Pockets

In the basement of my mother and stepfather’s house, I look through the closet where Mama’s coats hang. These are her extra coats, at least twenty of them. A black suede jacket by Anne Klein, a gold rain cape by Pierre Carden, an army-style blazer by Eileen Fisher. Size 12, size 14, large, large, large. I wish they fit me, but I swim in them. Except the cape. 

It’s raining, and I didn’t bring a raincoat. I came to Toronto to see my father in hospital, where he lies with a fractured pelvis. I left Victoria in a hurry and packed lightly—just a small overnight bag with a few clothes and a box of KN95 masks. I try on Mama’s rain cape and my hands go to the pockets. Change, Kleenex, a shopping list, a Stim-U-Dent, “the most recommended piece of wood in dental history.” 

I inherited my mother’s gum disease and her love of pockets. The best jackets and coats, dresses, and pants have pockets. Places to stash the things we might need. Mad money, my mother told me, was the money you took on a date in case the guy was a jerk and you needed the bus fare home. Pockets are secret places to slip your hands into when your fingers are cold or restless. Places to finger a hidden thing. 

Wearing the long gold cape, light as tissue paper, I start to rifle through pockets of the other coats. The treasures I find, I pile on the floor. I take just a few sample items and make an arrangement: a toonie, quarters, dimes, nickels, and pennies. Clean Kleenex, wads of it. Stim-U-Dents. A paper clip. The business card of a jeweller up on Bloor Street. Some scraps of paper with her handwriting. 

Handwriting that opens a valve spreading warmth through me. Hey, Mama, it’s you! I’ve opened hundreds of envelopes and packages addressed in that warm energetic cursive. For years, there were frequent letters filling me in, encouraging me, describing events and ideas, asking me how are you? how are the boys? Handwritten cheques, recipe cards, Christmas and birthday packages and “just because” packages. 

And lists—lists that summon an image of Mama getting ready to go out to do her daily errands.

She would tell me during our weekly calls, “I’m just like a European housewife, now. I shop every day.” I can see her in her sunglasses, her dark smooth hair in a classic bob. Pink lipstick. She is dressed all in black, and she tucks the list into her jacket pocket, slings a shopping bag over her arm. She calls for the cat Cicero, making sure he’s inside before she locks up and gets into her black Echo, buzzing up to Fiesta for the good Ace brand ciabatta. For the green net bag of bright oranges to halve and squeeze for juice every morning, using the old-fashioned cut-glass juicer. Mayo—a large jar of Hellman’s to be slathered on the sliced ciabatta and then layered with Asiago cheese and slices of the best-quality salami. A stop at the drug store for heart pills, for “dry shampoo.” I can see the funny little purple and white cannister of “Nuvola Dry Shampoo” on her vanity—that powder she sprinkled on her oily scalp to assuage some anguish she had about her hair.  

Pocket collage

I take off the rain cape—too dramatic. I worry it would draw attention to me as I walk along the street; I want to go by unnoticed. But I ask Petros if I can have her summer robe from the upstairs closet. It’s been 19 months now, but her clothes are all still here. I reach to the back of the closet and pull out the robe, still smelling of her.

Hey, Mama
What is 11 by 15?
Is it the size of a photograph 
you wanted to frame?

Did you ask 
Ma, Nung Uk 
at Golden Jewellery
to make
your ring smaller
so as to 
fit 
your
dwindled
finger?

I hope you don’t mind
that I took your  robe.
The Calvin Klein 
black jersey one
you wore in 
your final 
days. 

I was careless:
forgot to check
the pockets and
when I pulled it 
from the washer,
a fine white
confetti decorated
the dark folds.

The day before I left
I asked him, 
Could you ever
love another
woman?

No, he said. 
I would always 
compare her to 
Virginia. 

