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