I live much farther north now than I ever expected to find myself. Past my sewing machine and through the window is as fine a Yorkshire day as I have seen in May. Swallows loop through the clear, soft, sky like needles conjuring thread to hold the world together.
Beneath my fingertips a stitched face and body wait for the small arms and legs to be filled and closed. A stain of rose hip tea gives the cloth a flush of warm color. The cotton cheeks blush with it. The embroidered eyes are deep green. The skin of old sheets is as comforting as cream, made soft over the years by the bodies of my sleeping children.
Each body piece is lined with quilt batting. Carefully, I pull the stuffing into small pieces and tamp them down gently with the head of a knitting needle until the doll is solidly filled. Her arms and legs, her hands, are yielding — endearing to touch. Almost like a child.
It is not long until my daughter’s birthday. This year it will fall again on Mother’s Day, as the first one did all those years ago. Eighteen. A lifetime.
That first child was born a beautiful baby, with deep blue eyes and one dimple. Her black hair disappeared quickly to be replaced by a blonde halo. We watched her learn with such excitement, my husband and I: to roll over, sit up, crawl, to walk and talk; to explore her world in the heartbreaking play of childhood.
When she first fell silent, it was my mother who reassured us. When she stopped toilet training, Mother told us not to panic. We were moving house again then — sometimes, she told us, little ones took it hard. I thanked God for my mother and long distance phone service. We were in California then, she was in Alabama.
The next days, weeks, months passed in a steady unraveling. My daughter lost eye contact, language. She stopped responding to our voices. She twirled her fingers and became fixated on reflective surfaces. Those hours were long and weary as I watched my daughter’s budding self become a pinpoint on the distant horizon behind us. And I was pregnant again, heavy with a second child and a melting sorrow.
To comfort myself, I fed the birds. I watched them take the crumbs I left for them and build their nests in the eaves of our rented house. I wondered where they found such faith in the future. As often as possible, my mother and I talked. The strength in her voice traveled across the miles and braced me to face what came. My second daughter was born healthy and as beautiful as her sister. My first daughter was diagnosed with autism.
By the time a doctor had the courage to say that word to me, I was strong enough to hear it and stay upright. A baby on my arm and a toddler by the hand, I walked out of UCLA Medical Center with my husband one beautiful spring morning. Just out the door, we hesitated under the eucalyptus trees, unsure of what to do next.
In all those unraveling months I had drawn myself up close in denial, in hope and fear, like a cloak I had crawled beneath with my child, afraid to move or breathe should someone see what was happening to her and call it what it was.
Standing stunned under the California sky, I felt the full weight of that cloak and realized how heavy it was, how tired I was of it. My husband and I did not know what else to do. We faced the word we were most afraid of, and we lived.
A southern wind moved the tree limbs around us that morning. It caught that cloak from our shoulders and lifted it into the topmost branches, where it snagged itself into the shape of a ragged crow cawing at us. We walked away and left it there. At home, I called my mother.
Trimming seams and clipping curves demands the closest attention. If you are too timid or too reckless, you can’t do it. Leave too much, clip too far apart or too shallow, and the cloth pulls. It will never lie right. Trim too close or cut to deep and all your work is ruined.
It was my mother who taught me to sew, mostly in self-defense. She once sewed all our clothes, our curtains and quilts. I loved her sewing box, the things inside, and she couldn’t keep me out of it. So she gave me a cigar box with needles and thread, scraps, scissors and buttons. She showed me how to use them, answered my questions, corrected my mistakes. As I learned, she showed me how to do better.
The iron is spitting hot. Pushing it over cloth from one of my husband’s old shirts I think of how his broad back filled out the crisp green checks. The damp heat calls up the familiar smell of him in blooming waves that fill the room as if he were here. Folding the hem of a tiny doll’s dress, I watch my hands. They turn, iron, pin; turn, iron, pin. These hands look more like my mother’s with every passing year.
We left for California on a sharp September morning. All the family had made their goodbyes the night before and on their way to work. My husband, so young then, waited in the car with the motor running. Mother and I were the only ones left on the porch, our hands together.
She walked me to the car. Once inside it my hands found their way out the open window again to hers and she walked with us slowly down the drive. At the road we parted. Mama’s hands let go and showed mine how to wave goodbye. All down the morning road my naked hands fluttered. They reached for hers through the rush of wind outside the car window until the turnoff, where they finally took flight and waved back.
That first, long day, the car wheels turned over and over, taking me far away from everything there had ever been. That night in Oklahoma, I found my mother’s favorite kitchen knife, older than I was, wrapped in a note and slipped into my suitcase. “I hope you get as much use out of this as I have,” it said. “I love you. I’m so proud of you.” From her hands to mine, something she touched every day, a blessing in the form of a kitchen knife.
