Sunday, May 10, 2015

Middle-of-the-Night Mothering

            I'm on the desert planet Dune, and there is sand everywhere.  Everything is turning to sand, even my clothing. I can feel the gritty texture of my t-shirt as it becomes sand, and I know I have to get it off me.  I catapult out of bed and find myself standing in front of my bathroom vanity, holding my night-shirt in my hand. 

            Wait, what just happened?  I'm confused, the fever making it difficult to distinguish dream from reality.  I put my night-shirt on again and go back to bed, where I find myself again on the desert planet Dune.  Everything is turning to sand . . .

            After two or three repetitions of this sequence, when I keep waking up in my bathroom, having taken off my shirt in my feverish delirium, I finally go to my mother's bedroom, where she is sleeping.

            "Mummy?  I keep having bad dreams."

            I'm not sure what I expect, but within minutes she sets herself up to sleep in my bedroom, over my somewhat embarrassed protests.  She ignores my half-hearted attempt to shoo her back to her own room and settles down to sleep on the floor.  I lay back in my bed, feeling strangely comforted by her presence.  There are no more nightmares that night.

            I have other memories of middle-of-the-night mothering, although not all are so detailed.  I remember waking up in the middle of the night feeling alone and vulnerable.  I would go to my mother, and she was always able to make me feel better.  These are probably the most canonical mothering memories I have -- I'm frightened and needy, and she is utterly dependable, capable, and nurturing. 

            Asking for nurturance is a moment of vulnerability, when we expose our need for caring.  Having to do so in the middle of the night heightens the sense of vulnerability -- you are all alone in the dark and have to disturb someone's sleep to find comfort.  How parents respond can have a profound influence on our willingness to be open about our needs later in life.  It is all too easy for a parent to be impatient or shaming toward the child seeking care.  The parent may feel overwhelmed by the constant demands of caring for children.  Our society, too, has little tolerance for neediness, preferring rugged independence (an unrealistic ideal, to be sure), so parents may seek to "toughen up" the child through shame.  Shame and anger are poor teachers, though, as they don't eliminate our need for care, but make us unwilling to express that need openly and have it met appropriately.  Instead, we wish others would psychically intuit our needs and nurture us, becoming angry and depressed when this doesn't happen, berating ourselves for our neediness and furious at others for their inability to meet our needs. 

            As a young child, I had a periodic problem with bedwetting.  I remember waking up after having an accident, and going to my mother to let her know.  Surely she didn't relish cleaning the bed again, and wanted me to stop this night-time incontinence.  But if so, I never sensed it.  She never shamed me for these lapses, and she was always patient about dealing with them.  I felt a certain shame, to be sure, for what I knew was bad and childish behavior, but I never feared her reaction and I never doubted her willingness to care for me, even in these most shameful moments.  I am profoundly grateful for my mother's ability to provide care without ever making me feel ashamed of my need for that care.  I know that it is not always easy to offer that kind of acceptance and I know how vital it is. 

            Asking for nurturance is even harder as we grow up.  The sand nightmare, the result of a bout of tonsillitis, occurred when I was in that awkward transition from child to adolescent.  I wanted the mothering, but felt embarrassed by my need for it.  I'm glad my mother knew enough to ignore my feeble protests and was willing to stay with me.  She made it clear that it is ok to ask for care; there is nothing shameful about needing nurturance, at any age. 

            Certainly my mother was not the only one to nurture me.  I have been fortunate to have received love and care from my father, siblings, other relatives, friends, and romantic partners over the years, all of whom have helped me learn to give and receive nurturance.  But my mother's consistent patience and ready care stands out in my memory. 

            So to honor my mother's middle-of-the-night (and anytime-of-the-day) mothering, I give thanks for being able to ask for a hug when I need one. 

            I give thanks for being able to cry without feeling that it makes me weak. 

            I give thanks for being able to tell someone that I'm lonely and need a friend. 

            I give thanks for being able to express my fears and anxieties so that others can reassure and support me. 

            I give thanks for being able to ask for reassurance from my colleagues about my work. 

            I give thanks for being able to listen to others when they are in distress and want nurturance without judging them as lesser for their need. 

            I give thanks that I can comfort others with patience and affection. 

            I may have taken it for granted before now, but I am truly grateful for the ability to give and receive care, without which my life and my relationships would be significantly impoverished.

