My grandmother’s voice has been in my mind this week because I have been sitting at the sewing machine almost every day. She was a constant, loving presence in my childhood and may be the reason I continue to work with cloth. Here she is (wearing her favorite color) at her 90th birthday party in 1983, waving off the camera.
She – we called her Nanny – was from a big farm family with German/Luxembourg roots that settled in Kandiohi County in western Minnesota (flat, glacial lakes, rich black soil.). (Interesting fact: kandiohi is from the Lakota language meaning “where-the-buffalo-fish-come.” After that lots of Germans, Irish, Swedes and Norwegians came.) She had an 8th grade education and after that went to dressmaking school. Her sister, my great-aunt Mary, also handy with the sewing machine, made her amazing wedding dress. She married my grandpa (“Pop”) in 1917.
I can evoke her presence when I call to mind her kind voice and her hands. During overnight visits, she would set me up with little sewing tasks, worked on mostly by hand, but sometimes using the old cast iron Singer with the knee pedal. There were bound buttonholes, pot holders, doll clothes. (My sisters developed great sewing skills making doll clothes.) I learned about finger-pressing – it works really well on linen!
My dad had a serious hobby taking pictures, which he explored deeply while recovering from a serious illness in the mid-1950’s. He left the family with a treasure trove of hundreds of 35 mm slides, which have been stored in boxed carousels for decades. Recently one of my sisters had them scanned, 3 sets at a time. The photo below is one of the many photos that conjure up the presence of beloved ancestors. My brother’s words enrich my experience of this photo of my grandfather and great-aunt, which was taken before I was born.
“The picture from the latest batch was taken in the living room at Pop and Nanny’s house on 2nd Avenue South in 1952 or 1953. It brought back many good memories. As you can tell from the houses across the street, this was a nice south Minneapolis neighborhood with elms arching over the street. The west side of the street, where the house is, was taken for the construction of 35W. The east side may still be there but I am not sure about this. Date is based on our 1952 Buick parked at the curb. Must have been Thanksgiving or an early Easter. On his Banker’s day off, Pop wears a fancy silk-like shirt that would be fashionable today. Notice the well-chewed stogie in hand with more in the shirt pocket. That’s not coke in Aunt Margaret’s glass.”
During the sacred time around the death of my mom last month, I was keenly aware of how memory and story weave past into present, and present into future, and yet how everything seems to be here simultaneously. My mom passed away on September 17th. September was her favorite month. She was buried on the autumnal equinox the day before what would have been my dad’s 96th birthday. I’m reminded of the line from the lovely Stanley Kunitz poem, “Live in the layers, not on the litter.”
I’m contemplating the ideas in a book rich with poetic imagery about houses — The Poetics of Space by Gaston Bachelard, first published in France in 1958. The author started his career as a philosopher of science and ended it as a philosopher of the imagination! It’s a slow read, which is fine because I underline many passages, savor them, and then go back to them weeks later. I opened the book at random this morning and came across these gems …
“If we have retained an element of dream in our memories, if we have gone beyond merely assembling exact recollections, bit by bit the house that was lost in the mists of time will appear from out the shadow. We do nothing to reorganize it; with intimacy it recovers its entity, in the mellowness and imprecision of the inner life.” (p.57)
In pondering the qualities of cottage vs. the “manor,” Bachelard muses, “To sleep well we do not need to sleep in a large room, and to work well we do not have to work in a den. But to dream of a poem, then write it, we need both…Thus the dream house must possess every virtue. However spacious, it must also be a cottage, a dove-cote, a nest, a chrysalis. Intimacy needs the heart of a nest.” (p.64)
Then I think of my sister’s house, which always stirs me to daydream and remember.