Dead People’s Art Supplies

photo 1

I leaf through my father’s copy of The Art of French Cooking and find his brother-of-the-famous-architect handwriting. He lists meal plans with no dessert suggestions and intricate drawings for drying racks that hang over a sink. Perhaps he constructed one such drying rack in one of the rooms he rented after he left our family to live in Texas and before he came to live his last year with me in Kentucky.

I sort wooden from plastic spools, miles of thread, some cotton, some silk, some poly which I will never use in a shiny tin, one among many tins of sewing supplies I took home from Cleveland, where my best friend’s mother sewed for her family and ran a vintage linen business from her home. This explains the Baggies of lace, yards of tatted bone colored edging for pillowcases I have not yet made. It also explains why you should come over to my house if you are ever in need of a button.

I have something short of a mile of another family’s name on tags that were never sewn in the collars of camp shorts and zippered windbreakers for boys that are likely retiring from careers on Wall Street right about now. When the mother of that family of hearty adventurers died, no one wanted her sewing ephemera, so I took it. I have a very soft heart for bodkins and bobbins, for metal zippers and wide rickrack. I have used her sewing machine for 20 years now and I think of her, who I never met, every single time.

photo 2

I have more Baggies of stamp collections and piles of neatly pressed hankies, of canceled stamps torn from envelopes, slipped in to a holiday card envelope with my name penciled in art teacher hand-writing by my beloved knitting circle friend who is dead now. I went to an estate sale at her house and found Christmas ornaments I had made for her. I asked the man who was running the sale if I could please just have them rather than pay only one dollar for a tiny Virgin Mary’s prayer shawl knit when we were praying for one of our Circle or six dollars for a small embroidered pot holder bearing alphabet beads with the initials of each of our Circle, in a circle. The estate sale guy looked at me as if I had appeared before him with a feathered face singing like a nightingale. “No one has ever asked me that before. Sure. I guess.” I pocketed them. They sit on my altar now.

In the studio of my dearest friend who has been dead for over thirteen years, I excavate every summer for as long as I can stand the mildew. This means I have tolerance to clear one shelf a season. The small unheated space is home of mice and spiders. The gray shed freezes solid in the winter on Cape Cod and bakes like an oven in the summer. Every year, even though we have cleaned it out, the shelves sprout with things we missed. In April, I found an A&P grocer’s smock that she’d used as a painting apron pressed in to the dirt floor. It is good quality linen that withstood the freeze thaw cycle thirteen times over, mashed in to the sandy soil, piled over with bikes and boogie boards and collections of bones, raffia and shells that we still cannot get rid of. I washed and line-dried the smock, letting it sit in the sun for a few days after it’s hermitage in the studio. It fits me perfectly. She was right-handed. So am I.

A&P

Slipped in to the clear plastic pocket of a set of water-color pencils in a case that bears her initials, long forgotten in that allergy inducing studio, is a small rectangle of cardboard. When I got the kit home and began wiping each pencil free of spider web and mouse poop, I inched the tightly held cardboard free. Her fingers were the last to touch it. I cannot forget this. It bears a tiny perspective drawing of the farm she lived on with her family, young boys and a handsome husband, then with his lover too, all so very open-minded in the mid-1970s in rural Kentucky. Each side bears a drawing, different views of the same place she painted and painted and painted over the years I knew her, on canvas, on linen and even tongue depressors.

Lines left of the life of another.

In a spiral stenographer’s notebook that belonged to my knitting Circle friend who grew up in Virginia, but traveled to Florence, Italy to go to art school where she met her husband and began a life that is worthy of ballads, but is now being parceled out at that estate sale, I found her first kiln instructions, directions for firing and how not to handle slip and glazes. Her handwriting was so firm, pencil so fine, cursive or printed. There is a page of her doodles of ceramic cups that I know she fired in a blazing hot kiln, glazed in plum or turquoise green. I studied a shelf of them at the estate sale not realizing they were of her hand.

What marks do we leave behind us?

I hoe around my roses with the tool I got from a tag sale across the street from my house. My neighbor, a fine baker and kind soul, whose death closed up the house and caused the tag sale, told me once that her long departed husband had tended the gardens around my house, back in the days when they were grand. I hope there is some transmission in my effort, his hand guiding my work.

