Article - Summer 2020

Stitches in Time

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A meditation on needlepoint and mortality

By Lucy Ferriss | June 2, 2020
Toby Andrew/Alamy; photo of clutch courtesy of Lucy Ferriss
Toby Andrew/Alamy; photo of clutch courtesy of Lucy Ferriss

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.

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