Threading the Needle

sewing_machine

The hand remembers when the mind falters. There is memory in movement, a silent somatic wisdom of the body. The hand remembers, the clever thumb and forefinger working in concert to rediscover skill lost to thought, remember how to wind the thread from spool to spindle, how to wind the bobbin and how to seat it.

Clear the writing table of paper, books, and pens, the bits of candle and boxes of watercolor pencils; the kitchen’s trestle table is cluttered with the season’s last tomatoes spread to ripen, the final few summer squash, and turkey quills–there is no room for mending upstairs.

Do others still mend the straining seam or torn placket? Or do they simply fold the flawed clothing and stack it in a paper bag to donate or discard in the trash? Once it was expensive to purchase clothing, when Levi’s jeans were still sewn in San Francisco and the going wage was $2.30 per hour for scooping ice cream at the 31 flavors. There was no internet or Amazon, of course, offering instant comparison pricing and stinging reviews. There were department stores downtown, and more being built at the malls, or the Sears catalog to buy clothing. There were fabric stores as large as a warehouse with rainbow shelves of thread and offering charming selections of notions displayed on sprawling racks.

It was my grandmother’s sewing machine, a portable Singer stowed in a thick black case. Its features include the ability to sew both forward and backward. When Grandma died, my eldest cousin Kathy claimed the sewing machine, despite owning a deluxe zig-zag cabinet model Singer of her own.  But Mom said “No,” and had the machine fitted with a new motor. She gave it to me. I’ve carried it across the country and back, through many household moves, and now she rests in a black lacquered cupboard of her own.

pucker_patches

To my mother’s eternal frustration and consternation, I refused to thumb through the pattern catalogs in the fabric store and select a Butterick pattern for a sewing project. I had designs of my own. 

I found a lovely book about patternless sewing in the school library. I stole it. (Delighted to report that this same book is still apparently in print: Son of Hassle-Free Sewing: Further Adventures in Homemade Clothes by the authors of The Illustrated Hassle-Free Make Your Own Clothes Book, available on Amazon, of course.) I laid out printed cotton tapestries imported from India and fashioned long dashing coat-dresses  with high smocked sleeves and fastened with a matching cummerbund. I bought remnants fabric ends and devised patchwork tiered skirts and vests of puckered patches. 

As time went on, I returned the stolen book to the library. I sewed less often, finding it harder to thread the tiny eye of the needle when I did. My last project was a quilted cushion for the firewood box and the results were disappointing somehow. I took up knitting, which is really just tying many interconnecting knots and threading nothing.

When I finally took out my sewing machine to dispatch with mending, I wondered if the little light bulb above the presser foot would still burn, if I would still be able to thread the needle. The hand remembers; the light still burned.

I discovered the silk my grandmother brought me from Hong Kong long ago, still folded next to the machine, all whole liquid blue and silver, never cut.

silk

Another Cusp

harvesting

The moon grows full tomorrow at the penultimate degree of the zodiac to herald the coming equinox. Night grows longer.

Persephone is damn tired and ill-tempered. She’s leaving early, ready to shrug off the birthing work of the field. The Goddess casts down her seeds, takes up her torch, and returns underground into welcome darkness. Comes the cusp of the fallow season.

Tomatoes gathered and stacked on the table before the rain forecast finally arrives to split their skins. Squash and feathers. Clusters of dusky grapes. Rain came, crowned by thunder, fast and fierce and flooded the street.

A cusp is a pointed end where two curves meet. Such a cusp is seen in the pointed ends of a crescent moon, the lip of yet another precipice, molting away one cracked skin for another.

The Battle of Hastings

tulips

“Did the arrow go all the way through and out the back of his head?” James points at his own eye showing how that might happen at various angles.

“Maybe,” I say, “what do you think?”

“His eyeball probably popped and smooshed out all over,”

“No doubt,” I nod, “now finish your homework and I’ll finish dinner.”

