Storm light

Published on Sunday April 21st, 2013


Fitful spring weather is all the more exciting when you’ve ventured out in your socks to count the blossoms that have formed on the blueberry bushes and to check whether the carrots are sprouting. (They are!) Down comes the first spatter, but isn’t that a hint of rainbow forming? Where? Why? We shelter on the neighbors’ porch, improvising seats among the firewood, the six of us crafting silly sentences of words that rhyme with stump, talking about sun and rain all at the same once, squawking odes to the plush fur and convenient stature of Corgi dogs, speculating on the pleasures of Meyer lemons in cocktails. (They make a splendid whiskey sour, it turns out, and simple syrup made with coconut sugar is a perfectly good idea. You want an ounce and a half of whiskey, an ounce of Meyer lemon juice, and less than half an ounce of the syrup. We don’t own a shaker so we just dropped in a couple of ice cubes and stirred. You won’t be sorry if you do the same.)

This was Monday. We didn’t talk about the tragedy with the littles amongst us. (Ada happened to have selected, that morning, a beautiful shirt with ABC’s on it from a new batch of hand-me-downs: BOSTON RED SOX.) But in the face of all that’s been wrong with the world this week, that convivial moment, happenstance in the golden light amid the raindrops, was especially good.



Published on Saturday February 2nd, 2013

Lately I have been opening boxes. In a strange convergence of family moves seven years ago, a surprising number of my ancestors came to live in my house just as I was buying it from my aunt. My great great grandparents gaze mildly down from their gilt frames in the living room, apparently serene about the move from their brownstone in Gilded Age Manhattan. Great Aunt Priscilla watches over my daughter’s bedroom from her faded pencil portrait, her wide blue eyes and little mouth reminding me of my son. Here are my grandmother’s purple chairs and here her needlework, here her desk and here her Shaker broom, and there on the mantle the giant sugar pine cones she brought home from a trip to California long ago. On the shelf below are a few of the dishes a world-traveling great grandfather collected in China. It’s cozy in here with all these generations crowded together. And there is far more family residue still to sort, still in the brown boxes stamped Arnoff Moving & Storage.

One large carton contains the innards of Granny’s desk, which spanned a whole room with large windows from which she could watch the cardinals and wild turkeys and chipmunks and all the creatures of the Connecticut woods about their business in the leaf litter. There are large boxes of “boilfast” thread (I tested each wooden spool to winnow out the rotten ones and take them to my children’s school, where they’ll be put to creative use) and assorted buttons (I smiled at the good—cunning tiny badminton birdies carved of wood—and frowned at the bad: large handmade pink ceramic freeform shapes that strongly resemble feminine anatomy I shan’t mention on the internet). There is an ivory mechanical pencil printed “On To Alaska With Buchanan;” Professor Google tells me a Detroit coal merchant named George Buchanan led expeditions of young people up north between 1923 and 1938…was my grandfather one of those adventurers? There are ancient knitting pins—and I use the old term because pins they are. My modern needle gauges haven’t enough zeros to tell you just how fine they are. About the diameter of a standard paper clip, some of them. And folded into a stack of fabric squares was a girl’s needlework sampler. From 1796.

What does one do with such a treasure? It’s in poor shape, full of holes and bleed marks (the green dyes must have been particularly difficult to fix), badly faded on the front side, with much of the text simple vanished where the black thread has disintegrated. The most tantalizing details, the girl’s name and her age, are lost forever. Miss -bottom, we’ll have to call her, which isn’t a very dignified moniker for an artist. But the year stands proud. 1796. Twenty years after the Declaration of Independence. (But is this sampler even American? Granny’s family was half English, so perhaps not. And would an American girl have stitched crowns on her sampler? Someone out there probably knows enough about the iconography of the time and the needle arts to tell me.) I don’t know how to begin to preserve this piece of history… clearly not folded in quarters, but I daren’t even try to iron it out now.

At some point the little wheels began to turn in my mind. When I was at Bowdoin College I encountered the photography of Abelardo Morell. At the time he was working with books and maps as his subjects. I was hooked. Seriously, go click through his gallery. I’ll wait. Don’t miss this one near the end.

And now I’ve started to wonder if there might be way to translate this venerable piecework into another medium. Sadly, I don’t have Morell’s skills with a camera. But when I turned my lens to these threads and looked closely, I found fairy tale beasts…

… and allegories: beware, little girl. The fabric is frayed. You are standing at the raveled edge.

There is something so touching about the human imperative to impose beauty and order on an uncertain and often brutal life. The verses this girl chose, stitching each letter so neatly and minutely, framing them with a fretwork of flowering vines and an exuberance of embroidered blossoms… I looked them up, relying on the salient phrases I could decipher to lead me to the origin.

