Insofar as religion concerns a theory of an afterlife—and let’s face it, anything else amounts to philosophy—I lost what remained of my religious faith when I inherited my mother’s needlepoint purse.
The purse is what we used to call a clutch. I remember it as my mother’s go-to bag from my earliest childhood to adolescence. I know that she crafted it herself because she included her initials, AHF, on the side, in green yarn embedded on the backdrop of black. The main design is a stylized tree in almond brown thread, with green and yellow leaves curling out from the candelabra branches. A few touches of gold—in the shape of pears—punctuate the black. For a clutch, it is capacious, bladdering out from the gold rim that snaps together at the top.
My mother was a whiz with a needle. Early one fourth-grade morning, I burst into my parents’ bedroom with the panicked news that I had forgotten an assignment for which we’d had a week to prepare. I needed to be at school in two hours, costumed as a Greek goddess. “Which goddess?” my mother wanted to know, rubbing her eyes and reaching for her cigarettes.
“Demeter,” I said. “Goddess of nature.”
Within an hour, my mother had taken down a curtain in the sewing room and stitched it into a toga with a Greek key design at the hem. She’d rummaged through a chest and found various fronds of plastic leaves and flowers and stitched them onto a plastic headband swathed in a torn nylon stocking. She’d even dressed up my sneakers with green and gold rickrack. Later that day, I took first prize in the Greek mythology dress-up contest.
My mother also knitted, needles silently worrying the yarn that looped its way into our sweaters and scarves. She’d learned to knit as a tubercular child in Chicago, where the cure at Children’s Hospital involved strategies like having her sleep on the roof in midwinter, snow falling on the mound of blankets over her slight body, in the hope of freezing out the tubercles. She wasn’t allowed to read; mental activity was thought to rouse the disease. But she could work her hands, and her mother brought in brightly colored yarns for her to knit into scarves for the other afflicted children.
But needlepoint was the tapestry of my mother’s time. I went with her to the little shop in town that sold patterns and yarns and watched as she contemplated her next project. A seat cushion, even for a needleworker like my mother, could take months. At the huge Gothic Episcopal church where my father took us kids, the pews on which we knelt had been needlepointed by members of the Women’s Guild. My mother, being an atheist, did not belong, but even she knew that the project had consumed the energy and skills of perhaps two dozen women for the better part of five years.
Needlepoint patterns were not cheap, so sometimes my mother drew her own on stiff white canvas. I don’t know if the tree on her clutch was a design she bought or created. I very vaguely remember her working on it. I recall wishing it were brighter—lime or melon—not this deep black background with a tan tree. But my mother was a sophisticate. She admired Chagall and Van Gogh. When she worked her tiny Willcox & Gibbs chain-stitch sewing machine, it was to create knockoffs of dresses she’d seen in Vogue. In the 1960s, she would spend up to $15 for fabrics and patterns that, under her hands, yielded an outfit others saw as designer. She taught me to sew, as well, and I tried making the kind of blouses that the rich girls were buying at Honeybee Boutique, with overlapping tucks on either side of the buttoned front placket. My tucks always came out a little crooked, but I didn’t mind the teasing, because I knew what my mother was capable of. I had a goal.
Sewing clothes saved money. Today, sweatshops in Asia flood our markets with inexpensive and often quite well-made goods. But in my childhood and my mother’s active adulthood, being handy with a needle was a useful skill for a middle-class woman. Ditto knitting, in an era when “virgin wool” was coveted while polyester meant thin, cheap, and bound to pill. We were long past the early 19th century, when the English writer and seamstress Mary Lamb, lamenting “tedious work,” wrote, “I know not a single family where there is not some essential drawback to its comfort which may be traced to needle-work done at home … for which no remuneration in money is received or expected.” But it would still have been possible to calculate, as Lamb wrote, “how much money has been saved by needle-work done in the family.”