When we were children, we used to think that when we were grown-up we would no longer be vulnerable. But to grow up is to accept vulnerability. . . . To be alive is to be vulnerable. 

~ Madeleine L'Engle

My father and mother traveling in Europe with me and my brother (1968)

Friday, February 12, 2010

The Costume Trunk

Nancy Driessel Stearns (West Bend, Wisconsin)
Costume made by Margaret Driessel

When I was a child we had a trunk full of wonderful costumes. Not merely cast-off clothing, but real, child-size costumes. I loved rummaging through the costume trunk. I wore the clown costume for Halloween one year, a coverall in shiny, polka-dotted material, with full blouse-y sleeves and green pom-poms made of yarn running down the front as mock buttons. The pants were too long, so my mother hiked them up to an appropriate length and fastened the cuffs with rubber bands. At one point, I forgot that I had taken the rubber bands off, and I tripped on the over-long pants and fell down the front stairs, in full view of my friend who was waiting for me to go trick-or-treating. Luckily, I was only bruised and embarrassed, not badly hurt.

When I came across pictures of my mother dressed in various costumes as a child, I was intrigued. My grandparents said that she spent several years taking dance lessons and was good enough to be included in the dance performances. Each show necessitated a new costume, made by her mother. I had no idea my mother danced as a child. While she took some dance classes as an adult and enjoyed them, she seemed to have no special passion for dance or theater. I don’t even remember her dressing up in costume for Halloween. Yet here she is, in photo after photo, dressed in elaborate costumes for her theatrical dance productions.

Children enjoy wearing costumes because it gives them a chance to try on another role, to step out of their familiar self. My mother probably enjoyed the opportunity to play the peasant or the princess for a little while. Perhaps she loved dance and costumes as a child, but they lost their allure when she matured. Many adults abandon the pretend play of childhood. And yet, even ordinary clothes are costumes of a sort. Put on the business suit and you are dressed up as an executive. Change into an evening gown and you become an elegant lady. We still wear costumes – it’s just that the roles we play are more mundane and closer to our everyday self.

Antigone (U of Pennsylvania, 1988)
I might have given up the costume trunk as I left childhood, but I still wanted to engage in fantasy play, so I joined the realm of the theater, where costumes and playacting are still allowed. I became the frightened Dormouse in Alice in Wonderland, a demure Japanese lady in The Mikado, an angry and determined Antigone. On stage, I could wear outrageous outfits and act utterly unlike myself. I was involved in theater throughout high school and college, and while I doubt that I was an especially talented performer, I valued the opportunity to step outside of my mundane world.

The Mikado (U of Pennsylvania, 1986)     Gondoliers (U of Pennsylvania, 1987)

After my mother died, I kept some of her clothing – some dresses, shirts, and her hat collection. I wore her clothes for a number of years – her t-shirts for casual wear, her dresses for my first hostess job. Why did I dress up in my mother’s clothes? To be sure, I had long worn hand-me-down clothes, and this might simply have been an example of “waste not, want not.” They were nice clothes, and there was no reason I couldn’t get use out of them. But in wearing her clothes, I was also dressing up as my mother. Perhaps I hoped that if I wore her clothes, I could take on her persona and be like her.

After I graduated from college, I stopped acting – on stage, that is – and tried to learn how to perform my new professional roles. How should I dress to be a teaching assistant? How does one behave at the departmental party? It was easier in the theater, when we were provided scripts and costumes. In the real world, we have to figure those things out for ourselves, and it isn’t always easy. I never did get the hang of the dress code – I suspect some of my outfits were more like stage costumes than professional attire. Students and colleagues often comment on my clothing. Once, when I was wearing my purple velvet duster, a colleague remarked that I looked as though I taught at Hogwarts.

While in one of my first faculty positions, I enrolled in a Middle Eastern dance class. I had taken dance before – my mother signed me up for dance classes as a child – but I never stuck with any dance form for long. I took a jazz class here, a modern class there, and even a disco class once, but I didn’t really train as a dancer. I’ve always danced, though, to records or mix tapes I made of pop music. I remember dancing in the living room of our house in Florida, my mother sitting on the staircase above me and watching. Put the right music on, and I can’t help myself – I have to move.