James looks down at the spelling list on the table in front of him. He turns the page over and begins to draw the battle scene on the back. I feed linguine into the pot of boiling water and call over to James: “How do you spell beautiful?”

“B-E-A-U-T-I-F-U-L. Mom, where’s the red crayon?” He rummages in the box of art supplies.  “I need it for blood,”

My beloved bastard native tongue English: how many invasions, wars, and conquests did it take to build your astonishing agility? New words are invented every day. We select from a rich catalog of component parts: prefixes, roots, suffixes, bits of language like James’ plastic Lego blocks, to form new words and express new ideas. How to describe an orbiting satellite matching earth’s rotation, now that we have such a thing and need words to define it? Make it up. That word is “geosynchronous.” Geo=Earth. Syn=With. Chron=time.

Other languages and grammars are beautiful in their own way.  English rummages through the languages she encounters like auntie at the Saturday flea market selecting the best to take home. For example, “pajama” is an Urdu and Persian word that literally means “leg clothing.” Yet it was assimilated into English usage in the early 19th century through the conquests and adventures of the British and East Indian Trading Company. These days we’ve shortened the word even further to the cozy term “jammies.”

While some cultures seek to maintain the purity and integrity of their languages intact, English plays the field fast and loose. The French established the Académie Française to try to restrain the ranks of French speakers and the discipline of their own language. The purpose of the academy is to promote the French language and stamp out lingual interlopers and the creep of unorthodox foreign terms. Unfortunately, useful words and terms go viral in a world connected by instantaneous information technology. “Le Weekend” the French still say, despite the disapproval of the academy.

Irony is not lost here. The decisive Battle of Hastings in 1066 brought William, Duke of Normandy, to the English throne. The Anglo-Saxon infantry fought fiercely against the greater Norman cavalry and archers from morning to dusk, until at last, near sunset, King Harold took an arrow in the eye and died. The Anglo-Saxon forces broke and retreated.  The French language, with William the Conqueror on the throne, gained ascendancy in the English Court and left James the frustrating legacy of learning to spell words like “beautiful.”

Ginger

dawn_pearl_harbor_day

The southern sky burnished fire at dawn, orange and brass, under a haloed last-quarter moon.

The rains tapered and ceased. Freezing fog abated. The moon ebbs to black now until she eclipses the sun. The Butte is a weather vane, a barometer, the day’s augery.

Ginger it is, then.

Mercy and I walked the north canal paths, crossing away from the level south bank where ever more people pass, picking our way through mud, sodden leaves, and marshy grasses. Some wear masks, some do not.

As we came up one slippery rise, I looked down on to the stadium parking lot with white tents pitched in the gravel in the same space tailgaters reveled before kickoff last year. Lines of cars waiting to pull inside a tent and park, a driver tilting back a head to be probed by a nasal swab, and then pull through the other side and drive away. Wait for the results. And then the next car, until they close the gates because the swabs are gone for the day.

Along the trails we find three things. The dog found the first at a fishing spot along the canal bank. I roll up the line the fishers leave behind, tie it and put it in my pocket, pick up the interlocking plastic rings left behind after the six-pack is emptied, scan for hooks and weights, anything more dangerous to water birds than we are and stuff it all in the game pocket of my vest. Mercy unearthed a scruffy stuffed animal with a stiff blue tail and a red nose. As she thrashed and tossed the toy, I realized it was Rat. Leave it, I said, and we walked on. Cursed Year of the Rat.

We found a hot pink Frisbee. I threw it for Mercy in the long soggy grass. The hapless Golden Retriever, Bailey, came splashing through the puddles with his owner calling for him away in the distance and stole it, leaving behind a bright yellow tennis ball. A good trade, I told Mercy, and put the ball in the game pocket.

As we left the trails and came up to the road, we happened upon a playing card, face up. It’s a Knave, I thought, but no. It was a Joker.

I made cake with blackstrap molasses, sliced apples caramelized in butter and sugar, with cinnamon and heaps of bright burnished ginger.

God Clouds

god_cloudes

“Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.”

