Raveled Threads

Her name, she said, was Marcia, and she stopped by my aisle seat an hour after takeoff. She’d noticed the Ramayana in my lap, and asked if I was going to India. I wasn’t headed, this time, for Delhi, but Singapore — and I dreaded the nineteen-hour flight. She was ticketed to Bombay, making her annual pilgrimage to Sri Ammachi’s ashram in Kerala. Maybe I had heard of Ammachi as the “Hugging Saint” or the “Mother of Compassion.”

Dziewczynka
(Oil on canvas, 35 x 27 cm)
BY Władysław Czachórski
Muzeum Podlaskie, Białystok

Ours were the only blue eyes on a plane filled with South Asian students flying home for family visits between semesters. Marcia told me about her work for the Holy Mother, and I told her about my translations with a Bengali collaborator. Later, on my way to the rear of the plane, I noticed her knitting.

In the chilly air of the cabin, the heap of mauve wool on her lap looked warmer than the thin polyester blanket I’d left at my seat, and, at that moment, more intriguing than the pages of my book. Her eyes focused on the long thread of yarn in her fingers, steadily working two wooden needles.

Knitting. What women did when I was a child. The soft cloth bundled on my mother’s lap.

In my earliest memory, the first dream I remember, Mummy and Grandma are knitting as I’m toddling around their chairs. They’re a haze of bright color as I walk away, down the slope of the grass, to the woods beyond my grandparents’ acre. At the tall hedge between manicured lawn and forest, I stop and peer through to the other side. Barely twenty feet away, chopping furiously at a row of cabbages, is Peter Rabbit’s nemesis, Mr. McGregor. If he sees me, he’ll chop me too. I turn to run, but am stopped, not by the hedge, but by three towering, glowering bears. There is no way out. I cannot get back to my mother.

A few years ago, when I asked my mother what I was like as a child, she answered, “You were perfect,” in her snappy, “That’s all there is to that” voice. I’m not sure whether her definition of perfection included the fact that, at three, not long after the Mr. McGregor nightmare, I learned to cast a few stitches onto needles as big around as my fingers and to knit a couple of rows while she made booties for the little sister about to be born. No bears could reach me on the sofa beside my Mummy, as I awkwardly pressed the tip of one needle against the other.

… in learning to knit, I was also learning to take my place in the tribe.

In A.A. Milne’s “Disobedience” (a poem my sisters and I still recite with fervor), although three-year-old James James Morrison Morrison “Took great / Care of his Mother,” that naughty woman wandered off by herself, going “down to the end of the town,” never to be heard from again. My tattered copy of When We Were Very Young falls open to the pages of this poem, stamped repeatedly with a pointing finger, as if to say, “Urgent message, pay attention.” If I persisted with my little piece of ragged knitting, I could keep my mother nearby, be sure neither of us roamed beyond sight.

And in learning to knit, I was also learning to take my place in the tribe. In the forties and on into the fifties, at least among the women I remember in Summit, New Jersey, and at the lake in New Hampshire where we spent summers, knitting was a communal ritual.

Portraits à la campagne, 1876
(Oil on canvas, 95 x 111 cm)
BY Gustave Caillebotte
Musée Baron Gérard, Bayeux

Before dinner, ice tinkling in highball glasses, the women’s knitting needles clinked steadily. Summer mornings on the dock at Squam with the water rocking the planks, evenings in wicker chairs by the fire, women knitted. On benches by the tennis courts, their needles clicking in counterpoint to the whack of the ball, they knitted. “Match point,” as the needles kept pace with feet racing to the net. I know women also played tennis, but I remember the socks-in-progress for husbands, fathers, sons, the sweaters for children, mothers, grandfathers, each other, or for themselves. A pair of argyles, a cable-knit sweater: a sign that someone’s warm fingers had worked those yarns.

But we left that tribe before I turned five, moving to Phoenix for my father’s health. Though my parents thrived in the hot sun, I felt left out in the cold, no longer warmed by my grandma’s velvety arms and lap, my grandfather’s booming laugh.

