Friday, May 2, 2008

How I Got This Way...

I started out normal, but it didn't last.

“For Sale
One embroidery hoop.
1 First Aide kit, slightly used
1 pair blue jeans with unique cross stitch design.”

Some people, namely members of my immediate family, blame me for my grandmother’s fear of needlepoint samplers. Strangely enough, my grandmother is one of these people. She sees me with a needle and begins to shiver, often vibrating out of her seat and across the floor before she can grab something large and heavy to hang on to. Conversations at this point are not pleasant.

Grandma (quavering): “You’re going to sew something, aren’t you?”
Me (snarling): “I’m a nurse; this four-inch long needle is for giving a shot in the spine.”
Grandma (wiping her forehead): “Thank God. I was afraid you were going to hurt someone.”

She then wanders off forking the evil-eye, muttering to herself, and snatching up any loose thread in my house. (Yes, those are staples hemming my pants. Why do you ask?) It wasn’t always like this. For a brief period when I was ten, Grandma and I shared a special bond.

Grandma, who I called Mammy, liked going on frequent outings with me, often going as far as admitting to others that we were related. Of course, even then the woman went out of her way to fill my life with chaos.

On day in the early ‘70’s, after much begging and pleading, Mammy agreed to take me with her to a Cincinnati department store.

“I couldn’t stand to see your mother begging and pleading like that,” she snarled. “Just get in the car.”

At the store she was forced to turn around in order to pick up some fabric and I happily skipped over to the toy aisle. Not wanting to leave Grandma out of things, I smiled at the nice elderly black woman and her grandson beside me and hollered-
“Hey, Mammy, look at these!”

The next few minutes are a blur in my mind, but I do remember her shouting as she passed me-
“Keep running, I think we’re losing them.”

To this day I’m not sure what she did to cause such a fuss, and since every time I mention it she turns a peculiar shade of green, makes the sign of the cross, and curses Margaret Mitchell, I have chosen to discretely allow the matter to drop .

But back to the sewing…

A few months after the department store incident, my mother decided that my current goal of becoming a mountain man lacked several important elements- namely dignity, grace, and femininity. Over my father’s feeble protests (“But Carol, the kid has three thumbs!”) my mother turned me over to Mammy with some vague instructions about embroidery floss.

At the time, Mammy was working two jobs. By day she sewed furs into fur coats, and at night she cut meat for a local deli. Working sixteen hours a day, five days a week, always brought a certain element of excitement and danger to any packages she might bring home.

“Hey Mammy, the hair on this sandwich is sticking in my teeth !” I’d wail.

“Shaddup and add more mustard,” she’d mutter, stomping back to her sewing. Paw-paw Harry and I would then sit and applaud as she neatly stitched a quarter pound of pickle loaf into the lining of a full-length mink coat. Wearing one of Mammy’s creations involved not so much glamour as speed and an ability to leap tall fences persued by numerous neighborhood dogs.
On my first evening of sewing lessons, I dutifully gathered up hoop and embroidery floss, and ploped down into Mammy’s favorite chair.

“AAAAAiiggggh!” I screamed, leaping up and pawing frantically at my arm.

“Don’t bleed on my pins,” Mammy said, deftly removing them from my skin. “I keep ‘em there so they’re convenient.”

Resigned to my fate, I immediately stuffed the nice thick end of the floss through the hole in a four-inch needle. For those of you not familiar with frontier life, a four-inch magnetized needle is the friend of mountain men everywhere, useful for removing splinters, sewing up a torn baseball glove, and occassionally acting as the center of a compass. In times of true hardship, it can also be used to stab small game and spear fish.

Mammy winced, and handed me a silver eyelash from her needle case.

“Peel off two strands and thread the needle..”

“TWO strands.”

“Just pull them off the…”

“Don’t get your fingers caught in the…”

Many of you may not realize this, but embroidery floss has been implicated in several mysterious deaths and can represent a Class 4 health hazard to the improperly trained. The paramedics agreed with me, but Mammy refused to believe them. I tell you that woman is weird.

After much thrusting and parrying with my now threaded eyelash, I approached the fabric I was supposed to adorn.

“Where’s the design?” I asked.

“In your head,” she said.

I checked.

“Nope,” I said.

It was strange. Prior to that moment I never realized that my grandmother, a strict Roman Catholic, was familiar with the tennants of island voodoo.

Her eyes rolled back into her head, and her hands began to shake. Her trembling fingers snatched up a pen and traced arcane symbols on the smudgy white material. I could almost hear the beat of Hatian drums as a flood of strange words poured from her lips.

“Dorothy,” said my Grandfather, setting down the crucifix he had snatched up, “Don’t use language like that around the kid.”

Relieved that I wouldn’t have to sacrifice a chicken, I took a closer look at what she had drawn.

“The alphabet!” I wailed. “I don’t wanna sew the lousy alphabet. Write some words at least.”

“Your mother wouldn’t want those words on the wall,” Mammy said. “Now sew.”

Noticing my 6’4” Grandfather calmly attempting to ease himself beneath the sofa, I frantically began to push my threaded eyelash though the material. I noted with fascination that floss pulled easily through the material, leaving a trail of holes behind it.

A few minutes later I heard a sound.

Glancing up from the spots of blood which had inexplicably sprouted on the inked letters B through H (possibly the work of local elves), I noted a strange look on Mammy’s face. I watched her suspiciously as I attempted to massage away the sharp, stabbing pains in the tips of my fingers

“The thread... th’ th’ the thread...,” she stuttered.

“It’s right here,” I said triumphantly, holding up the entire length. “See?”

Without a word, Mammy took the embroidery hoop and needle, presumably for framing. Paw-Paw assured me later that their subsequent disappearance was indeed, as Mammy said, a case of spontaneous combustion.

Later that night, Mammy presented me with my uncle’s coonskin cap, a bow and arrows, and a packed lunch.

“Don’t let ‘em kill your dreams kid,” she said sweetly in my ear. “The mountains are in Tennessee.”

You just can’t argue with that kind of love.

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