–Theodore Roosevelt

The full moon arched overhead masked by clouds, a chip-shot eclipse while we slept, a rosy glow lingering on the western horizon at dawn. The last of day of November cruising the Via Combusta, a cursed month in a cursed year.

We held a masked drive-by Thanksgiving. My sister and I filled plastic containers with turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes and gravy, pumpkin pie and whipped cream and stacked them in boxes for family to pick up, although she did most of the cooking. I made wild chanterelle and sage dressing. My caramel-apple gingerbread came out doughy and underdone. I think I overreached by trying to squeeze in the last half an apple.

Eventually, all the Tupperware floats along some inscrutable relay and ends up piled in a bag at our father’s house to retrieve. Christmas trees will be small and potted this year, maybe Rosemary pruned to resemble a fir. We will send the Tupperware circulating again with a spin for the next round of holidays.

I made a pie of leftovers, from dressing mostly and dry bits of chopped poultry. Caramelized onions and spinach wilting on its own formed the base of a roux. Mix in the leftover cup of gravy and mushroom stock, stir in heavy cream that wasn’t whipped and mash it all together. The pie looked like knobby dirt and tasted delicious.

I dreamed the dog was nuzzling at the tawny flanks of a lioness seated in the desert looking far into the horizon. I tried to call her off to me, hissing quietly so as not to break the cat’s meditation and have her devour Mercy. When I woke, I realized the lion was me.

pond_thanksgiving

Not Yams

blue_oak

–A Thanksgiving Screed–

It’s late Wednesday afternoon when my father finally breaks away from his practice and comes home to load our big white Chevy wagon for the trip across the state to Idaho. Dogs and shotguns stacked in the back for bird hunting Thanksgiving morning, pastries and coffee cakes Mom baked and wrapped stowed safely away from the dogs, and coloring books for my brother and me during the 400 mile trek over the Cascades, across the high desert, twisting through icy passes in the Malheur, until finally crossing the Snake River and up Olds Ferry Road to my grandparents’ place.

Dad’s clan gathered in the drafty farm grange surrounded by fallow disked fields under light snowfall. Women brought covered dishes and converged to carve three or four turkeys. I snitched black olives from the relish bowl and stuck one on each finger. The food was cold, at best lukewarm. The turkey was stringy and parched, mashed potatoes congealed, and green beans boiled with bacon for hours took on the flavor of the bleak November sky. The women did their best, I know now and understand, with what they had in that rustic grange hall.

The important thing, Mom said, was family and yes, I had to wear a dress until dinner was over, and yes, I must try everything and not just butter a roll for a turkey and pickle sandwich. (The Jell-O salad with fruit cocktail and swirled Cool Whip was palatable.) The worst dish, nastier than gelatinous dressing and greasy gravy, was the platter of sticky yams coated in marshmallows.

Eating a cloying yam, a sickly sweet potato, the stringy fibers of an acorn squash, was a feat too far. The taste of orange mealy vegetables made me gag as surely as the trip over the mountains made me car sick. Butter, brown sugar, and marshmallow are for fools. I was not so easily deceived. Yams are the bottom of the fodder rainbow and better left to beasts. Try it, Mom hissed, but I gagged over my plate and she lifted me up by one arm and hustled me away from the table.

Carving pumpkins for jack-o-lanterns made me retch, reaching down the stinking cavity into a sticky web of seeds smelt of dying earth. Even pumpkin pie, dressed with cream and spice, tastes of swampy rotting entrails. Roasted carrots coated with honey and sesame seed served by loving friends are a problem. I toy during conversation to discreetly hide them under a stray rib of romaine.

“Eat the rainbow,” nutritionists counsel, so I slug down a shot glass of carrot juice every morning and call it good. Autumn markets showcase brimming bins of orange squashes and tubers so I give them wide berth. Cooking magazines displayed at checkout feature glossy butternut and patty pan recipes and I can’t swallow. I look away instead and read the headlines of the tabloids featuring the latest dish on Harry and Meghan.