“LORD, I confess thy sentence just, That sinful man should turn to dust; That I e’er long should yield my breath, The captive of all conqu’ring death. Soon will the awful hour appear, When I must quit my dwelling here: These active limbs, to worms a prey, in the cold grave must waste away; Nor shall I share in all that’s done, in this wide world beneath the sun.”   –The Works of Philip Doddridge, Volume 5, Lesson XXI, On death

In 1796, how many people had this child already lost? How many playmates dead of fever, how many aunts or cousins in childbed, perhaps her own brother or sister tucked in the earth after accident or illness? It grieves me to think of someone her age calmly (and, it must be said, with a fine eye for typography) working those resigned phrases, feeling their weight as she must have done. And yet I have to admire her gumption in juxtaposing those somber reflections with that fanciful botany. The other passage she chose was from James Thomson’s 1726 poem “Winter:”

“Father of Light and Life! thou Good Supreme! / O teach me what is good! teach me thyself! / Save me from folly, vanity, and vice, / From every low pursuit! and feed my soul / With knowledge, conscious peace, and virtue pure; / Sacred, substantial, never fading bliss!”

(Our Miss -bottom sensibly reigned in the punctuation.) Knowledge, conscious peace, morning glories, and exquisite little red deer against the cold grave. Wise child. I will treasure your tiny stitches.

Turning two

Published on Wednesday August 29th, 2012

I’m back!

And with that preface, I’m just going to dump out the news of our last two months. (Right after I apologize that there isn’t actually any knitting when I promised there would be. I don’t have pictures of Jolly in his cute Baby Surprise Jacket and I’m not even sure it fits anymore, but if you’re a knitter you’ve seen umpteen hundred of them, so just picture one in Noro Silk Garden Sock with a baby filling it up and you’ll have it exactly.)

The children and I had three lovely weeks up home with my parents, with Mr. G in and out as work allowed. Some highlights:

Knitters, note that the Minni jacket in size 6-9 months fits perfectly now!

Our Ada is two! Two means lots of new words and new charm and new willpower, as everyone who’s had a two-year-old could certainly have told me. Two is for somersaults. Two is for near-perfect sentences: “I find purple shell for you, Granny!” Two is for swinging on the big-girl swing that Granddaddy erected on the lawn and holding tightly so you don’t fall down. Two is for “NO!” and “MINE!” Two is for “Ada Lillian do it SELF.” Two is for singing songs. Two is for imaginary cooking and imaginary napping. Two is for running and jumping and throwing sticks in the pond and wiggling your brother’s tiny toes and brushing your teeth with toothpaste: “Eat it? Noooo! Rub teeth. Spit sink!” So many things to practice. So many things to try.

We visited my friend Elsa’s horses. The mustang colt was especially friendly. Ada was unafraid and is still talking about the experience: “Baby horse… tickle you bottom… wiv… whiskers!” The cherries from Elsa’s orchard rank equally high in her memory, it must be said. Later we watched some Olympic dressage; Ada clapped for the dancing horses and fed them peas through the television.

The beach. Our beaches are rocky, not sandy, and there seems to be a general compulsion in small children to send all the pebbles back into the sea. My mother coached Ada on her throwing technique so fewer of them would fly off at surprising angles. My girl waded happily into the frigid water and didn’t mind when her clothes got wet. I think I can safely bet it was the first time anyone ever danced the hula hop in the Salish Sea.

Swimming in the lake with the fish who investigated Mama’s bare toes. To hear Ada tell it, sitting on a towel and eating puffs afterward was just as rewarding. (Do you spot a theme emerging?)

Visiting — all too briefly — with our New York family, who made the arduous flight out with their own two-year-old. The little girls played duets on the piano, alternately shared and argued over toys, and kept the house bright with noise and action. Alas, they didn’t alter each other’s habits for the better in the realms of napping, bathing, eating, or going to sleep at night.

Trips to the farmers’ market for raspberries, tomatoes, snap peas, and pizza, plus music and dancing. A friend told me she’d overheard some tourists asking whether the market was real, apparently thinking it was too folksy to be authentic. Five-week-old Jolly was mistaken for a four-month-old.

Evenings of good food and good chat in the tiny cabin of a friend who’s building a straw bale house, catching up with dear people I see too seldom now.

An expedition to the tank at the marine labs, where Ada got to roll up her sleeves and touch the sea stars and urchins. Our friend Aimee gave her a plum afterward, so you can guess how the narration goes.

A new haircut for Mama.

Many pairs of loving hands to bounce and cradle the baby, who gave me his first smiles on my birthday and will now grin and coo irresistibly at anyone who wants to tell him how handsome he is.

So life is sweet here — not without its maddening moments when I turn to Mr. G and mime a Munch-ish scream over our daughter’s head, but as a sage mother of four grown children pointed out to me, if they were perfectly compliant all the time they’d be bland, and who wants to raise bland people?

Next up: Sewing! With pictures and everything! And then knitting. For real this time.

A blustery day

Published on Friday March 30th, 2012

Three generations of girls and a couple of happy dogs at the tidal flats:

Thanks to my father for these pictures. There was a cold wind up and Ada had just woken from her nap, but she gradually warmed to peeking under the rocks for crabs and touching the various seaweeds and barnacles and laughing at the dogs sprinting through the shallow water and snapping at the wavelets coming ashore. When she’d explored enough for one chilly afternoon, she firmly took my finger in her little hand and used her newest word: “Home?” She meant we should go back to the house where I grew up. Yes, baby girl. This place is part of your home, too.