In our move, I now realize, we changed not only regions, but also classes. Oh, I know we in the United States are supposed to be a classless society, but there’s a chasm between that sunny ideal and the multi-shaded realities of our lives. My father’s parents’ friends and neighbors in suburban New Jersey included lawyers, doctors, and publishers (one of Pop’s closest friends ran Town and Country). My father and his friends were graduates of Harvard, Princeton, or Yale and condescended to those with degrees from lesser institutions like Bucknell, Bowdoin, or Colgate.

Few of our new neighbors had ever stepped on a college campus. In Arizona, the people around us did not play tennis, and the women did not knit. In a short story called “Knitting,” Susan Sherman depicts it as a WASP predilection. On hearing that her daughter Dotsy is learning how, the Jewish mother of the piece says: “I can’t believe this. Jews don’t knit.” But WASP as our new neighborhood was, when women took a minute to sit down, they folded laundry or picked up Reader’s Digest, a cigarette, or Life, not knitting needles.

I was not only an East Coast transplant in the South-
western desert, but I spoke with traces of my mother’s lingering English accent.

My sister and I didn’t lose our mittens like the little kittens of nursery-rhyme fame — but once in Arizona, I never saw them again. We seldom needed jackets. I cried most of the morning in kindergarten, frightened by our stern-browed teacher. The other kids warned me about the dangers of watermelon seeds: it was general knowledge, and I needed to know, that if you swallowed a single black watermelon seed, it would sprout overnight into a vine, its tendrils leafing out through your nostrils, ears, and other orifices. It could rip apart your whole body. Home finally in the afternoon, I could keep my mother close by enlisting her help with knitting.

All around us everyone spoke differently. My diction was the butt of neighbors’ jokes. I was not only an East Coast transplant in the Southwestern desert, but I spoke with traces of my mother’s lingering English accent. Brought up in proper upper-middle-class British fashion by nannies and governesses, Mom was an excellent teacher. But her definitions of maternal care did not include shows of affection. To my mother, fondling, stroking, and kissing were overly intimate, tasteless displays of effusion; perhaps, from her Anglophilic perspective, they were too French. I honestly can’t remember a hug from her until, some time in the late seventies, after my son was born, I began, when saying goodbye, to put my arms around her, a gesture she endured with stiff shoulders and upright spine. Others may fondly remember the comfort of their mothers’ soft arms or bosoms; I think of my mother’s jangling jewelry, the clack of her high heels.

And her clothes. One form of needlework the women around us in Arizona did was sewing. You saved money if you made your own. Some time in the fifties, after we moved from Phoenix to Tucson, my mother began sewing in earnest. She had always darned. I still have her darning “egg,” on whose umbrella-shaped top is etched “Another Darned Hole.” But darning was like ironing, necessary and tedious. In New Jersey, my mother had taken our dirty clothes to Grandma’s live-in housekeeper to be washed and ironed; in Arizona, she was on her own. Yet even with three daughters to care for and a husband needing six pressed white shirts a week, she made all our curtains and most of our dresses. Her designs were so striking she was featured in The Tucson Daily Citizen modeling one of her burlap skirts laden with bright strips of braid. On a revamped treadle machine, she made “squaw dresses” (all the rage, though in colors and designs no Navajo woman would have recognized) for her daughters and her friends. She would have won the grand prize in a state contest if Daddy hadn’t refused to let her accept on the grounds that it might hurt his budding career in banking. He couldn’t have it known that his wife was a seamstress.

The Seamstress, 1916
(Oil on canvas, 92.71 × 71.12 cm)
BY Joseph DeCamp
Corcoran Gallery of Art

She taught me to sew too. By junior high, I was making my own gathered skirts. Mom would interrupt her chores and come sit right beside me on the sofa, show me how to make a tidy placket. And once I was in high school, needlework again became a tribal activity: my girlfriends sewed their own clothes too. At Jacomé’s Department Store, we took summer classes from women sent by Simplicity’s New York headquarters. These missionaries were intent on bringing the world of high fashion to us barbarians in the provinces. But even though their condescension cut sharply as our scissors, we soaked up their wisdom, learned their tricks in adapting patterns. Inserting the zipper was an intricate procedure, yet we doggedly persisted.