Photo by Roger Wood
Middle Eastern dance captured me in a way no other dance form had. I signed up for one semester after another, studying with a variety of teachers and learning as much as I could. Soon, I started performing in student recitals and haflas, then later on, professionally. I was back on the stage. Not only did I get to wear glittering, elaborate costumes and stage makeup, but I designed and made some of my own costumes as well. My closet is full of beaded belts, sequined skirts, and chiffon veils. And when I put on the costume and makeup, I become a different person. I step out of my ordinary self and become The Bellydancer: flirtatious, funny, outrageous, playful, haughty, soulful, exotic, a larger-than-life figure who is the visual embodiment of the music. I’ve found my playacting again, and I still get to dress up.

Maybe my mother didn’t need to step out of her everyday self once she became an adult. Maybe she was so comfortable in her own skin that she had no need for costumes and playacting. Or maybe she just had other ways of exploring alternate selves that didn’t involve dress-up. I don’t know, just as I don’t really know how she felt about dancing as a child. But this I can be sure of: If my mother were still alive, she would watch me perform, in my sparkly costume, and her face would be full of love – just as it was when she watched me dance as a child. No matter how much I step out of my self, I am still her daughter and we are connected. I dance, just as she danced. I wear costumes, just as she wore costumes. I have the pictures to prove it.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

The silence of the grave

"I come up against the silence of the grave. The impossibility of knowing what happened to or with the dead . . . [The dead] ensure that we will be, in relation to their lives, incapable of distinguishing fact from invention. They guarantee the falsity, the partiality, of our witness."
---Mary Gordon, The Shadow Man (1996) (as cited in Lynn Davidman, Motherloss, 2000).

My brother and I were walking down the street from my father’s house when we were hailed by a strange woman. She ran across the street, calling our names, and I thought, “Who is that woman? How does she know who we are?” It was several minutes before I realized it was my mother. She had changed her hairstyle in the months since we had seen her, and I didn’t recognize her at first. I don’t know what it was that cued me in, finally, to who she was – her voice, her face, her gait – but even after I knew it was her, I stood still, staring at her. I think I just didn’t expect her to be there and wasn’t sure how to respond. Then I ran across the street to her and we hugged each other.

As I go through my mother’s letters and photographs, I keep having that same feeling – that sense of seeing a stranger, someone I hardly recognize. I know it is my mother, but she seems so utterly unlike the woman I remember. Her face is somewhat familiar, to be sure, and I remember some of the stories in her letters. Yet in a very real way, she is a stranger to me. I didn’t know my mother as a person in her own right. I only knew her as my mother.

Women are so often defined by their relationships. We are daughter, sister, wife . . . even our last names are often not our own, coming as they do from our fathers and husbands. Add to this the egocentrism of a child, who cannot imagine that Mommy has a life outside of motherhood, and it is not surprising we don’t really see her as a separate entity. If my mother had lived until my adulthood, I think I could have come to know her more as a person, and less as my mother. I’ve seen that shift in my relationship with my father as I’ve gotten older. He’s still my dad, but I know him more fully, in arenas not related to his role as my father.

But I didn’t have that opportunity with my mother. I want to know who she really was, beyond her role as mother. Who was she to her friends, her lovers, her family . . . who was she to herself? So I stare at the pictures of this elegantly dressed stranger and read her letters. I attempt to put aside my own preconceptions about her, to see beyond the mirror of my own wants and needs. I try to piece together who she was. But I can never be sure whether I’m seeing her for who she really was, or whether she is now a creation of mine, as I am a creation of hers.

Amsterdam, 1968

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Androgyny . . . or Humanity?

In one of my college classes, we did a gender-role activity. We were each given some blue and some pink stickers, and we were to stick one on the back of each student in the class, depending on whether we thought they were feminine (pink sticker) or masculine (blue sticker). At the end of the exercise, I had an exactly equal number of pink and blue stickers on my back, indicating that the class viewed me as both masculine and feminine. I took great pride in this impression of androgyny that I apparently conveyed. I didn’t utterly reject femininity, but I did enjoy challenging gender roles and flouted them whenever possible.