I want to write a poem about aprons

Aprons are on my mind. I sewed four of them, starting with a free pattern online (https://suzyquilts.com/free-modern-patchwork-apron-tutorial/), and soon started to modify the pattern to make it my own, changing this and that, adding pockets. Then I went to Fabricland with my youngest son and he chose fabric for an apron—animals of the African Savannah—sepia on beige. He chose a bold white on brown polka dot fabric for the lining. When I finish the apron, he thinks he might wear it while tattooing (it will get covered in ink). I bought some lovely tablecloths and placemats at Value Village, piled up now on my sewing table, which I’ll cut and shape into another apron for a friend who loves purples, pinks, and blues. 

What is the appeal of aprons? I love their practicality, their long history worn not just as a cover by women to protect their good clothes when they cooked and cleaned, but worn also by craftspeople, tradespeople, waiters, workers of all kinds throughout the ages. The cobbler at his bench, the candlestick maker pouring wax, the man with tongs at the forge, the woman throwing pots, the child sloshing poster paints over a piece of newsprint. 

I want to write a poem about aprons.  During my year off, I signed up for “Masterclass,” an online offering of video classes by “masters.” For us, this expense has been mostly a waste of money. We paid $240 for a one-year subscription because I was intrigued by the idea of learning how to write a novel from Margaret Atwood. I soon discovered that although she is  a wonderful writer, she does not inspire me. She seems truculent in her mini-lectures, and she says things like, “the garbage can is your best friend.” I feel discouraged. So I watch a few videos of David Sedaris talking about how to write humour. He says we should write in a journal. Of course. Don’t we all already? But I’ll never be very funny. So I abort that class. 

I don’t want to learn percussion from Sheila E. or Skateboarding from Tony Hawk. Nor am I interested in cooking with Wolfgang Puck or building a fashion brand with Diane von Furstenberg. But Billy Collins, the poet, seems promising. So I start to listen to his videos, to read his poems, and I feel encouraged. “Poems are the expression of thoughts and feelings, but they are no longer embarrassing, sort of like a diary without a lock.” I like that. He invites us to write a sentence, the first sentence, and then shape it into four lines for the first quatrain of the poem. So I do that. And then I write another, and another. And the poem, like the apron, grows.

I want to write a poem about aprons

The boy who wore my first apron—a 
simple Home-Ec project in denim—was  
jeered at by the other kids in the mall
where we hung out to smoke and flirt.

He pranced around the spewing fountain 
in the badly sewn thing, making lewd 
gestures, cupping his groin. Everybody  
mocked, so I joined in their laughter.

Uneven seams, unravelling, only an hour
old and the pocket falling off already: a 
garment of mistakes. Sewing is for old women,
home economics a massive bore.

In those years, a pattern coalesced: 
over and over, I betrayed myself.
The second arrow, finding my raw 
heart, buried his head in the pulp. 

Perhaps I want to sew aprons 
now to atone for my crimes against 
myself, self-betrayal just another 
stab at finding love when I was young. 

I dump drawers of fabric on my 
sewing room floor, mounds of blue
and green crash like gelid waves 
off the coast, a tossed bed for the sunset.

Colours and patterns converse
as I move the hot iron over their 
grateful hides. Next, the rotary cutter
slices straight lines to invent a silhouette.

The machine hums with ambition,
the brown paper, resisting my pins,
crinkles and bends, and I cut with the
grand yellow-handled scissors—a shape.

The thing comes together by itself—I, only 
a hand maiden, am guided to choose, to match, 
to press, and slice, and pin, to cut and shape
and press again, deferring to a greater power.

National Public Radio plays jazz 24 hours a day, 
the jazz gem of the Palouse. I love to hear the DJ say,
“the jazz gem of the Palouse,” sweet assonance.
So, breezy drums, sax, trombone, a plucky bass,

they blow the score for a blockbuster movie, a
dramady called Madeline Makes Aprons, 
the story of a girl who slowly learns the art 
of loving the shadow, the mistake, the first creation.