Sewing our own clothes meant that we could have a few new dresses for school. The sewing machine, however, was noisy. And a certain tension always infused the construction of these clothes. Once a dress was finished, there was always the chance that I might not like it (and the certainty I’d know its imperfections).

When my mother made me a dress, she would interrupt my reading mid-chapter and insist I come to her while she pinned things to me, pricking. “Stand still, this will just take a minute,” she said, but it always took longer. When I sewed my own clothes, it was my fingers that were pricked by the pins and needles. Sometimes the thread knotted around the bobbin under the old Singer’s needle, and I’d have to use nail scissors to cut away the tangle, pick out the messy threads from the fabric, and start all over again. Tedious work. Often I would rather have been reading.

By the time I was nine, we had lived in nine different apartments or houses. Every year a different neighborhood, and almost every year, another school. Over and over, threads to the past were cut; with each move, last year’s doll disappeared.

During most of the fifties, the whir of my mother’s sewing machine penetrated our walls. That is, when Daddy wasn’t home. Evenings were guarded, kept quiet for him after his long days at the bank. The living room had always been off limits to toys, dolls, coloring, or even board games. No mess, no noise in that room. If I wanted my father’s company, I had to be quiet and still. As much as I loved devouring them, novels were out of the question — I couldn’t follow both my parents’ and the pages’ dialogue.

So I did embroidery in the living room, as my parents sipped their high balls and puffed their Benson and Hedges. Mom had taught me cross stitching the same year she taught me plain knitting, about the time I also learned to read. As a preschooler, I could only make big x’s in uneven rows. X after x, the goal being to make each diagonal stitch identical. Mind-numbing, you might think, for an older girl. But for me, the repetition soothed. By the time I was nine, we had lived in nine different apartments or houses. Every year a different neighborhood, and almost every year, another school. Over and over, threads to the past were cut; with each move, last year’s doll disappeared.

Mom was always the instigator of the move—it would be a better house, a better neighborhood, we’d all be happier — but it must have been an prodigious amount of work, organizing and reorganizing, making new curtains. She prodded the vacuum like a snarling weapon, and her sighings, huffings, and puffings were audible throughout the house. If I was reading, which I did in my bedroom to avoid interruption, her sighs grew louder and the nose of the vacuum bumped my closed door. But if I was sewing in the living room, the vacuum left me alone. And if I needed help, she would turn it off, come sit down.

A Girl Couching with Golden Thread, 1826
(Oil on canvas, 81,3 х 63,9)
BY Vasily Andreevich Tropinin
The State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

Even my father seemed not to mind my needle and thread. I could imbibe my parents’ talk in the evening while following the predictable rows of little x’s inked on white linen. All those cross-stitched roses, peacocks decorating borders of tablecloths that were never used and that I’ve long since lost. The silky threads of pink and peach, blue and green, lavender. Within the metal hoop that held my fabric taut, I could keep my own rhythm, make my own pattern on the soft cloth, while sitting across from their chairs.

Nobody else I knew embroidered. Not even my mother. It wasn’t until years later that I learned a proclivity for needles and thread may have been a family trait: Mom’s Aunt Fancy served as the Royal Broiderer, responsible for decorating Queen Mary’s evening bags and gowns with sequins, beads, and golden threads. But I knew nothing of embroidery’s historical place in women’s lives. I had no idea it had been a middle- and upper-middle class activity for women and girls who could afford to have their dresses made and mended by someone else. I did not know that in the nineteenth century it had been one of the skills taught young ladies, like watercolors, or the piano. I had not yet read Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s scathing condemnation of embroidery as one of the useless, ornamental skills required of genteel women in the nineteenth century. I did not know how novelists like Brontë and Gaskell portrayed their female characters bending over embroidery hoops, enduring eyestrain and stiff necks, all the while straining to appear graceful and ornamental —dutiful yet desirable — while quietly listening to the conversations conducted by the men on whose survival they depended.

