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Stitch in time

By RICA BOLIPATA-SANTOS Published Jan 29, 2023 5:00 am

What better time to putter around the house, discarding old things, filing important things, giving away things, than the first month of the year? 

More than resolutions, I like resolving things. Pots and pans with scratched Teflon, wooden spoons older than my children, books I promised to read almost a decade ago... heavens, readings from classes I no longer teach! How lovely it is to allow spaces in the house to hold things that can be appreciated because there aren’t too many things to hold. I can feel the shelves sigh with great relief! Much easier to have and to hold with just enough.

In the middle of all that cleaning, I found this: a 10 x 12 cross-stitch sampler, with the words “Home sweet home.” It was folded into a small square and scrunched up at the back of one of the shelves of my old writing room. It is… unfinished. The edges are merely held together and prevented from fraying by tape, which has changed to the color yellow. Not all of its elements are in but you can sense the care I took in making it. The stitches are just right—no tugging and tearing, not too tight; the integrity of the squares of the blanket weave is visible, no stitches going beyond the gate of the line. 

In the middle of all that cleaning, I found a 10 x 12 cross-stitch sampler, with the words “Home sweet home.” It is… unfinished. Did I finally learn that one never really finishes and one just keeps stitching a life one breath at a time?

You know how it is, I am sure. This magical capacity of the mind and heart to travel back in time, days, weeks, months, years, and decades to visit a memory, to inhabit an occurrence; to almost conjure something long gone, back into the present.

I am taken to an airport in Germany—where my husband and I are waiting for a flight. We are chance passengers. At this moment, more than 20 years ago, my husband was an airline employee and thus we had traveling privileges. It is a boon to us because we would never have been able to travel on our own. However, it means we never have sure seats, and always at the whim of what might be available on a flight. To while away the time, I am cross-stitching. 

You take it for granted—the dance that you learn when you have a partner. So much of marriage is about the uninteresting, the un-sublime, un-romantic hours of nothingness. In a foreign country, with little money, at the mercy of forces beyond both of us, you learn how to sit in uncomfortable airport chairs, eat cheap food (often missing kanin), pretend at the swanky gift shop that you can afford the shades you are trying on, spritz some of the tester perfumes when waiting goes beyond 10 hours and you cannot shower. At some point, we learned how to take quick showers in the airport bathroom, and even wash our clothes and hang them using the pushcart as a kind of clothesline. These acted as our tents when we would try to sleep supine. How did we comport ourselves into these difficult shapes in our marriage?

We are all beguiled by memory—enticed by it—maybe even ruled by it, in ways we never acknowledge. In a world where the present is fleeting, the future has not yet arrived, the past is the only solid thing we have. 

And yet, it is fluid as we have it only in memory—only in fragments and passing scenes. It is always provisionary and incomplete. We can remember a color but not a smell. We remember a feeling but not always the exact line that was said that brought about the feeling. It is never quite the same when it is conjured, except memories that become scripts to be trotted out at parties where saying the memory exactly the same way is the skill. The writer is someone who lives for the changing colors of memory, knows that writing is prismatic. 

This is who or what I am by profession and vocation and habit. A memoirist is someone constantly besieged by memory and who accepts this as part of the landscape of one’s spirit and decides to… well… to dwell.

The memoirist/writer is obsessed, the way others are obsessed with collecting stamps, or following a band. There is no logic, really, and not even safety as this is a version of wearing your heart on your sleeve because of the many ways one is always vulnerable. I mean, one can just try really hard to forget.

But the memoirist doesn’t. He/she suspects that the more you know, the more secrets in the world are revealed. It’s close to visiting a museum, the kind where one cannot fondle the relic. One can only peer from different angles, but the glass obscures and the security camera is frightening. A memoirist is someone who finds a memory and decides to stay longer than usual, or necessary. 

In this particular memory, I am not quite sure who I am. I had just attempted to resign from my university job. Students are frightening me. I had built my life around this dream and, sitting cross-legged doing my cross-stitch, I am trying to unravel why I am so afraid. I am hoping running away will make me brave. I don’t know yet enough about life to have learned that running away is the coward’s choice. I have yet to discover this in my heart. I am waiting to get pregnant and so unsure and in limbo. 

Colorful threads can be found in your sewing kit.

The sewing kit has many shades of the same color. There are four different kinds of green to make sure the trees have dimension and shade. I hold the many threads to the light to make sure I am following the pattern correctly. I hadn’t learned yet, either, to find confidence in making mistakes. For now, I know only about patterns. As the memory enlarges, I am brought to an even older memory.

We are all beguiled by memory—enticed by it—maybe even ruled by it, in ways we never acknowledge. In a world where the present is fleeting, the future has not yet arrived, the past is the only solid thing we have.

It brings me to grade school memories and how bad I am at sewing. My teacher intones, “You must let the cloth and the thread breathe.” She unstitches all my stitches, tsk-tsking all the way, and I take the criticism and keep it. “I must let it breathe,” my memory alerts me to keep this. All the other details fall away such as the fact that I was angry at sewing class, found it irrelevant. We had to submit a sewing album and I scoffed at the lack of sophistication of this requirement. I felt myself above such a skill. The only joy was being able to sew in groups and laugh at each other’s incompetence. We did a fashion show of the dresses we had sewn and mine had disintegrated into two pieces before I had even reached the end of the runway. But now I can laugh at my foolishness. Ignorance, naivete. Years later, in a pinch, I am able to sew a wayward button or embroider the clothes of my children. I have come to lean on my knowledge of sewing in the most surprising of ways. Ah, once in a while, it can make sense.

“You must let the cloth and the thread breathe,” my teacher always said.

At the airport, my husband runs into an old friend while taking a walk to stretch his legs. He later tells me that the old friend remarked, “Oh, she does cross-stitch.” He shares this innocently but it stings somehow. I didn’t hear her say it but I suspect that she said it not as a compliment—but as a kind of… judgment.

Or perhaps that judgment was mine of myself. What kind of a woman was I? Did I, too, have preconceived notions of what a woman should or should not do? Could her words simply have verified that I didn’t know who I was? I cannot say anything for sure today, but I can say, today, that whenever I am lost, I find myself in the work of my hands. 

I run my hands over this discovery. It holds what I wanted to be all those years ago: a sure woman in front of a neat house, with trees all around her. There is an alphabet and children’s toys, an indication of a desire to raise and educate children. Sitting in that memory, I am reminded of all my simple dreams. And yes, I had not yet learned what all that would cost, and how all that would be the difficult work of my life. “Let it breathe,” my memory echoes back to me, almost 27 years after completing my work. 

In 2023, I can hold all these versions of me in my heart and memory. We have been fooled by time—which might explain our fascination with time travel. I am this age, but I am also that age, and that age. I have new dreams now, but I have this, and this, too. And even those that did not come true, fuel all that I am. This has taught me that even things we do not finish can teach us. The cross-stitch memory closes, for now. I do not know why I abandoned finishing it. Did I finally have the courage to fight my fear at the end of that trip and I put it away because I had no more time? When did I find the courage to return to the classroom? Was it when the children eventually came and fear and courage were things I had to, have to re-stitch day after day? Did I finally learn that one never really finishes and one just keeps stitching a life one breath at a time?