Threads of Connection
by Nancy Gerber
My grandmother was an artist with needle and thread.
By the time I was born, she had retired as a seamstress who took in sewing to help my grandfather, a tailor, make ends meet. She raised three children during the Great Depression, when food, clothing, money, everything, was scarce.
During my childhood, I’d spend long weekends with her a few times each summer, and, during those visits she taught me how to embroider. The linen tablecloths she embroidered with silk floss were things of beauty. They were bordered in a cross stitch that framed bunches of yellow, ochre, and umber flowers. The designs were hers.
I told her wanted to make tablecloths, too, but she said that would take too long. She showed me how to start small, with a wooden hoop and a 12-inch square of cotton.
I’m sitting on a yellow-and-white aluminum chair on the front porch of my grandmother’s semi-detached house at 41 Chatham Road. All the houses on this block are two family houses built of gray fieldstone. At my home we don’t have a porch, which is the most important feature. From the porch there’s a wonderful vantage point; you can watch the neighbors gardening and the passersby walking their dogs along the buckled sidewalk. But the porch is not a public space; it’s an extension of my grandmother’s house, which gives it a measure of protection. I’m an observer here, but I’m not alone. I bend my head over my small wooden embroidery hoop and try to make the stitches even and tight — not too tight or the fabric will buckle — the way my grandmother has shown me. Through the screen door I hear the clink of metal pans and utensils as my grandmother gets ready to make the crust for a peach pie.
I know almost nothing about my grandmother’s early life in Ukraine. I do not know her mother’s name or whether she left any siblings behind when she emigrated in 1910. I do know I am named for a sister who died, Ensa, but I don’t know anything about her. I don’t know how or where my grandmother learned embroidery– whether my great-grandmother taught her, or whether she taught herself here, in the U.S., and whether she reached toward it from loneliness, or from missing the mother who’d been left behind, or from the sheer desire to make something beautiful, something that, in a life where there was no room for waste, was also utilitarian.
As I grew older, summer visits to my grandmother were less frequent. I went to camp, first as a camper, then as a junior counselor. My grandmother began to suffer from arthritis and the deepening depression of my mother’s brother, my uncle, who lived with her. My grandmother also became depressed, too enervated to take up her stitchery. Too burdened with sorrow to do anything much but sit.
I stayed with embroidery, though, throughout high school, shifting from silk floss to wool yarn. I loved the richness of crewelwork, the way the satin stitches and gradations of color – ivory, sand, pale gray – blended so smoothly they resembled actual feathers on the owl I was stitching.
That crewel owl was framed and hung in my mother’s kitchen until my mother developed dementia and went into a nursing home. My grandmother’s tablecloths, which lay folded at the bottom of my mother’s dining room hutch, also disappeared, another casualty of the angst and pressure of cleaning out my mother’s packed-to-the-gills house. Let me say this: I did not help much during the weeding-out process – if you’ve been through it you know – so there’s no one else to blame.
I haven’t embroidered in years. Once or twice I purchased a crewelwork kit but my heart wasn’t in it. And life became busy: marriage, jobs, grad school, children.
Now, instead of the embroidery needle, I take up the pen.
In silken threads of ink I stitch my grandmother’s name.
Nancy Gerber has published fiction, poetry, and essays in Mom Egg Review, Adanna, Forge, The Penmen Review, and elsewhere. Her most recent publications are a booklet of poems illustrated with family photographs entitled We Are All Refugees and a book of short stories, A Way Out Of Nowhere (Big Table Publishing). She received a Ph.D. in Literatures in English from Rutgers University.