Needlepoint was another matter. No one needed needlepoint. Yes, the tight stitching of wool in and around an interlock canvas made for a durable surface. Yes, the dyed-in colors held faster than printed ones. But in no universe did such advantages outweigh the enormous investment of time and money that these items required. As Lamb noted, needlepoint was “so long in the operation, that purchasing the labour has seldom been thought good economy.” Instead, needlepoint took a step toward the boundaries separating skill from craft and craft from art. The patterns (unless you drew your own) were given—but you chose the one that reflected your aesthetic vision, and you were free to add elements, like the initials my mother wove into the corner of her clutch. Perhaps most important, creating a pillowcase, a purse, a belt, or a set of seat cushions out of needlepoint suggested that your ample leisure time was devoted to creative work.
I learned to do needlepoint the way I learned ballroom dancing and the proper arrangement of silver flatware for a four-course dinner—that is, as a talent whose usefulness would predecease my proficiency. The reasons are obvious. I grew up amid the second wave of feminism. I assumed that I would at least work, at best pursue a profession. In the seesaw between valuing traditional female pursuits and trying to beat men at their game, I inclined toward the latter. But even if I hadn’t, the very need to justify and value so-called women’s work meant highlighting its essential nature: a child’s need for her mother, the superiority of home-cooked food and family dinnertimes, the role of women in philanthropy. Needlepoint had no more place in the argument than it did for the pioneering astronomer Maria Mitchell, who wrote that “the eye that directs a needle in the delicate meshes of embroidery will equally well bisect a star with the spider web of the micrometer.”
Needlepoint hasn’t entirely disappeared. At chain stores like Michael’s and Joann fabrics, you can find needlepoint kits at upwards of $150 for pillow covers reading “Home Sweet Home” and the like. I assume that some women buy and work these kits. But the sight of a needlepoint clutch on Fifth Avenue would convince most of us that we had entered a time warp.
Which brings me to religion.
Every morning now, I wake to the sight of my mother’s needlepoint clutch, which sits in a useless little alcove in our bedroom wall. I note its lack of handles; it cannot be carried into the world without putting one hand out of commission or clapping one upper arm against the ribs to secure the thing. I see my mother shoving it under her arm, a scarf over the curlers on her head, charging out the backdoor on her way to pick up my younger sister at nursery school. I see her at age nine in the children’s sanatorium in Chicago, receiving the news that her father, hospitalized for months in the adult sanatorium across town, had died, and that she will not be allowed out of the hospital for the funeral. I see her going to work for IBM during the war. I see her turning down a marriage proposal from the love of her life because her contract at IBM specified that she had to resign if she became engaged, and she knew she couldn’t bear the hardscrabble life that would be hers on her beloved’s truck-driver salary. I hear her telling us children that when the Russians dropped atomic bombs on the Midwest, we could not take our cat into the bomb shelter in our back yard. I see how deeply her terror of communism infused her loyalty to a Republican Party that said we were battling that scourge on the far side of the world in Vietnam. I hear her asking my dad for permission to return to work. I feel her shame at her eventual divorce, the way it cut her off from “polite society.” I contemplate the careful crafting of that needlepoint clutch, and I recall my mother’s lifelong disgust with sex, a disgust more normal than deviant, given the ways in which the men and women with whom she grew up coped with each other and with female sexuality.
In short, I cannot separate the mother I loved from the historical frame of her life, the same frame in which she surely owned a clutch that she might well have needlepointed herself. She died in 2004. What good is it to ask, for instance, what she would have thought of Donald Trump? My mother was politically aware, even passionate. But any view would have had to be shaped by living through the second half of George W. Bush’s presidency, through the Obama administration, through the rise of social media—and she missed out on all of that. To endow her with some sort of spiritual life that would continue past 2004 is to posit an identity for her that isn’t governed by historical circumstance. And as much as I loved her for the talented, acerbic, clever, vulnerable person that she was, without that circumstance she has no identity at all.
Neither do any of us.
