11-6-1992  I couldn't sleep so I read my maman's letters to me.  I wonder why I sought her letters out after all these years.  She's been dead ten years this year.  She died on June 18 and was buried on June 21 in a cloud burst.  One of those quick storms when you know God's hand is dealing the cards. 
 Sometimes God speaks to us beyond rainbows and kept promises; sometimes God speaks to the testimony of a person's life.  I wonder at the use of her life.  Or any woman's, for that matter, caught as she felt caught in her particular situation.  But I am tired of wondering what is wrong with living; I want to know what is right with life.
 I would like to understand the reason for her being, her mother's before her, mine and my daughter's.  My mémère was born on January 1, 1883; my maman was born, a twin, on March 10, 1919; I was born May 26, 1953; and my daughter was born April 6, 1973.  I celebrate, when I can, my mémère's and my maman's birthday by attending mass.  I don't know how else to talk to the dead--their spirits.  Their essence, woman they were, is elusive to me.  Intangible.  I hate staring at gravestones, talking to Maine granite like that even represent my feminine forebears. 
 If I were to stretch my arms out wide, beyond the present tense we all think we occupy, would I reach either one of them, including my daughter since she has graduated, left home, and gone out there to test herself against life.  If I were to reach back far enough or ahead, assuming they are earth-and heaven-bound, who or what would I find?  Would they recognize me as one of their own?  Have I done right by them so far?  If those before me gave their lives in service of others--me and mine--in order for us to carry on, how can we do justice to the work they laid down before us?  I wonder often, just how common is our existence?  Or are we all simply extra-ordinary selves wrapped up in common existences?
 What I know of and what I have seen, is that in the particulars of living we are a women defined by our handiwork.  I remembered this in reading my maman's letters. 


She was always caught up in some project.  Sewing, canning, rug braiding, tending lawns and flowers, grandchildren.  Handiwork affirms the concrete; it validates the substantial.  Co-creator. 
 She flitted about in her writing as she did in her life.  It is difficult to follow her thought process in her letters unless you knew the woman.  It was how she lived.  Or rather, she defined where she wanted to put her attention.
Writing letters was necessary because of the distances we lived away from one another.  She had left her maman in Aroostook County a long time before.  Ironically, she wrote to her daughter in the same county of her girlhood and where her maman and her mémère were buried.  While I lived there, I was conscious of how circular life can be and what ghost's footsteps I stepped in.  She preferred to put her attentions elsewhere, like her sewing.  My maman worked as a tailor.  Nobody taught her.  She just learned to do this on her own.  She earned money adjusting men's suits.  She got tired of the intense heat of the tailor shop pressing machines, so after that she worked as a clerk in a fabric store.  There she learned to work a cash register.  She brought me in one day to show me, proudly, her new knowledge.  I was struck by her pride in her new knowledge.  From that point, I build my life.  It is always a starting point, for me, in order to realize how far I've gone and to what I must always return. 
  Next she went to work, for commissions, in a ladies' department of one of the more prominent clothiers in Waterville.  She was bilingual and she used her language on the job, but it was not a conscious decision for her, but a matter of course.  No big deal.  Except they hired her, in part, for her bilingualism.  So she could better serve their clientele.  My maman, in her sixties at the time, sat down for a minute in a chair to rest her feet during a lull in a sale campaign, it was near closing time, and was told by the owner's granddaughter to never be caught seen sitting in a chair "on the floor"again.  My maman went home told my father what she had been told and he told her to give her notice to quit the next day.  She did.  It was time for her to come home to do what she wanted to do, anyway.  I never set foot in that store ever again.  It was a point of family pride.
  For many years my mother worked as a homemaker.  Consequently, my wardrobe was extensive and that gave me a bit of turbulence from the other girls in my school.  I hurt my mother, years later, when I told her how her handiwork had been my burden.  She refused to accept this.  Their jealousies were not her problem.  She could not see how she could cause me pain by giving me everything she never had.  She had grown up proud, but poor.  The cloth is the point at which we all converge.  The cloth and sewing.  When I sew, I know my mother.  She made herself look wonderful.  Sewing was her push back at life.  Cloth and patchwork, but patchwork in some different places rather than quilts.  She made patchwork shirts and chair cushions to serve herself in an apprenticeship--in order to practice and to gain confidence in the work.  But before all of that, it was a ritual for the women and girls--my aunts, cousins included, of the family to have full-length bathrobes made of patchwork.  I had a lined bathrobe for the winter and a lighter cotton one for the warmer weather symmetrically designed.  Whatever patch that was on the right and including its shape could be found on the left in the same format.  Somehow this sense of female balance shaped my childhood psyche.  Although things were colorful, arbitrarily shaped--there was a sense of rightness to the confusion--a measured beat to the mosaic.  Whenever I sew, I feel as if I enter some kind of cosmic tunnel and I never know what sensation will present itself to me.  What impression will assuage my hungers and doubts. --Rhea

braided rug

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