I didn’t know that my needlework put me in the company of all those women. That my mother probably encouraged my sewing and knitting because she had been encouraged by her mother. That this was a “suitable activity” for a nice young girl. There I was in the nineteen-fifties, like Jane Eyre in the drawing room, plying my needle while surreptitiously devouring the grown-ups’ talk. I’m sure, though, that, as a gawky, buck-toothed adolescent adorned in braces, glasses, crumpled shorts, and scufffed sandals, I bore little resemblance to those “nice young girls” of earlier eras.

I did not know how novelists like Brontë and Gaskell portrayed their female characters bending over embroidery hoops, enduring eyestrain and stiff necks, all the while straining to appear graceful and ornamental —dutiful yet desirable…

In Ronald Maxwell’s cinematic Civil War saga Gods and Generals, a Virginia mother and her grown daughters bend demurely over their sewing, charming a gentlemanly group of officers bound for the front. Gracefully, rhythmically, almost hypnotically, the women’s arms lift their shimmering threads. When their handiwork is revealed, we see that these female members of the Southern aristocracy have been quilting a Confederate flag, a gift for their menfolk to carry into battle. Their soft white hands are not sullied by practical necessities like mending shirts or darning socks. And swathed in the voluminous dresses of the era, the women bent chastely over their work are as seductive as members of any seraglio, and at least one of them during this subtle scene wins the heart of a young officer.

I’m afraid I never learned to use needlework seductively. I had no idea the very act of sewing could be viewed sexually, as it is, for instance, in seventeenth-century Dutch emblems, which provocatively describe the needle’s regular, repeated “strokes” in penetrating the yielding cloth. Yet I was determined to knit a pair of socks for my high school boyfriend, a project I worked on while our family watched TV after dinner. During one summer I also made him a shirt, a project so ambitious I almost gave up, especially when trying to insert the collar. Working on these pieces of cloth that would lie next to his chest and feet, I could dreamily replay our fondlings in his family’s Chevy. Not unlike the obsessed fan played by Sandra Bernhard in Martin Scorsese’s King of Comedy who knits a sweater for the TV star she idolizes, I knitted and sewed to feel closer to my boyfriend.

And with the products of my needles, I was advertising my mating potential no more subtly than a male peacock fanning his tail. The traditional association of needlework with morally commendable women described in Proverbs 31: 10-13 had trickled into my consciousness: “Who can find a virtuous woman? For her price is far above rubies . . . She seeketh wool, and flax, and worketh willingly with her hands.” I would make a good wife, I was saying with my gifts, even though I also suspected that this boy and I would never manage marriage.

I felt like a stitch dropped so far down in a piece of knitting that no one would ever be able to pick me up again.

It was another of our family’s moves that caused us to break up. In my senior year, my father was promoted, and we moved back to Phoenix. Only months later, I found myself once again in Tucson, unpacking my suitcases in Manzanita Dorm at the University of Arizona. I didn’t want to be there. I’d had scholarships to women’s colleges Back East, but my father said no; since I’d only be getting married and having children, it would be a bad investment. By then, my family and I had moved seventeen times; I had attended twelve different schools in thirteen years. And during that time, the U. of A. had been dubbed and dismissed by my father, a cum laude graduate of Princeton (class of ’39) and now reaching the top of a regional bank’s chain of command, as a fraternity-run party school for yahoos.

Melville writes in Moby-Dick of the life-line, the “monkey rope” that secures Queequeg working in the water to Ishmael moored more safely in the boat. Bound together, their survival depends on each other. Suddenly, it seemed that no one held the other end of my line. And when I confessed to him, timidly, my ambition to study literature and write, he scoffed, “You? What would you have to say?” I felt like a stitch dropped so far down in a piece of knitting that no one would ever be able to pick me up again.