In his brilliant, empathic novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, George Saunders creates a world of limbo, in which ectoplasmic characters in the graveyard where Willie Lincoln is buried try to help him get across to some other metaphysical place. I don’t know if Saunders wrestled with this question of identity, history, and the afterlife. Fortunately for the conceit of the novel, the cemetery is set in 19th-century America; its inhabitants, though they don’t seem to know who Lincoln is, are all recently deceased. They are not in an afterlife so much as in an unresolved, death-afflicted life. Hence the term bardo, which derives from a Buddhist concept of the intermediate stage, prior to reincarnation, between lives on Earth—that is, lives that will each be lived within some short span of history. All the characters in Saunders’s bardo have died within the previous couple of decades. When the spirit of Jane Ellis, for instance, recounts how “once at the Christmastide Papa took us to a wonderful village festival,” we 21st-century readers detect a 19th-century voice. What lies beyond the bardo of the novel, after a much-desired “matterlightblooming phenomenon,” Saunders does not speculate. It could be, like any existence untethered to history, a complete nullity.
That’s what I think when I look at my mother’s needlepoint clutch: that she has to be truly dead, nonexistent, because she could exist only as a woman who would needlepoint that particular abstract, stylized, modernist purse in the early 1960s, during that hinge in the 20th century. A woman born in 1922, dead in 2004.
Needlephobia tangent: I cope with a primal terror of needles entering my bloodstream. I’m not afraid of blood and do not have an issue with, say, acupuncture needles, which neither draw blood from my body nor inject some substance into my veins. When movies depict heroin addicts shooting up or patients getting IVs, I have to shut my eyes. I’ve been able to have blood drawn only by giving the phlebotomist specific directions about what to say and not say to me while I keep my head averted and bite my thumb.
I believe this phobia derives from the story of Robin Hood. As a child, I was obsessed with tales of medieval England, from Arthur and the Round Table up to the Wars of the Roses. In the attic of our house, my brother and I found a box of lead knights, which I immediately claimed. My mother gave me the tiny wooden baskets in which the A&P sold strawberries and cherry tomatoes, to stack into castles and keeps. I would like to claim this passion individually, as it were—to credit it to my own romanticism and my budding interest in the structure of myth and story. But the fact is, as a child of the genteel middle class, I lived in a house full of books handed down from a generation that, in the late 19th century, first flaunted its crowded bookshelves in living rooms. Classics of Victorian children’s literature and the works of Sir Walter Scott, so treasured by the fallen aristocracy of the postbellum South, marched across our walls. I have a few of those books now, and my bookshelves sag under the weight of my own purchases over the years. But my children grew up in a world of computers and contemporary, child-focused literature. For them to have developed a similar obsession (as opposed, say, to a fixation on Harry Potter) is almost unimaginable.
The volume that formed my imagined world, The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood, written and illustrated by Howard Pyle in 1883, ends with the death of Robin. Unable to shoot his arrows straight, he goes to a prioress to be bled. But the prioress is a traitor to the Merry Men; she opens a vein in Robin’s arm and bleeds him to death. With his last bit of strength, he shoots an arrow out of the priory window, asking to be buried where it lands. In my mind, something about the sharp arrow and the horror of having a vein opened makes me hug both arms to my chest every time I think about needles puncturing the walls of my bloodstream. I have never succeeded in giving blood. Death by injection is an ongoing fear.
But whereas a needle in a vein feels like a violation, a needle stroking its bloodless way through a design affords sensual pleasure. There’s the way it enters the canvas, or the fabric, or the space between loops of yarn. The way it exits, trailing its twisted strand of wool or thread, making what has been punctured more secure, more solid and useful. Even the scar on the underside of my left arm, from surgery following a wrist break, was made by a needle pulling the sliced skin back together, making it whole.
If there was one aspect of life that my mother craved despite her denials, it was sensual pleasure. This, too, entails historical circumstance. Her father came of solid Irish stock, but in 1931, when he finally entered the hospital for the tuberculosis he had contracted in the First World War, he weighed 106 pounds. He had waited too long. He was an up-and-comer who had married a fair American girl of English descent and made his way in Chicago business. TB was considered a disease of the shanty Irish. Until he could scarcely stand on his feet any longer, the shame was too much to bear.
