Needles and Thread, Part I: Workmanship

Needles and Thread, Part I: Workmanship

(Part of my Blowing on Embers series)

My mother is an expert needlewoman. At least, she was until arthritis and eyesight betrayed her. She grew up in an era when nearly all young girls learned to sew and excel at other needlework. When I was a girl, my mother made all my clothes before she taught me to sew, too.

She was a painstaking seamstress who worked on an item of clothing until it met the approval of her extraordinarily critical eye. Ripping out seams didn’t bother her one whit if it meant a better garment. A dart that didn’t end precisely at the right point, a facing that didn’t lie perfectly flat, a seam that puckered the tiniest bit—none of these flaws would do, no matter how slight.

I spent torturous hours standing on a stool where I was required to turn ever so slowly, like a music box ballerina (but not nearly so patiently), while she pinned and repinned a dress hem until it was perfectly straight, a fact she ensured with her trusty yardstick. Wherever needle and thread were concerned, Mother was a perfectionist.

My mother, like hers before her, tatted for years, making doilies, snowflake tree ornaments, and yards of knotted lace edging for collars, sleeves, and hemlines. She spent many an evening working on needlepoint, embroidery, crewel work, and cross-stitch, too. Needlework pieces made by either Mother or Grandmother covered the walls of my parents’ home: a zinnia bouquet, a North Carolina map, birds of America, twin Christmas “Partridge in a Pear Tree” wall hangings, along with humorous or pithy pearls of wisdom. “If Mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy,” and”Nobody sits down until the cook sits down,” and “Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without” are three memorable ones.

The combination cross-stitch and embroidery piece that long hung just inside Mother’s bathroom door has always been one of my favorites. Surrounded by basic embroidered designs depicting various bathroom scenes (a stick figure powdering her nose, an overflowing tub, someone nervously dancing on the wrong side of the door), are these cross-stitched words:

Who waits outside this door / One may never know / So hurry up, my dear / He, too, may have to go.

One day when I was visiting Mom, I wondered aloud about its provenance. I wasn’t a hundred percent certain, but I was pretty confident I’d seen this piece hanging in my grandparents’ house before it was in hers. Her response was sure and strong. “Mother made it. I’ve always been really proud of my needlework. Mother was never very careful with hers, and there’s a mistake in this picture.”


Can you find a mistake?

She cheerfully volunteered to show me its fault as proof. She studied that piece, then studied some more trying to find the offending error. After a long few minutes, Mother said, “I can’t find anything wrong with it. I made it, after all!”

A perfectionist—and a cocky one at that.

No Touching

(Part of my Blowing on Embers series)

About this time of year I’m overcome with nostalgia. What brings it on is the flowering of touch-me-nots. My now grown children groan in exasperation whenever they hear me mention these wildflowers—they know what’s coming next.

It’s the story of how these jewel-toned flowers remind me it’s time for the school year to start in these parts. How I fondly remember watching the two of them emerge from a heavy fog as they walked up our newly-graded and graveled road after their first day of school barely more than a month after we moved up here on the diagonal. (Punkin was a fourth-grader, wishing she was back in the Brown School in Louisville. It was Cuddlebug’s very first day of school anywhere.) How their arrival home from late-summer school days was often delayed because they couldn’t resist the urge to stop along the way to do exactly the opposite of the warning implied by the plant’s name and pop the flowers’ seedpods. It’s an addictive pursuit, and it was a fun way to end the school day.

Handling a touch-me-not is a uniquely rewarding and giggle-worthy experience. The seedpods don’t look particularly fragile, but when they’re mature, the slightest movement causes a virtual explosion, with tiny seeds catapulting onto the landscape—no doubt the reason this wildflower is so prevalent in territory friendly to its needs. The steep banks along our country roads are saturated with touch-me-not plants right now.

Predictably, with all those explosive seedpods, touch-me-nots have taken over the roadsides.

Also known as jewelweed, this prolific wildflower may be either yellow or orange, each variety’s flowers freckled with deep reddish-brown spots near and in their deep throats. Their nectar-filled spurs make them attractive to hummingbirds, butterflies, and other pollinators. In appearance, they strike me as a cross between miniature orchids and larkspurs.Touch-me-nots are common throughout all of the U. S. with the exception of a few western states. They’re fascinating plants—beautiful, useful, quirky, and irresistible to kids of all ages. Once you’ve popped a few seedpods, you never outgrow the urge when you come upon a patch of these intriguing plants.

When a seedpod bursts open, either on its own or with a little human help, the hull instantly curls up into tight coils, like small, green springs. It’s all so fast you can’t see it happening. A captivating sight in itself. And even though you know that little explosion is coming and are waiting for it, it will inevitably make you jump in startled surprise.

The leaves are just as intriguing. If you find yourself in a patch of jewelweed on a dewy morning or just after a rain, its leaves will be the only dry thing around, displaying little beads of water on their surface. Dancing in sunlight, the water glistens like diamonds.