My mother, too, was a mix of feminine and masculine. She got her hair done and made herself new dresses. I remember some of her dresses, both store-bought and handmade, and she also had an extensive collection of costume jewelry, much of which I still have. But for everyday activities, I remember her mostly wearing jeans, shorts, t-shirts and cotton tunics. In fact, she typically bought men’s jeans, as she claimed that they were better made than women’s. She wore little or no cosmetics on most days, but sometimes put on makeup when she dressed up. I particularly remember a frosty pink lipstick that she was fond of wearing that perfectly matched one of her necklaces. But she might then top this outfit with one of her men’s hats.

In some ways, she had a significant masculine streak. She was no shrinking violet, demure and quiet. She was assertive, straightforward, and unafraid to speak her mind. She belched without apology, saying “you get to enjoy your meal twice.” Her laugh was loud enough to embarrass me when we were together in public. (But then, adolescents are embarrassed by almost anything, so this may not mean much.) She loved all kinds of physical activity and enjoyed being fit and strong. She took us hiking and camping and wasn’t afraid of getting dirty. She even pulled the ticks off of us afterwards without squeamishness and taught us how to kill them. She was not ashamed of her sexual desires and felt entitled to sexual pleasure. She seemed to get along better with men, and most of her close friends were men.

But at the same time, so much of what she did was quintessentially feminine work. Her letters are full of references to decorating her living spaces: making curtains, refinishing furniture and hardwood floors, wallpapering and painting. She was even paid for some wallpapering odd jobs, so she must have been quite expert at it. Even in college she talked about decorating her dorm room, but she seemed to really throw herself into the work of homemaking after getting married, enthusiastically redoing first their house in Chicago and then in Piscataway. I don’t remember many of her decorating projects, and I suspect that her passion for these “nesting” activities waned somewhat after my parents’ divorce. I do remember her doing over the bathroom in our Highland Park townhouse, though. It all started with a brightly colored, striped shower curtain. It must have reminded my mother of a circus tent, because the next thing I knew, she was painting balloons on the wall. Phrases like “Free Beer” and “Test Your Strength” were carefully outlined and painted. I remember her tracing the letters with stencils, lining them up precisely. The whole bathroom was circus-themed when she was done. I thought this room was wonderful; it was playful and fun and unique. We could bathe under the big top every day!

She cooked and sewed and gardened and put up preserves from the garden. I remember the dinner parties she and my father had, and I have no doubt that she did a great deal of cooking and planning for these soirees. Yet even here, her feminine and masculine qualities seem to blend seamlessly together. Take this story of a dinner party she and my father had while they were living in Piscataway:

We’ve just suffered another natural disaster. We had extremely bad rains last weekend . . . and on Friday in the middle of a dinner party for 10 I discovered the basement filling up . . . straight from the bottom . . . weel[sic], what could I do but change into jeans and ask the guests to be patient while I tried to fix up a pipe attachment to my new pump just attached to the sink in order to tie it into the sewer line which we just had installed for a mere $590! Don’t bother to understand the last sentence since, as a solution to the rising water, it barely rippled the surface (so to speak). So the dinner party went on and all had a good time. Afterwards the water was still there and coming, so we had to turn off the furnace (you know what that means – no heat, no hot water) On Sat. afternoon I finally got a stronger pump from a rental place and it and mine worked valiantly thru the night so on Sunday we could have installed a new furnace transformer, and on Monday the plumber could realign the plumbing I fiddled with, and on Tues. the dryer man could figure out why the dryer worked but didn’t dry. Unrelated to all this, the Volvo decided it needed a new battery . . . ! Ah so, some weeks are like that.
Nancy Driessel Stearns in a letter to her parents (Feb. 7, 1973)

I don’t think my mother went out of her way to flout gender roles. She wasn’t on a mission to overturn the system of gender norms. After all, the toys she got us as children were often conventionally gendered (a train set for my brother, a dollhouse for me), and she seemed to have no fear of embracing her own femininity. I think she just refused to be confined to the narrow slice of life traditionally allowed to women. She did what she wanted and what was needed – what seemed sensible, what was set before her – without worrying much about whether it was feminine or not. The dinner party story is a perfect example – the basement was flooding, so she needed to try to fix it. She didn’t fret about whether the hostess should be wearing jeans or whether it’s acceptable for a woman to do plumbing repair. She didn’t assume that her husband would take care of such things. She just waded in (literally) and did it. And then she came back up, served the dinner she had prepared, and got on with the party. Not feminine, not masculine. Just human. Just her.