In my mother’s case, the disease lodged in the lymph nodes of her groin. Like her father, she was encouraged to eat and drink milk in order to fatten up, and she hated that. She was also on the edge of adolescence. One day, when she was scheduled to have one of the swollen nodes lanced, the doctor came through the ward on his rounds with a covey of medical students, all men. They gathered around the foot of my mother’s cot.
“Now here’s an interesting case,” the doctor said.
He ordered the nurse to remove the covers from the cot and to lift up my mother’s hospital gown. Then the nurse splayed apart my mother’s thighs. The men leaned in. They stared. The doctor drew out his long needle. With bright light shining on my mother’s preadolescent genitalia and a half-dozen men as witness, he punctured the swollen node while my mother screamed.
A few months later, her father died. Throughout their separate confinement, he had sent her letters—letters full of poetry and love and romance, letters calling her his little darling. Barred from his funeral, she refused to weep for a half century. Then, in her early 60s, she woke sobbing from a dream of her father, and she cried all night. “It was like a flood,” she told me. “I couldn’t do anything to stop it.”
When she’d finally emerged from the hospital, she had two enemies: doctors who make you eat, and men who part your legs. For the rest of her life, she disdained food and disliked sex. But in the middle of some nights, you could hear her in the kitchen gobbling caramels. She participated with alacrity in the cocktail culture of her time. And she wielded her needles with a deftness that approached genius. She made real Mary Lamb’s arch admission that needlework “taken up as an amusement may not be altogether unamusing.”
I look at the purse. That it came from my mother’s hands, that it belonged to my mother, and that it belonged, and still belongs, uniquely to a moment in time and place when she was 36 years old in the Midwest of Dwight Eisenhower’s America, breaks my heart a little every time. It testifies to her urge, which is my urge and perhaps everyone’s, to transcend—and it denies any transcendence. It still holds one of her combs and a couple of clean folded tissues. Though time never wore away the purse’s rich colors or sturdy wool stitching, my mother stopped using it in the 1970s. It was out of fashion by then. She had returned to work. A leather shoulder bag made much more sense. “Oh, that old thing,” I can hear her saying. Though she never threw it away—it’s hard to toss what your hands have crafted—she probably forgot it on the upper shelf of her closet.
We are not, in other words, fixed in time. I would not claim that the purse I regard so closely encapsulates my mother. She changed as she moved through history, each moment equally new and consequent of other moments. And then she stopped changing, because she stopped being. The needlepoint purse is a signifier of identity in time, but it is not identity. There’s some relief in that. Still, to come to terms with my mother’s immanence—no soul out there watching over me—I have to admit my own. Something sparks me with terror. Am I not who I am because deep inside there’s a consciousness for which the impersonal march of history is pure contingence? I’m governed by mortality, sure. But a mortality inextricable from this particular span? Isn’t my membership, for instance, in the baby-boomer generation—with its easy answers, its sentimental nostalgia for the lyrics of John Lennon’s “Imagine,” its cringeworthy ability to put itself first—purely an accident?
No. Much as David Foster Wallace, in his famous address at Kenyon College, urged his young listeners to “consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t,” he wasn’t about to tell them that all their decisions, all their goals, even all their regrets could only be theirs within the culture of the various moments in which they lived. However deep or wide their imaginations, they would fail, like Woody Allen’s hero in Midnight in Paris, if they tried to create their lives’ meaning according to different historical parameters.
If we seal ourselves to history when we die, our deaths seal history to us. If humans were immortal, maybe there would be no history to speak of, no world that could only be this world now—any more than we in it could be ourselves. We refer to prehistory as the time before written records. It may be that those records—whether they constitute marks on paper or notches on stick or stone—create time, and in so doing create the very mechanism that defines us as individuals.
My children, when I die, will throw that needlepoint purse away. It holds no meaning for them. What will, for them, constitute the stone out of whose pond-ripples my life extended to the shores of my time is past my imagining. Whatever little thing they might choose, like my fixing on my mother’s clutch, will from my point of view be insufficient, will be wrong. Or would be. Because I will be dead. And only the living, while they live in their time, think they have an argument to make.
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