Submerge a leaf in water with its underside facing up and it turns silver. Pull it out and it will be dry, with only a few droplets of water here and there.

Touch-me-nots also have medicinal uses. The best-known and most practical use is as a remedy for itching. In fact, they’re often found in conveniently close proximity to itch-inducing poison ivy and stinging nettle. By breaking open the liquid-filled stems and spreading the watery sap on skin that’s been exposed to these plants or to insect bites or stings, you’ll most likely experience immediate relief.

And you can even eat the little seeds. They taste a lot like walnuts–really! Granted, it would take a lot of collecting to get enough to bake into a dish, but it’s a handy thing to know if you happen to find yourself lost and hungry in the midst of these delightful plants.

All this and nostalgia, too.

The sight of touch-me-nots, the start of the school year, the long held vision of our children in their first-day-of-school finery, the hint of autumn in the air, the memory of those first days of house-building—all these things represent the beginning of our life on the diagonal.

Kids, if you didn’t already realize, you might as well get used to it because whenever touch-me-nots are in bloom, I’ll continue to reminisce aloud about this giant tangle of sweet memories.

Polio: From Reign of Terror to Obscurity in One Generation

(Part of my Blowing on Embers series)

Recently, I was recounting a childhood event in my life to my teenage grandchildren. I mentioned polio (paralytic poliomyelitis). “What’s polio?” asked the seventeen-year-old.

Wow—imagine that! To think this (mostly) childhood disease which terrorized U. S. parents for four epidemic-laden decades of the 20th century is unknown to today’s youth is almost unfathomable to someone like me who lived through that era. That there’s no reason for them to know about it is an amazing blessing.

It certainly wasn’t always like that. If you’re in the same boat as my grands, you may want to know there was a time when polio, a disease that’s been around since ancient times, was widespread in this country.

The U. S. experienced annual polio epidemics every summer between 1916 and 1955, with the worst outbreaks occurring in the 40s and 50s—the period of my childhood. Nineteen fifty-two was the peak year for the nation’s epidemic: 60,000 cases were reported. Three thousand victims died; 21,000 more were paralyzed.

Polio was, and is, a highly contagious, virus-caused disease which can be transmitted via contaminated water. That’s why public swimming pools were regularly closed during my childhood whenever a case was reported. Interestingly, most people who contracted polio never even knew it; they had no symptoms. For many others, symptoms were similar to the flu—a few days of high fever, sore throat, headache, abdominal distress. But for others . . .

My worst polio-associated image has always been the iron lung, that body-enveloping steel cylinder to which many polio victims were confined. Because polio attacked muscles, including those required for breathing, this mechanical breathing machine was the only survival hope for many. For some, like actress Mia Farrow, the iron lung was temporary, though it probably didn’t seem like it at the time.—she lived in one for eight months. For others, it was a life sentence. At least one victim was confined to an iron lung for more than forty years, until his death in 2003. 

Food and Drug Administration: iron lung ward, Rancho Los Amigos Hospital, CA.

Public domain photo courtesy of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention‘s Public Health Image Library (PHIL), identification number #6536.

Two of those terrorized mid-20th century parents were mine. When I awoke crying with a high fever in the middle of the night after a day of playing with other three-year-olds in a neighborhood mud puddle, they wasted no time rushing me to the hospital. I still retain the memory of being swooped up and cradled in my dad’s arms, tightly wrapped in a blanket. In my next remembered image, I was lying in a hospital bed, Daddy lying beside me, reading a Cornet magazine. I was terrified when I woke the next morning to find myself alone in that strange place. Mother arrived not long thereafter with a brand new pair of patent leather shoes for me to wear home. The diagnosis was tonsillitis. Their overreaction just shows how real the fear was.

Then came 1955. I was one of millions of reluctant kids dragged by our equally hopeful parents to stand in long, winding lines—in my case in the hot South Carolina summer sun—to get the brand new polio vaccine, developed by Jonas Salk. Hundreds of thousands had worked frantically to develop an effective vaccine, from scientists to test subjects to ordinary citizens raising funds for research and development.

This Pinterest photo was taken in Chicago in 1955. The line I stood in seemed every bit as long as we waited in the hot sun, dreading our fate: the first of a series of three shots. Later came the oral vaccine we took as a booster.

And just like that the epidemic was over. The residual effects, though, were not. Years late, a college classmate of mine wore leg braces and used crutches to get around campus. When I lived in Louisville, KY, in the 70s, three of my work colleagues, two of them wheelchair-bound, had contracted the disease in that city’s 1952 epidemic.