Madeline makes aprons

Hear my whispers

When I am frayed and strained and drizzle at the end
Please someone cut a square and put me in a quilt
That I might keep some child warm

And some old person with no one else to talk to
Will hear my whispers

And cuddle
near

excerpted from Nikki Giovanni’s “Quilts”

I wish I knew more about the dresses that were cut up and sewn into still-bright stars and pleated petals that make up the quilt on our bed. I can imagine young girls in the 1970s in their cotton frocks, blue and brown paisley, flowered yellow and orange peplum, pretty prints swinging from slender waists. Probably those dresses were home-made to begin with, with smocked bodices and full skirts. Or perhaps they were simple jumpers. I wish I knew. Once a dress had been handed down a few times from sister to cousin, and the littlest girl in the family outgrew it, the dress was cut into pieces for a quilt.

But it’s too late now to hear more stories because Frankie (Frances), the quilter, died last month at 90.  She was Michael’s sister-in-law, and when we visited her two months before her death, she gave us the quilt she sewed with her grandmother-in-law, Michael’s Grandma, whom everyone called Granny Dobie. Frankie described how Granny had travelled from her farm near Mission B.C. to Prince George with the unfinished quilt and a quilting frame that she set up in the living room. Granny then patiently instructed her granddaughter-in-law how to hand quilt so they could finish the quilt that would cover Frankie and Mac’s marriage bed.

When I lie under the quilt every night, I like to examine the stiches and think of the four hands that made them. In my mind, I see the two women—one young, one old—sitting together in companionable silence over the frame, stitching small, even dashes in white thread, tracking every seam, curved and straight, and securing the three layers of the quilt together.

We were so touched when Frankie wanted us to have the quilt—perhaps it was because she and I talked sewing when we visited, and she knew we’d both appreciate the work that went into it. When she gave us the quilt in September, she told us that Granny had used old dresses to sew all the stars and petals into blocks, placing yellows and oranges against their blue complements. I am no pink fan, so I wasn’t sure about the quilt at first, but now I treasure it. This old quilt will always remind me of vivacious, elegant Frankie.

 

Version 2For Frankie

Slender and strong as bamboo,
Frankie was fierce with reality.
She wore lipstick even on bad days,
or perhaps especially on bad days.
As she spoke in smart, tart
soprano, her long graceful hands wove the air.

Those hands
were hands that sewed and weaved,
that worked and loved,
a life time.

Sober is sexy in the Soo

As we drove, we talked about how we decided on names for our children all those years ago.  Michael mused that his first wife may have wanted to name their son Willie, partly inspired by Joni Mitchell’s love lyric to Graham Nash.  “Oh, let’s play it,” I said, and pretty soon Michael was politely commanding Siri to play Ladies of the Canyon, which we enjoyed for the next 80 kilometres. Early Joni Mitchell is smart and luminous, filled with gleaming surprises. I am constantly amazed by how privileged we are to have this kind of technology at our fingertips. To think of a song, to hear a song.

That was our hardest day, driving over 700 kilometers from Thunder Bay to Sault Sainte Marie (The Soo) while exhausted, as I hadn’t slept much in the cheap hotel in TB. We had a lovely short visit with an old friend in the morning at her place on Loon Lake outside of TB. I hadn’t seen her for 30 years, and yet when we hugged, the love felt fresh and our connection seemed unbroken. Unbelievable.  And then we booted it around Lake Superior, the lake known as gitchi-gami by the Ojibway.  We stopped at Old Woman Bay, a sandy beach on the Lake where I dipped my toes into the cool water.

Early evening, we arrived in the Soo and found an Indian restaurant where they gave us way too much food. So, after dinner we wandered around the historic streets dangling a carton of leftover lamb vindaloo and channa masala in a plastic bag, admiring the old Post Office and the many funky shops. As we passed under some scaffolding, we looked through the window of Winnie B’s Vintage Emporium, and I saw a lanky man wearing a black t-shirt that said “Sober is Sexy.”