Nancy Driessel Stearns, date and place unknown

Saturday, September 26, 2009

The Igloo

One year while we were living in New Jersey, there was a huge snowstorm. Where the sidewalk was shoveled, the drifts were over my head. It was kind of like walking in a snowy tunnel or alley. I’m sure there were snowball fights and sledding, but what I remember was the igloo.

I don’t know whether it was our idea or my mother’s to build the igloo. Somehow, I think it was her idea. I don’t really remember the specifics of the construction process, either. But I do remember that it was big enough to crawl inside the entrance and sit under the snowy dome, just like a real igloo. It was cold and dim inside, barely large enough for one child – a tiny winter playhouse. My mother had the idea of pouring water over the top to form an icy coating, to make it a really strong, sturdy structure. I have a clear memory of her standing in the open doorway of the townhouse, passing us pitchers of water.

I don’t remember my mother speaking about her childhood much. There were a few stories she told that I can recall, but I don’t really know the everyday aspects of her life as a child. What games did she play? What were her favorite activities? Did she get along with her brother or did they fight? Did she enjoy school or dread it? What were her dreams – how did she envision her life unfolding?

Perhaps she spoke of these things and I just don’t remember. Perhaps she did not dwell on the past, just as I do not. Perhaps her childhood memories were not ones she cared to relive. Perhaps she thought of them as trivial, matters of little importance. In the end, I have only fragments of her childhood, snapshots and a few letters, to know the little girl she once was.

But inevitably, our past seeps through, coloring our present. I did not know her as a child, but I can see some of her childhood in my own. Although I didn’t know it at the time, my mother was passing along a bit of her own childhood as we created our snow structure. She grew up in Wisconsin, where winters are cold and snowy, and I expect she spent plenty of time playing in the snow. At the age of 12, she wrote to her parents, who were away in Florida at the time, about her adventures in snow construction:

Patsy and I were making things out of snow Sunday by putting snow in boxes and then taking it out. We made a table, chairs, stove, sink, cupboard, dishes, glasses, and a double bed for Patsy and me.

My mother as a child, playing in the snow with her brother, Ken Driessel, and friends

Her inventive snow play surely inspired the igloo construction. Here we were, making the house to hold the furnishings she created as a child. Did she smile, recalling her own winter games, as she passed us pitcher after pitcher of water to pour over the igloo? Did she see in us the echoes of her own childhood, as we floundered through the drifts, patting the snow into place? Maybe she never made the connection; maybe she was just pleased to find a way to entertain us for the day, to stave off boredom and keep us from getting into trouble. Regardless, whether she knew it or not, she gave us a brief glimpse into her past as we worked together on the igloo.

Snow is a temporary medium. We know that what we build will eventually melt away. But that igloo stood solid for days, built to last with its firm icy topcoat. Until one day, we came out to discover that someone had kicked a hole in the side. I had a deep feeling of disappointment and even anger at the person who would destroy our hard work for no purpose. Even my mother’s inspired idea for a thick coating of ice couldn’t protect our igloo from the human urge to destroy.

There’s a big difference between gradual, natural erosion and purposeful destruction. To see something intentionally damaged for no obvious reason leads to the puzzle of motive – why would someone do that? We lose our faith in human nature and begin to distrust others. But there’s also a feeling of premature loss, knowing that the inevitable end was hastened unnaturally. We feel cheated of the time we could have had, bruised by the sense of missed opportunities, as though we ourselves received the blows that were delivered. We can build, but we cannot ensure that what we build will last; it can be taken away at any time. Sadly, no matter how many pitchers of water my mother passed to us, there is no icy shell that is thick enough to protect us from this damage, this loss.

My mother as a child, playing in the snow

Saturday, September 19, 2009

More than a mouthful

My body was developing, changing with the onset of puberty. I thought my breasts were too small – I wanted bigger breasts, and complained to my mother. She looked me in the eye and said “Anything more than a mouthful is a waste.” I stared at her, wide-eyed, and then burst into laughter. It was shocking (and delightful) to me, on many levels. In part, the surprise came from her reversal of the usual “bigger is better”; my mother, also a small-breasted woman, framed big breasts as excessive, “a waste.” A sentiment unfair to large-breasted women, to be sure, but I was comforted by the notion that smaller breasts might actually be superior. But the main reason this was shocking was that my mother was acknowledging my sexuality, in a specific and concrete way. The “mouthful” could have referred to breast-feeding an infant, but my mother’s delivery made it very clear that this was a sexual reference. While I had a sense that breasts could be attractive (or unattractive, as I saw my own), my mother’s statement placed them squarely in the context of partnered sexual activity. Not merely passive objects to stir men’s interest, these breasts were pleasuring and/or being pleasured, a novel idea for me at the time.