Dalecarlian Girl Knitting. Cabbage Margit, 1901
(Oil on canvas, 72 x 57 cm )
BY Anders Zorn
The National Museum of Sweden

So I knitted. My grades plummeted while I made sweaters for myself that I wore even when the temperature soared above seventy. Knit one, pearl two — I knitted during sorority meetings while curfews were decided. I knitted while alumnae teas were planned. Knitted instead of reading Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave.” The woolly fabric growing in my lap, the plush ball of yarn by my side. Perhaps the pace of Madame DeFarge’s knitting needles that Dickens describes as so “disconcerting” to all around her was not only a display of stony revolutionary zeal; perhaps it was also a way of steadying herself during a time a person could be annihilated in a flash. A way of steeling herself at the sight of all those severed heads.

I was married after my sophomore year, to the only man I knew other than my father who liked to quote poems over dinner. (Larry was particularly fond of Robert Browning, and I can still hear him growling, “G-r-r-r, there go, my heart’s abhorrence!” over a pepperoni pizza.) He was also a gifted high school music director, the only man I knew with an interest in classical music as passionate as that of my father, who, in rare moments of exuberance, mimicked Toscanini in our living room.

The following summer we moved to San Bernardino, where the phenobarbital a doctor prescribed (to counteract the side-effects of an asthma medication he had also prescribed) caused hallucinations. The psychiatrist’s diagnosis was “schizophrenia.” Shock treatments, he said, were the only solution, filling out forms to commit me to the state mental institution. Instead, Larry hurriedly made reservations for us both to fly back to Phoenix.

Recovering among the orange groves of a sanatorium, I knitted. And knitted. Too tranquillized to follow even a paragraph of a novel, I made sweaters for my family, who could visit me for only fifteen minutes at a time, and not even every day. I knitted a dark brown crew-neck pullover for my husband, a bright yellow angora V-neck vest for his sister, an olive green cable-knit cardigan for me. Increasingly intricate patterns. Two knit, three pearl. Seed stitch. My mother brought me the wool. Over and over, holding on to the needles, the yarn — rope that pulled me through.

I never took up knitting needles again after that, casting off my knitting career at its peak. But my fascination with threads — their colors and textures — intensified.

While the violence in Vietnam and at Kent State raged on our black-and-white TV, I studied books on crewel embroidery, became adept
at dozens of stitches…

Settled in Phoenix, my husband and I befriended a couple of artists, potters, who expanded my notions of fabric art. Embroidery didn’t have to be confined to a small metal hoop — a length of fabric could take over a whole wall, like a painting. While Larry used the second bedroom of our apartment for his woodworking projects, I threaded big-eyed needles with thick, bright wools and shaped oversized flowers rising from strong stems. I finally finished my B.A., with honors, at Arizona State in Tempe, and was teaching high school English, discovering e.e. cummings along with my students. I began writing regularly — bits, threads of thoughts I jotted at night and between classes.

By the time Larry and I moved to Berkeley in the late sixties, my stitched designs were stretching to the borders of wide swaths of burlap. Abstract patterns of seed heads, grasses, branches hung on our walls. I also brightened our living room sofa by embroidering pillow covers. While the violence in Vietnam and at Kent State raged on our black-and-white TV, I studied books on crewel embroidery, became adept at dozens of stitches, not just satin and chain, but herringbone and wheat ear, Romanian and Pekinese.

At the school where I taught in West Berkeley, knife fights erupted daily, bombs were confiscated from lockers, and students overdosing by the railroad tracks were hauled away in ambulances. Sometimes we never saw them again, their brains fried. Tear gas polluted Telegraph Avenue as the National Guard circled their helicopters overhead. Black Muslims, Black Panthers, encounter groups, anti-war demonstrations. Thread by thread, the old order unraveled.

Fringes. Ponchos, moccasins, strings of beads. Let your hair down, let it all hang out. But Larry made fun of Judy Collins and Bob Dylan, wouldn’t listen to The Who. He was already over thirty, four years older than I, an age gap that felt like a decade, as kaleidoscopic and psychedelic patterns swirled in the air like fog spiraling through the Golden Gate. At times, as it is with heavy fog, it was hard to see where you were going.

If regions, races, sexes, and even generations were clashing all around me, then perhaps I could weave them together, construct a fabric that included us all.

