Stiches

Thirty-six years ago, my mother called up her best friend Dorothy Lob, and asked Dorothy if she would come help with some sewing. I was about to head off to college, and my mother wanted to sew name tags into my clothing, and on all my sheets and blankets.

I was not allowed to help with the sewing. For all that she was a feminist, my mother never taught me to sew, never let me learn how to use her sewing machine, washing machine or dryer, or her iron or her ironing board. My sisters were allowed, even required, to learn how to use these things, but I was a boy, and boys mostly didn’t work with cloth and fabric. I was, however, allowed to hang out laundry to dry on the clothesline upon occasion, and in this I suspect that my mother was more progressive than her mother.

Although I was not allowed to sew, I did have to sit with Dorothy and my mother while they sewed on the name tags. We sat around the dining room table one bright summer day, and Dorothy was her usual cheerful self, chatting away and making my mother laugh and smile. Dorothy had a musical German accent; she had grown up Jewish in Germany, and had fled to America to escape the Nazis. I never heard her talk about it, but my mother said that was why she wanted nothing to do with organized religion, and that was why she could not believe in any god who could let something like that happen.

I vaguely remember helping fold clothes, and handing things to my mother and to Dorothy; mostly I probably just got in the way. I definitely remember that Dorothy was faster at sewing on name tags than my mother, and even I could see that she took less care at it. My mother took small careful stitches, securing each end of the name tag, while Dorothy sewed in big, bold stitches that quickly circled the entire name tag.

Although all the clothes I brought with me to college have long since gone to the rag bag, I still have some linens and bed clothes with those old name tags sewn in. I just found a comforter with a name tag sewn on by Dorothy:

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And I found an old towel with a name tag sewn on by my mother, so you can compare their stitches:

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Their sewing reveals something about each woman’s personality: Dorothy, bold and unafraid and exuberant; my mother, cautious and careful. After they had finished sewing and Dorothy had gone home, my mother looked at Dorothy’s sewing with with some disfavor, and worried aloud that the stitches would come out and the name tags would fall off; thirty-six years later, I can say with some assurance that her worries were unfounded.

With two children in college and another in middle school my mother never had time again to sew name tags on my clothes or linens. Both women are now dead, and the dining room in which we sat is gone because that house was torn down to put up a McMansion. I get a little catch in my throat sometimes when I catch sight of one of those old name tags: you can still see something of those two strong personalities in those stitches.

Sleepy Hollow Cemetery

I took a short trip to Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord, Mass., today to pay a visit to the grave of my favorite Transcendentalist. The bronze plaque that marks her grave reads:

Elizabeth Palmer Peabody
1804-1894
A Teacher of three generations of Children,
and the founder of Kindergarten in America.
Every humane cause had her sympathy,
and many her active aid.

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One of Elizabeth Palmer Peabody’s protegees was Lucy Wheelock, the founder of Wheelock College. My mother attended Wheelock College to train as a teacher, and learned from Lucy Wheelock herself. I learned some of my teaching skills from my mother, so Elizabeth Palmer Peabody was the teacher of a teacher of one of my teachers.

While I was there, I walked over to Author’s Ridge to walk by the graves of the most famous Transcendentalists buried in Concord: Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Louisa May Alcott. Tourists had piled small stones, pennies, and twigs on top of and around their gravestones.

Thirty years ago, no one piled stones or pennies on the authors’ gravestones. When this first started happening, it annoyed me, and I’d clean off the gravestones of all that litter. But now this act has become a part of New England folk culture, and you will not only see stones placed by tourists on the graves of famous people, but also stones placed by people on the graves of their family members. Now I leave the stones and twigs, although I still stop to sweep off the pennies, because the copper dissolves in New England’s slightly acidic rain and discolors the gravestones.

I wonder if this act of placing small stones arises out of some deeply-held religious memory in Western culture. These look like small cairns to me — in ancient Greek religion, Hermes, the god of travelers, dwelt in cairns — though gravestones don’t mark a physical path, they can mark a spiritual path.

My second favorite Transcendentalist is Louisa May Alcott. Her grave had no pennies (she’s worth more than a penny, I guess), but people had piled stones and twigs around her headstone with her initials — she’s in a family plot with a main gravestone, then all the family members have small stones with just their initials — and the flush stone with her full name that was installed later. Someone had left her a note, now in tatters from exposure to rain and sun, and unreadable. In the past, I’ve read other notes that people have left for her, saying how much her books have meant to them. I think about it this way: casual tourists can leave stones without any forethought; those whose lives have been changed by Alcott’s books think to leave a written memorial.

Grave of Louisa May Alcott

Above: Louisa May Alcott’s gravestone, Author’s Ridge, Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, Concord, Mass.

