I have a theory. The things we now make with our hands are more ethereal than they once were. We text and send ecards into the universe along with our good vibes. Because of that our thoughts skitter in a way they once did not. Like our hands, they are less grounded. Our fingers are not smudged in the morning from creasing the newspaper just so over breakfast.
We read on our phones and order espressos with the app. I have lost the callus I once had on my index finger from writing with a #2 pencil. There’s not a thing wrong with that. Different is not bad. It’s just… different. If you handed me a typewriter and told me to get to work, I’d drop it on your foot.
But certain things, things that span the divide between my generation and the last, I do miss. I miss sleeping under one particular yellow quilt covered in girls wearing bonnets and flowered dresses, each dress a series of triangles pieced together by my grandmother on the floor of her sewing room one hot summer thirty-something years ago.
I miss the way the trapezoidal blue and red and peach and green bonnets slanted just so to hide each girl’s face. I miss the cheery yellow backing that I have never been able to match in all the subsequent trips to craft stores. I still have the quilt. It is folded, zipped in plastic, and waiting in a hope chest carved by my grandfather for the day when my daughter is old enough to use it and understand its path to her.
I wish I still had my grandmother to show me again how to smooth out the lumps from middle to edge on each square before pinning. She would need to remind me now how to load a spool of thread in the sewing machine and how to backpedal out of a bad stitch. I wish I could watch her hands thread a needle.
It was my mother who taught me how to cross stitch. My first project – a ladybug, clamped down on two square inches of frame. Those black dots just about killed me. I had grown up sitting next to my mother in her high-backed chair as she bent over a wooden frame as big and wide as the tv trays we used to use so we could watch basketball games during dinner.
She would angle her freestanding magnifying glass, just so, so that it lit up the pattern with a fluorescent glow. In and out, in and out the needle flew until it looked and felt like breathing. It was my mother’s method of meditation. With her small hands, just like mine and just like her mother’s, she created alphabet wall hangings for my nursery and smocked dresses with my name in candy canes for Christmas and intricate garden scenes for the dining room.
I sewed penguins and strawberries and bees, leaving trails of thread and unfinished squares all over the house until one day, I stopped. I had become too big or too busy to sit with needle and thread.
Along with the days of elocution classes and home economics, quilting and cross stitch have gone by the wayside. Antiquated, we would now say. The older generations still perpetuate their craft. When we had our twins an elderly neighbor came bearing two tiny quilts, one pink and one blue, hand-stitched, of course.
We had to help her up the steps, but those baby throws she’d made by hand. My husband, not long ago, was gifted with a quilt made of his childhood t-shirts. It sits at the foot of our oldest son’s bed.
When my daughter gets old enough, I will pull out my grandmother’s quilt and paint her a word picture of my grandmother in her madras shirt and capris and slip-on shoes kneeling on the shag carpet with pins in her mouth and sleeve.
When she gets old enough, I will give her my smocked dresses and let her own grandmother tell her how she made them for me one winter long ago. If she likes, I will sit down with her and we will form our own quilting circle.
Together we will pick a pattern and trace shapes and cut material she has carefully chosen. We will measure and stretch and pin. Then we will thread the sewing machine and pump the pedal to create something to remember.
We will use our hands to make a thing to hold on to. These quilts and crossed stitches will be more than just things. They will be the hymn, the song of praise for the women that have gone before us. We will ask them to guide our hands, ghosts of their own, and together we will make something from the past for the future.
Do you have a skill you hope to pass down to your kids?