Sometimes I felt as though I’d been dropped into a labyrinth with nothing to lead me out. A beguiling labyrinth, true, but confusing and exhausting. Tall, slim, and blond, I was suspect by many simply because of my coloring, and sexual target for many, also because of my coloring. I indulged in a torrid interracial affair. Larry spent his evenings in rehearsals, increasingly involved with his students.

The pillowcases’ fabric I had embroidered began to fray and tear — I hadn’t known you needed to use good quality linen. I learned that from Helen Roller, the remedial reading specialist at our school. Helen’s unruly gray hair coiled under a comb at the back of her head; her comfortable breasts and shoulders rounded her hand-woven shawls. She knew about berries for dye. And looms. She encouraged me to weave. While giving me pointers on enticing recalcitrant fourteen-year-old boys to read, she took me under her wing. Like a soft-feathered hen with a new chick, she brought me yarns, how-to books, signed me up for classes.

I wove on backstrap looms, pulling woof threads through the warp in colors no one would have thought could lie together, colors of Northeast and Southwest, and of the Pacific coast, palest pastels, blackest indigo, and dazzling neons. If regions, races, sexes, and even generations were clashing all around me, then perhaps I could weave them together, construct a fabric that included us all.

My work with yarn now marked me as an integral member of the tribe; almost everyone was into fabric those years, if only making macramé belts or plant holders. Papers from my ninth-grade students piled ungraded on the table. I wove with thick mohair and thin worsteds, with shiny ribbons and crinkled string, with metallic glitter and angora fluff, and made wall hangings from bits of bark, moss, twigs, and eucalyptus bells. I sat on the floor and wove until the motion was regular as breathing, as my pulse. I took extension classes at night with an instructor who urged me to apply to U.C. Berkeley’s M.F.A. program in fabric art. Helen gave me a comb — a hand-carved, hand-rubbed, golden-brown curved tool to press the woof threads down, firmly, into the growing cloth. While shifting the gears of my pale gray VW Beetle in East Bay traffic, I designed weavings in my mind.

I began to envision a tapestry eight feet tall… The trees would be very different, one rough-textured and thick-trunked, erect and dark, the other slim and multi-trunked, birch-like in its mottled bark, with silvery leaves. But underground their roots would be… twining about each other till you couldn’t tell which belonged to which tree. A metaphor for the marriage I wished I had.

I began to envision a tapestry eight feet tall. It would have to be six feet wide to incorporate my design of two huge trees side by side. The trees would be very different, one rough-textured and thick-trunked, erect and dark, the other slim and multi-trunked, birch-like in its mottled bark, with silvery leaves. But underground their roots would be the same shades of cream and beige, their root hairs twining about each other till you couldn’t tell which belonged to which tree. A metaphor for the marriage I wished I had.

Larry actually encouraged my weaving, and once even offered to buy an eight-harness loom. We were spending the weekend in Morro Bay, and came upon the studio whose magazine ads for hand-made looms made me drool. But though the honey-colored wooden looms and Larry’s prompting — “Go ahead, we can put it on MasterCard” — tempted, I walked out of the studio, finally acknowledging it was not threads I wanted to spend my life weaving, but words. I wasn’t picturing myself interlacing strands of yarn between those silkily rubbed beams; suddenly I was thinking of the books lining the shelves of the bookstore down the street.

In that moment I decided on graduate school. To study the threaded patterns of prose and poetry, weave my own syllabic and syntactic designs. It was words I wanted, language, the words of others interwoven with mine.

One night I dreamed I left a dimly lit, stuffy, second-story room crowded with rows of silent, shivering women bent over their sewing at narrow tables. Downstairs, I sauntered unfettered through a wide, breezy, sunlit hallway that resembled the first floor of the Literature and Languages Building at Arizona State University, where I finished my Master of Arts degree in English.

Philomela’s only way to voice her history was through her threads — a silent scream, a mute art. I left off stooping over needles and yarn. Turned away from those cramped definitions of a virtuous woman. Speech after long silence. And finally, I did read Plato. Came out of a cave into the light.

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