I couldn’t figure out who some graves get stones, and some don’t. Lidian Jackson Emerson, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s second wife, had stones piled on her gravestone, but Sophia Peabody Hawthorne, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s wife, had none. As much as I like Lidian Jackson Emerson, Sophia Peabody Hawthorne strikes me as the more impressive of the two women. Before she was married, Sophia Peabody pursued a career as an artist, something unheard of for women in early nineteenth century America; she was an intellectual, though somewhat overshadowed by her older sister Elizabeth, and part of the Transcendentalist circle. Does Lidian fill more of an archetypal role in the common religious imagination of New England folk culture? Or is it simply that the people who would value Sophia Peabody Hawthorne as an artist, and intellectual, and a symbol of early feminist consciousness are not the type of people who leave stones on graves?

Great Meadows, Concord, Mass.

It was a perfect New England summer day — breezy, about 85 degrees, gentle blue sky — so Carol and I decided to take a walk at Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge this afternoon.

Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge

Above: Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge, Concord, Mass., looking north over the lower impoundment

 

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Above: Northern Water Snake (Nerodia sipedon)
 

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Above: Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), with unidentified pollinator

The Saturday Bag

Mom got tired of her two children leaving their toys and belongings all over the house, and so she came up with the idea of the Saturday Bag. Mom explained how the Saturday Bag was going to work: If Jean or I left something around the house, she would pick it up and put it in a brown paper bag high up on the top shelf of the closet in the kitchen, where we could not reach it. On Saturday morning, she would bring down the Saturday Bag from its high shelf, open it up, and Jean and I could get back anything of ours that was in it.

Jean and I asked questions about how this was going to work. Would we really have to wait until Saturday morning to retrieve our belongings? Yes, said Mom calmly, we would. But what if we forgot, and left something in the kitchen? Mom said, then it will go into the Saturday Bag. And we won’t be able to get it until the next Saturday? That’s right, said Mom. What if we leave something out that’s too big to go inside the Saturday Bag? Then, said Mom, it will just go up on the top shelf next to the Saturday Bag.

This Saturday Bag idea worried me. I pretty much knew that sometime during the week I would forget and leave a favorite toy where it didn’t belong, and Mom would put it in the Saturday Bag. And of course I did leave things out, and they promptly went into the Saturday Bag. I have a vague memory of saying, Mom, I can’t find something-or-other — and Mom telling me that it was in the Saturday Bag. I have a distinct memory of looking up at the high closet shelf where the Saturday Bag was, knowing that some of my things were up there, in the Saturday Bag, where I couldn’t get them back until Saturday.

I was only about five years old, and so it seemed like it took forever for Saturday to arrive. It was a bright sunny morning. After breakfast, Mom reached up and took down the Saturday Bag. At last I had my toys back! But I knew, I just knew that it would all happen again in the coming week: once again I would forget and leave something out, and Mom would pick it up, and put it in the Saturday Bag.

I don’t think Mom kept the Saturday Bag idea going on for very long. Or maybe it went on for years, but I don’t remember it after the first few months because I got good at putting my toys and belongings away. Kindergarteners can be trained to put things away, and my mother had been a kindergarten teacher for a decade before she got married; if anyone could train a five year old boy and a seven year old girl, it was my mother.

Snow and dialect

On the last morning of my trip back east, it started snowing. I hadn’t seen snow falling for more than four years, not since we moved to the San Francisco Bay area. I got that familiar, mesmerized, contemplative feeling that you get when you watch snow falling; and almost immediately the worry kicked in: will this affect driving? will my flight be delayed? are my shoes waterproofed? Fortunately the snow stopped after about ten minutes, leaving no accumulation: I got the pleasure of seeing it without all the discomfort that goes along with snow.

While I was in the Boston area, it was interesting to again speak in what the linguists call Eastern New England dialect — popularly known as a “Boston accent,” though really there are several Boston accents which are a subset of Eastern New England dialect, and actually my accent is west of Boston, with a does of New Bedford from my time living there. Whatever my accent, or the accent of the natives I talked with, I found it’s much easier for me to communicate when speaking Eastern New England dialect, and I realized I always feel there’s always something missing when I have to speak American Standard English, that bastard dialect of television and movies that lacks subtlety and emotional nuance.

Memoir

I’ve been leading a monthly memoir writing at church. I do the exercises, too, and recently I wrote about something that happened almost exactly thirty years ago this week. So here are my memories of that day. I’ve changed the names, because there’s no reason to give those names to intrusive search engines.

August —, 1982

During the summer, the lumberyard always hired someone extra to help out in the in the yard, and to help out stocking shelves in the store. Summers were busy, and there was always at least a truck driver, or one of the yardmen, or the stock clerk, on vacation. One summer they hired Bud, whose father worked in the building trades, and who lived in one of the streets back in behind the lumberyard. He was a few years younger than I, which means he must have been seventeen or eighteen. If you saw him, you’d describe him immediately as a good guy: he was always smiling and cheerful, he always worked hard and he was in great shape.

Continue reading “Memoir”