Dead People’s Art Supplies
I leaf through my father’s copy of The Art of French Cooking and find his brother-of-the-famous-architect handwriting. He lists meal plans with no dessert suggestions and intricate drawings for drying racks that hang over a sink. Perhaps he constructed one such drying rack in one of the rooms he rented after he left our family to live in Texas and before he came to live his last year with me in Kentucky.
I sort wooden from plastic spools, miles of thread, some cotton, some silk, some poly which I will never use in a shiny tin, one among many tins of sewing supplies I took home from Cleveland, where my best friend’s mother sewed for her family and ran a vintage linen business from her home. This explains the Baggies of lace, yards of tatted bone colored edging for pillowcases I have not yet made. It also explains why you should come over to my house if you are ever in need of a button.
I have something short of a mile of another family’s name on tags that were never sewn in the collars of camp shorts and zippered windbreakers for boys that are likely retiring from careers on Wall Street right about now. When the mother of that family of hearty adventurers died, no one wanted her sewing ephemera, so I took it. I have a very soft heart for bodkins and bobbins, for metal zippers and wide rickrack. I have used her sewing machine for 20 years now and I think of her, who I never met, every single time.
I have more Baggies of stamp collections and piles of neatly pressed hankies, of canceled stamps torn from envelopes, slipped in to a holiday card envelope with my name penciled in art teacher hand-writing by my beloved knitting circle friend who is dead now. I went to an estate sale at her house and found Christmas ornaments I had made for her. I asked the man who was running the sale if I could please just have them rather than pay only one dollar for a tiny Virgin Mary’s prayer shawl knit when we were praying for one of our Circle or six dollars for a small embroidered pot holder bearing alphabet beads with the initials of each of our Circle, in a circle. The estate sale guy looked at me as if I had appeared before him with a feathered face singing like a nightingale. “No one has ever asked me that before. Sure. I guess.” I pocketed them. They sit on my altar now.
In the studio of my dearest friend who has been dead for over thirteen years, I excavate every summer for as long as I can stand the mildew. This means I have tolerance to clear one shelf a season. The small unheated space is home of mice and spiders. The gray shed freezes solid in the winter on Cape Cod and bakes like an oven in the summer. Every year, even though we have cleaned it out, the shelves sprout with things we missed. In April, I found an A&P grocer’s smock that she’d used as a painting apron pressed in to the dirt floor. It is good quality linen that withstood the freeze thaw cycle thirteen times over, mashed in to the sandy soil, piled over with bikes and boogie boards and collections of bones, raffia and shells that we still cannot get rid of. I washed and line-dried the smock, letting it sit in the sun for a few days after it’s hermitage in the studio. It fits me perfectly. She was right-handed. So am I.
Slipped in to the clear plastic pocket of a set of water-color pencils in a case that bears her initials, long forgotten in that allergy inducing studio, is a small rectangle of cardboard. When I got the kit home and began wiping each pencil free of spider web and mouse poop, I inched the tightly held cardboard free. Her fingers were the last to touch it. I cannot forget this. It bears a tiny perspective drawing of the farm she lived on with her family, young boys and a handsome husband, then with his lover too, all so very open-minded in the mid-1970s in rural Kentucky. Each side bears a drawing, different views of the same place she painted and painted and painted over the years I knew her, on canvas, on linen and even tongue depressors.
Lines left of the life of another.
In a spiral stenographer’s notebook that belonged to my knitting Circle friend who grew up in Virginia, but traveled to Florence, Italy to go to art school where she met her husband and began a life that is worthy of ballads, but is now being parceled out at that estate sale, I found her first kiln instructions, directions for firing and how not to handle slip and glazes. Her handwriting was so firm, pencil so fine, cursive or printed. There is a page of her doodles of ceramic cups that I know she fired in a blazing hot kiln, glazed in plum or turquoise green. I studied a shelf of them at the estate sale not realizing they were of her hand.
What marks do we leave behind us?
I hoe around my roses with the tool I got from a tag sale across the street from my house. My neighbor, a fine baker and kind soul, whose death closed up the house and caused the tag sale, told me once that her long departed husband had tended the gardens around my house, back in the days when they were grand. I hope there is some transmission in my effort, his hand guiding my work.
Oil pastels from a friend’s uncle in a latched wooden box, each stick worn by the thumb of a persistent painter. Unused envelopes from a graphic designer’s desk that fold together like butterfly wings. There is much to be learned by using the tools of those who have gone before me.
This summer, I will return to my mother’s home to wrestle in to my car the last four boxes of her belongings that my sisters and I need to make decisions about. Being the eldest and for that matter the matriarch, and for another matter, the most interested, I am carrying her letters, notes, and a life long correspondence with her sister, who preceded her in death by 6 years. I think that loss, in some way, contributed to my own mother’s loosening grip on reality.
Those boxes don’t resemble my mother.
But they bear her marks, more than anything she left behind.
She did not choose to burn those letters, love letters to my father, notes sent home by teachers on the backs of report cards about my behavior at my Lutheran grade school. She left it all in decent order.
While they are not necessarily art supplies, her papers bear a tracery of the life my mother lived. I expect that my work will be impacted by what I read.
I am a collector.
Words in to poems.
Papers in to collages.
Thoughts in to books.
Threads in to embroidered flowers.
Skidding lines across my own life, letting things handled by others make their marks on me.
Thank you for reading Laundry Line Divine.
For more writing from inside motherhood by Suzi and 35 other women, find yourself a copy of An Anthology of Babes: 36 Women Give Motherhood a Voice. In a recent review posted on Amazon and Good Reads, a reader said:
“This book is filled with little gems, golden nuggets of words and illustrations, emotions and dreams, vulnerabilities and expressions of deep pride, humor, poetry, and prose that’s visceral.”
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