My mother was comfortable about sex. She had an earthy, raunchy sense of humor; she loved to wear t-shirts with double entendres, like the one from an oyster house that had “I Eat ‘Em Raw” on the front. I kept some of those t-shirts after she died and wore them with a sense of wicked enjoyment; I was sad when they finally fell apart. I can’t remember any specific conversations she had with me about puberty or sexuality, but I know that she encouraged me to come to her with any questions I had about sex, and she was generally frank and honest in her answers. This was certainly a step up from the sex education (and I use the term loosely here) I received in school. My fifth grade teacher refused to answer my questions about homosexuality. We were frightened by vague films about venereal disease in seventh grade, with pictures of syphilitic chancres but little real information. My ninth grade biology teacher was forbidden by law to discuss contraception. My mother had no such limits or rules, as far as I recall – I really could ask her anything, and there was no need for shame or embarrassment. The only problem was, I didn’t always know what to ask! I knew, though, when it came time for me to need birth control, I wouldn’t feel awkward about approaching my mother for help. When that time did finally arrive, though, my mother had already passed away and there was no one I felt comfortable approaching about the issue, leaving me to muddle through on my own.

To my mother, sex wasn’t shameful or something to be feared. I never got the sense from her that being sexual or having sexual desires was wrong or bad or dangerous. I remember kissing my boyfriend in the back of the car while my mother was driving him home, with no sense of embarrassment that she could see us in the rearview mirror. In fact, after we dropped him off, she and I talked about it; I remember my eager enthusiasm and her indulgent smile and gentle encouragement. Given this openness about sexuality at home, I never really understood the complex sexual taboos among my peers, and my directness on the topic earned me teasing and social isolation in middle school. But it’s this comfort with sexuality that makes me so good at teaching human sexuality to legions of college students. It’s just sex – no need to titter behind our hands or mumble while looking at the floor as we talk about it.

Where did my mother come by such a positive attitude about sex? She did come of age during the early 1960s, the so-called “sexual revolution.” With the publication of the Kinsey reports and the availability of the Pill (among other factors), public attitudes toward sex became increasingly liberal. My mother would undoubtably have been affected by these social changes. In addition, her father was a doctor and her mother a nurse, so they would have had greater knowledge about sexuality than the average person. My maternal grandparents tend to be rather pragmatic about matters of the body, and they probably conveyed this matter-of-fact attitude about puberty and sexuality to my mother. But even with the liberalization of sexual attitudes and her own family environment, my mother’s sex-positive stance strikes me as unusual. Americans continue to have complex, ambivalent attitudes about sex, particularly with regard to women’s sexuality. Many women continue to struggle with fears of being too sexual and lack the clear sense of sexual agency that my mother embodied so fully.

It is one thing to come to terms with your own sexuality; it is quite another to feel comfortable with your own daughter’s emergent sexuality. Even the most liberal-minded parents can have difficulty accepting the idea of their teenage child becoming sexually active. It is all-too-common for parents to convey this discomfort to adolescent girls, subtly (or not so subtly) signaling that she should not feel or be sexual. Her sexuality is to be deferred until adulthood, and then exists largely for her partner’s pleasure, not her own. Perhaps my mother did have moments of doubt or worry, but these were never evident to me. Her message to me was clear: Sex is normal and enjoyable, for both women and men. In other words, what my mother told me about sex was really more than a mouthful. Through education and example, she gave me the right to be sexual on my own terms. True, I struggled for some years to define what that meant to me as I waded through the contradictory messages about women’s sexuality from my peers and the media. But without the foundation she laid out for me, I don’t know if I would have ever found my way to my authentic sexuality.

In a culture that stigmatizes women’s sexuality and silences real sex education, I recognize how fortunate I was to be raised by a woman who refused to accept these ideologies. For my mother to truly embrace her own sexuality and see herself as entitled to sexual pleasure without shame or guilt is a rather remarkable achievement. That she was able to extend that same gift to her own daughter is even more astounding.