Oil pastels from a friend’s uncle in a latched wooden box, each stick worn by the thumb of a persistent painter. Unused envelopes from a graphic designer’s desk that fold together like butterfly wings. There is much to be learned by using the tools of those who have gone before me.

A pot from Campo

This summer, I will return to my mother’s home to wrestle in to my car the last four boxes of her belongings that my sisters and I need to make decisions about. Being the eldest and for that matter the matriarch, and for another matter, the most interested, I am carrying her letters, notes, and a life long correspondence with her sister, who preceded her in death by 6 years. I think that loss, in some way, contributed to my own mother’s loosening grip on reality.

Those boxes don’t resemble my mother.
But they bear her marks, more than anything she left behind.
She did not choose to burn those letters, love letters to my father, notes sent home by teachers on the backs of report cards about my behavior at my Lutheran grade school. She left it all in decent order.

While they are not necessarily art supplies, her papers bear a tracery of the life my mother lived. I expect that my work will be impacted by what I read.

I am a collector.
Words in to poems.
Papers in to collages.
Thoughts in to books.
Threads in to embroidered flowers.
Skidding lines across my own life, letting things handled by others make their marks on me.

 

xo S

 

 
Thank you for reading Laundry Line Divine.

For more writing from inside motherhood by Suzi and 35 other women, find yourself a copy of An Anthology of Babes: 36 Women Give Motherhood a Voice. In a recent review posted on Amazon and Good Reads, a reader said:

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Showing 9 comments
  • janet

    beautiful…

  • Lorrin Krouss

    This post was so wonderful. So incredibly tender and visual. I am not a saver of things, but somehow I did manage to save my grandmother’s button collection, now contained in two large mason jars. When my five year old granddaughter comes to visit me, we take out one of the jars, spill the buttons on my bed, creating a riot of colors and shapes. Her eyes light up as she sifts through them all, tiny hands gathering pieces of plastic and crystal. She only wants the flat buttons not the ones with the “bump on the back”. She tells me that she uses them for art projects and just hearing this, fills me with such incredible love for her. To think that some of these buttons. many of which are now a century old, will end up covered in Elmer’s glue and stuck to a cardboard drawing, actually pleases me. It is the creative part that thrills me. And, sharing the memories.

  • French Toast Tasha

    I know exactly what you mean. This past week, my family and friends gathered for our annual craft retreat. Near the end, my aunt sewed pillows from my grandmother’s handwoven fabric, and it was a little like she got some extra, invisible help—seams and stripes matched perfectly without too much fuss, they came out so lovely. I have a lot of notions and tools saved from that same grandmother’s stash, and from other friends and relatives. There is a value, a connection to old things that a new tool can’t yet hold.

  • Elizabeth Teal

    oh Suzi! I read these words as i am taking a break from the sorting and distorting of my mother’s studio — my hands covered in clay, i only managed to wash the finger tips to get some cold tea – and your words wash over me, and tears spill out. I am taking the slab roller to a sculptor tomorrow morning – but today – i needed to dance once last round with clay that my mum had wedged. in clearing out I find bits of pieces of possibilities – buttons, stamps, tatted lace to be pressed into porcelain – we are made of clay and stardust! thank you for this tea break – and for being you in this world. i too am a collector. we come by it honestly.

  • Cait Lynch

    Suzy–yes, this piece is so tender. I read and felt like I do when I am gardening–dirty and fresh all at once. I am reminded of my own box of things saved that one day, someday, my own daughter will sort through. My mother told me once long ago that she might ‘burn her old journals before she dies.’ She said she didn’t want to leave me with the hauntings of her life. Half of me hopes she does and the other half knows they will prove worthy fodder for generations to come. Thanks again for this.

  • Terri Bocklund

    This one made me think of the dead peoples’ guitars that stand in a row with my own. Playable or not, I cannot part with them.

    Thank you Suzi for bringing to mind the spirit in the stuff left behind.

  • Nancy Moon

    Suzi, this is so beautiful, I loved reading each word. It’s also special because I was at the tag sale and saw how precious your friend’s items were. I am moved by this piece, noting all of the thing I collect of my mom’s and how because I’m the girl she hands things to me, and I cherish them. PS. I ordered two books from the store below. I’ll one to one lucky mother-friend. Another I will read. xxx (I also asked the store in writing if they just-so-happen to have any autographed copies on hand.)