“Hey, I love your shirt,” I called through the open door. “Thanks,” he called back, and he and Michael and I had a brief conversation about the joys of sobriety. Winnie’s owner, Patricia Bowles, had hired him and another guy to rearrange the stuff in her store. She came out on the sidewalk and introduced herself, then looked down at our bag. “Oh, your food is leaking!”  I had tipped the carton in my excitement, and reddish-brown Vindaloo sauce dripped from the corners, so she gave us a second bag to secure the mess.  The store wasn’t open, but Patricia invited us in nonetheless, and we stood among the treasures (a huge wooden bread bowl, beaded necklaces, old paintings, mid-century furniture) and chatted about the loveliness of the Soo, her mother Winnie, whom she named the store after, all of the different places she’d lived across Canada, and our trip so far. When I mentioned that the Soo was a pleasant surprise, we hadn’t expected such charm, she asked to interview us for her Facebook page (she is collecting testimonials about the little city), so we agreed and the result is here: https://www.facebook.com/WinnieBsVintage/videos/2080685375569309/

In the morning after a much needed sleep-in at the Sleep Inn, we got take-out coffee, excellent Sumatran pour-overs by Paul of Queen’s East Coffee and Clothes: https://www.facebook.com/queenseastcoffeeandclothes/

I wandered about the small shop, browsing the racks of women’s clothes while Paul worked his magic. He had only a small space behind the counter, and he told me that at the height of business, he can manage six pour-overs at once. Paul asked if he could rinse Michael’s travel mug.

“Sure.”

“I always ask because once, I just went ahead a rinsed this guy’s cup, and he said, ‘Hey, I had a shot of Bailey’s in there!”

“Hope he wasn’t driving,” rejoined Michael.

“Nope, just out walking his dog.”

As we settled into highway driving and a wonderful story by Stuart McLean (Emil), a call came through from the Sleep Inn. “Oh no,” I said to the front desk clerk, “What did we leave?”

“A phone charger.” Michael and I exchanged looks.

“It’s okay, thanks for the call, but we aren’t coming back for it.”

We were already well into our miles for the day. I started to freak out a bit inside my head, as this was the second phone charger I’d left in a hotel room in a week.

“It’s okay, honey,” Michael reassured me.  “In the grand scheme of things, it’s a gnat’s fart. It doesn’t matter. We’ll buy another. We’ll buy a case of phone chargers.”

We finished McLean’s Emil and then listened to The Fig Tree. Tears poured down my face, partly because I was so touched by the stories about tenderness and caring that McLean tells with drollery and understated love, but largely because I was so happy to be with a man who didn’t try to make me feel guilty. On the contrary, when I do dumb things, he makes me feel wonderful and any guilt or shame I might have feel evaporates into pink fairy dust.  So much love and abundance. I am blessed.

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Toronto is next. Michael’s turn.

 

 

 

 

 

My mother’s closet

We plan wonderful projects. The ideas are good and vibrant. Details burn high with leaping flames then slow down, muted but steady. Eventually the flames gutter and sputter. Other tasks intervene, only embers remain.

Last May, my son Sam and I drove to visit my sister. We zipped up Highway 1 over the Malahat, through Duncan, past Nanaimo and veered off onto Highway 19, then 4 toward Port Alberni.  Passing the tangled green forests of the Island and listening to Pink Floyd, the breeze whistled through the sunroof and we talked about a plan I had been brewing since 2016. The seed of the plan was to interview my mother about her closet. Open those wooden louvered doors in her spacious bedroom to examine the sweaters, trousers, and dresses. Ask her about them. What’s your favourite piece of clothing? Where did you get it? Why do you love it? Is there a story? My mother’s stylishness would be expressed in that interview, her signature love of black, her ability to pull together a look, her insistence on quality. Having taught history of art and design to fashion students for decades, her knowledge of fashion trends across time would be revealed through her closet. We would look down at her dozens of pairs of shoes and sandals lining the closet floor and discuss her struggle to find attractive, comfortable shoes to fit her size 10 feet, feet that had been misshapen by the squeeze of hand-me-downs during her impoverished childhood. Finally, we would walk down the narrow stairs to the room at the back of the house where dozens of hats were piled on a chest of drawers—grey and black knitted cloches, brown and beige floppy brims, watch caps in jewel tones, all made by Parkhurst, one of her favourite companies. My mother would pour a glass of red wine before telling me about her hat obsession that grew from acute embarrassment over her thinning hair.