Nancy Driessel Stearns (date and location unknown)

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Sewing and other creative pursuits

My mother’s sewing machine sat on the dining room table. I can see it there, quite clearly, with a basket of mending in the corner behind the table and a project-in-progress next to the machine. When my mother died, she left behind an unfinished suit, the pattern pieces of grey and pink knit carefully cut but not yet assembled. She sewed quite well, as I recall. I have one of the dresses she made for herself: a floor-length, sleeveless, dropped-waist dress in an vibrantly swirled knit fabric. I wore it from time to time in college, and always loved the fabric, although it didn’t flatter my figure as well as hers. When we were younger, she must have done quite a bit of sewing. In her letters to her parents, she mentions making curtains, deck chair covers, and clothes for herself and for us. Indeed, curtains seem to have been a perennial project, recurring often in the letters – curtains for the apartment, for the house, for the office. She apparently used the remnants to make jumpers for me as a toddler, so my outfits must have matched the curtains. I really can’t remember if she particularly liked sewing, but she certainly took pride in her work.

I remember my mother showing me how to thread the sewing machine, which I found to be a very challenging task at first. I kept forgetting how to do it, and she had to explain it to me again each time I used the machine. I don’t remember if we sewed anything together, though. I have vivid memories of sewing with my maternal grandmother, who taught me the basics of garment sewing and guided me through my first quilting project. I was taught knitting by my step-mother (although I couldn’t cast on and never did much besides a scarf or two) and hand embroidery by her mother. Indeed, while I have many memories of making things in my childhood and adolescence, few of them include my mother directly. I remember drawing at the kitchen table and making colored sand landscapes in glass jars. I tie-dyed t-shirts one year for my friends, although the results were rather disappointing. I made a Mother’s Day card with glue-and-glitter in Girl Scouts; I remember the Scout leader making a sarcastic remark about my excessive use of glue. I sewed Christmas ornaments to sell for Junior Achievement. My brother and I made hooked rugs from kits filled with cut pieces of yarn, and wove dreadful hotpads with stretchy, polyester loops. I made necklaces strung from glass beads and pencil toppers with craft fur and googly eyes. I created countless finger woven belts and scarves, yarn dolls, and pom-poms. I remember the projects, but I don’t remember my mother teaching me how to make them or making them with me.

I wish I could say that I learned to sew (or crochet or embroider or make jewelry) from my mother. It would feel special to know that every time I made something, I could thank my mother for the skill she passed along to me. But while I may not have memories of chummy mother-daughter bonding over crafts, I have to assume that my mother fostered and supported my desire to create. She must have bought the supplies, at least when I was very young, and she tolerated the mess and disorder I undoubtably left behind with each project. When my brother and I were choosing the colors for our hooked rugs, she was standing behind us, ready to pay for our yarn. I remember her going with me to the bead shop and wearing the necklace I made for her (a mixture of green and gold beads with a stylized bird pendant).

And where did all those books come from – the Altair design coloring books, the craft books for children – several of which still reside on my bookshelf? Surely some of them were purchased by my mother. I remember that she bought us a paper airplane book and enjoyed the launch of each aerial creation (even the less successful ones); she might have even made a few of her own. I suspect, too, that she did guide me through some of these projects, as there must have been some adult supervision when we melted the wax to make Swiss cheese candles.

Perhaps I remember the creations as mine, not hers, because she encouraged my independence and ownership of the project, even as she helped. I remember sitting at the kitchen table making paper chains from green and red construction paper, which we then draped on our Christmas tree. My mother showed us how to make the first links in the chain, but we made the rest of them on our own.

My mother provided a rich context that supported my explorations in various handcrafts. She never belittled my creations or crushed my spirit, and I grew up with pride in what I made. She showed me by example – with her sewing machine and art supplies and with her inventive playfulness – that creativity is part of everyday life, not just the purview of artists. So maybe I can’t say that my mother is the one who taught me to sew, but I think she gave me something even more vital. She nurtured my drive to make things and gave me access to the world of possibility within me. If there was something I wanted to do, my mother gave me whatever she could to help me on my journey, cheering me along the way. It was, in part, her love and support that gave me the boundless optimism that I still carry with me today as I embark on a new project. And so what if she never taught me sewing or knitting or crochet . . . I can see her influence in everything I create.