web, web stitch, captive rice stitch
Border stitches, edging stitches
detached filling stitches, oblique filling, mosaic filling
darning stitch, double darning stitch
fancy stitch, spot stitch
Bass, Ellen. “The Orange-and-White High-Heeled Shoes.” The New Yorker 30 March 2015. 58.
Cavallaro, Dani and Alexandra Warwick. Fashioning the Frame: Boundaries, Dress and the Body. Oxford: Berg Press, 1998.
Eaton, Jan, ed. Mary Thomas’s Dictionary of Embroidery Stitches. North Pomfret, VT: Trafalgar Square, 2014.
Friedman, Megan. “Experiencing a Knitting Disaster? A Loving Community of Yarn Detanglers Is Here for You.” Country Living. 24 Dec. 2015.
Katchadourian, Nina. The Mended Spiderweb Series.
Keane, Webb. “Signs are Not the Garb of Meaning: On the Social Analysis of Material Things.” In Materiality. Ed. Daniel Miller. Durham: Duke University Press, 2006. 182-205.
Kuhn, Annette. Family Secrets: Acts of Memory and Imagination. New York: Verso, 2002.
Lepore, Jill. “The Prodigal Daughter.” The New Yorker. 8 July 2013.
Mavor, Carol. Becoming. Durham: Duke University Press, 1999.
Melago, Carrie. “Knitters with Hopelessly Knotted Yarn Call Detanglers for Help.” Wall Street Journal. 21 Dec. 2015. Accessed 1 March 2018.
Morrison, Toni. Sula. New York: Plume, 1982.
“Young Governess helping a young child to walk.” Galerie des modes et costumes français 1778- 1787: dessinés d’après nature/ réimpression accompagnée d’une préface par M. Paul Cornu. Paris, Émile Lévy: Librairie centrale des beaux-arts, 1912. Reprint. Originally published: Paris, Chez Esnauts et Rapilly, 1778-1781.
Megan Sweeney is an Associate Professor of English Language & Literature and of Afroamerican and African Studies at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. She has received fellowships from the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, UM’s Institute for the Humanities, the Ford Foundation, and the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, and in 2014, she was awarded an Arthur F. Thurnau Professorship, UM’s highest honor for undergraduate teaching. Sweeney’s publications include an award-winning monograph, Reading Is My Window: Books and the Art of Reading in Women’s Prisons (2010); an edited collection, The Story Within Us: Women Prisoners Reflect on Reading (2012); and numerous articles about African American literature, reading, and incarceration. Her creative nonfiction includes “Hoot,” published in Brevity (January 2018); “Salvage,” forthcoming in Bennington Review; and a manuscript titled Mendings.