We’d sit in the bamboo chairs in the back room, our bare feet cooling on the tile, maybe laugh about her practice of wearing denim cut-offs (cuffs rolled) over black tights when she was a young mother.  Ten years on there were the Diane von Furstenberg wrap dresses, such a good look on her—showing deep cleavage, the curve of her hips, a peek of thigh when she crossed her legs, legs even more shapely than Anne Bancroft’s in The Graduate. She bought the legendary von Furstenberg wrap in both the green and the brown python print.

“If you love something, buy two,” my mother liked to say.

I thought about making a short film documentary about my mother’s closet with my IPhone, capturing her expressive face and laugh, the camera skimming over the clothes on wooden hangers, mostly dark things in rich, heavy fabrics. I would have to buy a tripod and figure out angles and such, then how to splice and edit.  That seemed too hard. Finally, the film idea metamorphosed into a scheme to write a series of blog posts about people’s closets and their favourite clothes. Sam and I discussed my plan, and he encouraged me to start blogging. That weekend, I interviewed my sister about her classic denim vest, her sundresses, and her huarache sandals. I took photographs and some video footage. But I never followed through. The project lay dormant.

When I had coffee with Sam last week he told me “somebody used your idea.”

“What do you mean?” Marie Kondo’s series, he told me, is a lot like your plan. She looks into people’s closets and talks about why they have the clothes they do—the history and meaning of each item. Lots of people are watching the show. “That means,” he said, “you had a good idea.” I laughed wistfully.

It’s too late to interview my mother about her closet. She died in February, wearing a black silky nightgown and black cotton watch cap when she drew her last breath.  Her clothes hang in that big closet now, collecting dust.  No longer can she answer my questions, laugh, pour that glass of wine.

So I have become attuned to death. Every morning Michael and I read a few pages from Wake up to Your Life, by Ken McLeod, a Buddhist scholar. He counsels us to contemplate death. Did you know that death is lurking everywhere? Envision dying tomorrow—a sudden accident could happen. Meditate on all of the ways you can die: terminal illness, a car accident, falling in the bathtub. Contemplate the moment of death—what regrets will you have as your life passes before your eyes? Imagine how—if you die of old age—your energy will seep gradually from your body, how everything will be difficult, how you will become dependent on others to do the simplest tasks. Any dormant plans will lie forever dormant. Each day I am reminded to act now. Don’t put off artistic projects, interviews with interesting people, travels, experiences, connections, opening your heart to the world.

Here’s the first of the “Open Your Closet” series. Maybe it will be the first and the last, who knows? The following is dedicated to my mother and my son Sam: thank you both for inspiration.

Rainbows and Basic Black

I wore a polyester rainbow mini dress to celebrate my 10th birthday 1968. That dress seems hideous to me now, but at the time I was thrilled to own it. It was like wearing a spongy, itchy hot box over my lithe young body. But remember, girls: fashion not comfort! (Even at age 10.)  How pretty you look!

My girlfriend and I listened to the Stones and danced like wild fairies around the living room, waving our arms in front of us, giggling. “She comes in colours everywhere, she combs her hair, she’s like a rainbow.”  Imagine Mick Jagger telling me I look like a rainbow in my rainbow dress!

Fifty years later my favourite piece of clothing is a size-L black bamboo undershirt. Large so it’s comfortable and covers me, reaching the tops of my thighs. Bamboo because it’s silky smooth and breathes during hot flashes, yet keeps me warm.  Throughout the winter I wear it all day and night. I wear it hard. I wear it until it is rent with holes. It doesn’t matter—I just cover the holes with a sweater.

In 1965 my mother wore cut off denim shorts over black tights, a grey sweater over a white turtleneck. I am surprised she let me photograph her, she was so embarrassed by her looks.  Ten years later on a trip to Greece she wore a peach cotton top and matching skirt on her slim bronzed body. Flat, comfortable Indian sandals on her big sturdy feet. A belt accentuating her curves. Sunglasses, always the sunglasses.