Some famous people who suffered from polio: Franklin Delano Roosevelt; Emmett Till; Jack Nicklaus; actors Alan Alda, Donald Sutherland, Mia Farrow; former Secretary of Defense and World Bank president Robert McNamara; ventriloquist (and voice of Tigger) Paul Winchell; artist Frida Kahlo; singers Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Judy Collins, Dinah Shore; NYC ballet soloist Tranquil Le Clercq; photographer Dorothea Lange; former Washington Post executive editor Ben Bradlee; saxophonist David Sanborn; Olympic gold medalist (track and field) Wilma Rudolph; Tarzan portrayer and Olympic gold medalist (swimming) Johnny Weismuller; violinist Itzhak Perlman.

Even today, there’s no cure for polio. Survivors often have residual complications and can anticipate post-polio syndrome in later life—a return of weakening muscles and other issues. Our salvation is in prevention. And while polio is now virtually unheard of in the United States and most of the world thanks to global eradication efforts, the disease hasn’t yet been wiped out. Polio still exists in two or three countries in Asia and Africa and has, on occasion, been reintroduced into others. It wouldn’t take much for a resurgence to occur here. As long as it’s out there, I won’t be completely comforted.

And yet, I’m gleeful that my grandchildren, knowledgeable as they are, have no knowledge of polio, that they have no need to know. And ever thankful to the scientists and public servants who were, and are, committed to finding a way to curb this horrific scourge worldwide.






Avon Calling

(Part of my Blowing on Embers series)

Smell: the sense that triggers our strongest childhood memories.

While it’s the aroma of sauteed onions or fried chicken or vanilla and cinnamon wafting from the kitchen that conjures up distant memories for most people, my strongest scent memory comes from an altogether different place.

For as long as I can remember, my mother has used Avon’s moisturizing cream on her face. Today’s “new and improved” product no longer comes in that familiar green jar, and these days the contents don’t have much of a scent at all, but back in the old days the aroma was distinctive.

avon jar

As a girl, I often found myself slipping into my parents’ bedroom on the sly and heading straight towards Mother’s dresser. I could count on finding the ubiquitous green jar in one of two places—either in the top middle drawer or, more often, front and center on the dresser top. I stood there, furtively unscrewing the lid to take in a deep whiff. The scent brought me comfort and a profound sense of closeness to my mom—even though she was only two or three rooms away.

As far as I know, no one in our family ever knew about my fixation, and to this day, I can’t for the life of me explain why I didn’t just walk down the hall to wherever Mother happened to be and give her a hug. She was certainly huggable—and she was always there. But for some reason I found something alluring about surreptitiously getting my “Mom fix” from that little green jar. Maybe it was the concentration of the fragrance, somehow making my sense of Mother an even stronger presence than the real thing.

But what made this secret habit so funny, so bizarre, is this: I never liked how that cream smelled!

These days I keep an old empty Avon jar in my own dresser, just for the memories. I call it “Mom, Distilled.” I do miss that old scent, though.

Blowing on Embers: Postscript

As I often do, I asked the Gnome to read and give me his thoughts on the draft of my Blowing on the Embers blog essay before I posted it. I value his insights, and he’s generous in offering me his time. It’s one the many things I love about him.

Then he went about one of his self-assigned chores: trying to get at least one of our two broken riding mowers to function. We have several acres of land in desperate need of mowing. If one of those mowers doesn’t get fixed, too many unwanted trees take over. (Black locusts, I’m talking about you.) And that means we have to cut them down, chop them up, and either burn them or pile them up into yet another wildlife habitat—good for the birds, but a little unsightly to us humans, and yet one more unwelcome chore that keeps us from more satisfying activities. But I digress.

The Gnome spends a lot of time around here fixing things that don’t work. He’s not a mechanic or an engineer or an electrician. He thinks his way through these tasks, using brainpower to solve problems he doesn’t innately understand. He believes in the power of being able to do a thing if you just put your mind to it. Another thing I love about him.

But it’s a time-consuming process. And it can be fraught with frustration—all that time and energy going into a chore, the outcome of which is unknown, when he could be doing something much more personally fulfilling. Like painting. Or writing. Or photography. Or building.

After hours of unsuccessful attempts to fix something, a sense of defeatism can set in. That’s what I expected the other day when he was working on the mowers. I’d been paying attention from my writing desk—I heard all the times he turned the key and the engine refused to catch. So, when he came in the house in the middle of the afternoon, I was all ready to offer some sympathy along with his tea and his favorite oatmeal cookies. He had to be discouraged.

Instead, he looked at me with those crinkle-cornered, laughing eyes he’s so famous for (reason # 3 if you’re keeping count) and an enigmatic smile. He told me he’d been remembering all the hours he’d spent as a boy watching his electrician dad work on the family car. He’d conjured up the time he himself had crawled up under the huge hood of our International Harvester Scout to ferret out a problem, even then imagining what his dad would have done, how he might have worked out the issue at hand.

All that time I thought he was just working on the mower, he was also channeling his dad, recalling fond memories. That afternoon, it didn’t matter so much that the mower was still in pieces.

It seems there’s more than one way to blow on the embers of your heritage.