Your clothes – do they hide you or show you? Are they stories in cloth or merely covers?  That shirt, when did you buy it, do you remember? Is there a tale, a memory? Is there a catch in your throat when you recall the moment? What about that belt. . . was it a gift from somebody you once loved?  The jacket: did you steal it, shove it in your backpack in the dressing room? The dress, was it in the free box on the street? Does it make you feel beautiful? The pajamas, did you sew them yourself and make mistakes? Are they cosy dream-makers? Tell me about your clothes.

C6D5E783-B601-4672-928B-12E41B82D62EOpen your closet and
let me see
who you are
who you’ll be
who you were
what makes you free

Open your closet to me

 

 

What are you wearing today?

 

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More than twenty years ago my boys were babies, and I was a La Leche League leader, helping other women to breastfeed.  LLL is an organization with good intentions, but some of their values I couldn’t align with, for example, their insistence on the heterosexual couple as the sine qua non. My tenure as a leader was very short.

I remember leader meetings, lots of women gathering at somebody’s messy house with babies at their breasts, toddlers underfoot, herbal tea steeping in the kitchen alongside the plate of carob brownies.  Before we started the business portion of our meeting, one of the leaders would pose an ice-breaker question, for example, when did you last have sex?  I have to admit I blushed hotly at that question and probably evaded answering.  And then another question that was more interesting to me, tell us a bit about an item of clothing you are wearing: What’s the backstory?

I used that question as a writing prompt when I taught English, and it’s still a question that I enjoy asking myself and others. I might be walking down the street and notice my shoes. . . where did I get them?  Sometimes the story is flat and uninteresting, but other times the tale has tasty layers.

Today I am wearing the grey hoodie I bought at the Gap in Manhattan on my honeymoon.  I found it on the boys’ rack, 50% off, so I snapped it up.  I didn’t really want to take much time for clothes shopping—we had only four days and we packed them full, going to the Metropolitan museum; listening to jazz in Washington Square; basking on park benches; eating pastries at Italian bakeries; going to plays; wandering through SoHo, Harlem, Central Park, and Greenwich Village; finding cool little galleries and stores; taking photographs; and eating wonderful food. And lots of loving, of course.

I needed warmth at a bargain during that chilly spring vacation because when we arrived at La Guardia I had no luggage—just the clothes on my back. We had booked an early morning flight, and my youngest son had kindly offered to stay over at our apartment and drive us to the airport.  Groggy in the blue dawn, we hugged him good-bye and went into Departures as he drove off in our car.  As we started to check in, I looked down and realized that the black duffle bag I had packed for our week’s vacation—NYC honeymoon followed by a few days in Toronto—was nowhere to be seen. And then I remembered it was still in the trunk of our car, now speeding down the Patricia Bay Highway to my son’s house.

I had a small burst of tears, and then I cheered right up. “It will be an adventure,” I offered my concerned husband.  “I don’t need much, just a couple of things. It will be a minimalist honeymoon.”  We kissed and then I just let go of the idea I needed my favourite jeans, certain socks, that lovely sweater, my contact lenses. I just wanted to adapt to what was happening because what was happening was wonderful. Honeymoon! Clothes are not so important in the large scheme of things, anyway.

I picked up the cheap hoodie that still serves me well. I think it was twelve bucks. We took the bus to Hell’s Kitchen and visited the Salvation Army to find a pair of pants and a shirt.  As I moved slowly down the aisles of musty clothes, I met an old woman with a voluminous skirt, pulling pants up under them.  “The change rooms are such a hassle, so I finally learned to just wear a skirt so I can try on stuff right in the store,” she chuckled with the wisdom of the serious lifetime thrifter.  I liked her.

I washed out my one pair of panties every night in the hotel sink and blew the last bit of damp out of them with the hair dryer in the morning.

My goodness, we had fun those four days. I felt so very light and loved, free and happy.

That’s the story of the grey hoodie. Look at something you are wearing. What’s its history? Please write your sartorial story in comments. I am looking forward to it.

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