A ruby bead of blood gathers on a fingertip where a pin has caught me. I wrap tissue around it, looking back toward the first time a needle made me bleed. So young then, I climbed into my mother’s lap. Rocking me, she told me the hurt would surely go away. “But,” she said, “If you are too tender to be cut or stuck or burned by an iron sometimes, it would be better for you not to sew at all.”
A hard day came when I wanted again to climb into my mother’s lap. In the sun-dappled yard of my daughter’s playgroup a small, uncomfortable committee met me as I waited to pick her up. The teacher and a few parents asked me to come inside for a short meeting. It turned out to be very short. They asked me to withdraw her from the group.
“Your daughter’s needs are more than we can cater to here,” the young teacher told me awkwardly, looking anywhere but at me. “We think she should have a special placement.”
I made it home and found myself gasping into the phone, “Mama, I don’t think I can stand this.” Hearing myself speak, I was ashamed. I was talking to a woman who had helped lay out her own mother for burial at the age of 14; who had quit school to earn money and take care of her younger siblings; who had returned home from a family visit that same year to find their house and everything in it gone, burned to the ground.
“We were singing a song to pass the time when we cleared the trees where the road home bends, and there was nothing there,” she told me one somber night over coffee. “Just nothing but embers and ashes. My daddy was already so low from losing Mother I didn’t think he could get any lower, but he did. He did that day. I didn’t know what to do. All the little ones looked to me, but I wasn’t much more than a girl myself. We sifted a little through that mess and all we found whole was an iron skillet. I picked it up with an old gunny sack from the wagon and took it down to the creek to wash it in the grit there. The springhouse wasn’t burned, and there was a little butter and some eggs in there, and Grandma had sent us home with some cold biscuit. So I scrambled up the eggs on the embers of the house and all us kids ate supper with our fingers out of the same skillet. Daddy never got down off the wagon. I scrubbed that pot out again and we all cleaned up the best we could at the creek. Then we piled into the wagon with our skillet and headed back the way we came. I had to take the reins. Daddy never was the same after that. He got stronger again after a while, but he never was the same man.”
In my mind’s eye I could see my mother climb back up into that wagon and haul her family behind her into the rest of their lives. Just after World War II, she married my father. They raised four children and when two of those adult children died, my parents raised their children as well. She took care of her father all his life. I thought of all the things my mother could say back to me — that I was spoiled, that I was weak. What she did say was, “Baby, that is your child. And you are my child. And you can stand what you have to stand.”
So I stood. And my husband stood with me, while all around us in the waiting rooms of doctor’s offices and clinics and therapy centers we watched so many other families dissolve and other fathers fade away. My husband didn’t fade. He remained solid, a man to the middle of his bones.
Some families keep their histories in words and some in pictures. Our family keeps its history in a button jar, given to me years ago. Inside it are the fossils of the family of my birth — buttons from my sisters’ pajamas and summer dresses, my brother’s oxford button-downs, my father’s work shirts, beads from a prom dress, four large bone buttons that once rode proudly on my mother’s favorite wool coat — the same forest green as her eyes.
The jar now holds years of buttons from the family of my marriage: from my husband’s uniform, my daughters’ Easter dresses, my son’s first blazer, my wedding dress. They sift themselves into the older buttons as if they know they belong. I find two from a baby sweater I remember, tiny and round, bottle-green earrings for a doe-eyed doll.
As I sew each button in place on cloth earlobes, I think about my oldest child who sat in all those waiting rooms. She will be eighteen in a few days. She told me three things she wants for her birthday: to donate blood to the Red Cross; to see one of Shakespeare’s plays at the Globe Theater in London; to find work with disabled children.
My oldest daughter still struggles with numeracy and literacy. She is not always fluent in her own language. But she has grown into a thoughtful person in her own way. With the approach of adulthood, the import of her autism has come to rest on her slim shoulders, and I have watched her shift her strength to bear the weight.
“When I am older I can have an operation so I won’t have children,” she told me one rainy afternoon, “I don’t think I should have them, Mom. I can’t take care of them. I want to work with handicapped children.”
As I watch her struggle with her limitations, I have lonely moments when I fear that she is one of God’s forgotten stepchildren. The enormity of the task of finding her place in the world looms over her and us like that old cloak we left behind us years ago. But in spite of the difficulties she faces and sometimes but not always overcomes, her wide soul glows with a light that leaves my own in shadow. I know this — she is not one of His ordinary children.
I try to remember how far we have all come in this life that is so different from the one we had planned. We celebrate our small triumphs and put our failures behind us, in hope. We make peace with what is, and forgive what was or was not. We go on, hauling our loved ones behind us into the rest of our lives as best we can, even when we don’t know where we are going.
When my father died, I went home to be with my mother. There wasn’t much time. The morning after his funeral we began to go through the house together, sorting, organizing, giving away. I wondered how she could bear to let go of so much of the life they had built together. But one day of that visit was almost perfect. We walked the length of the old downtown. At the river we watched the fish jump. We visited the home of lifelong friends and laughed our way through memories of people and places we could no longer visit on this earth.
At our favorite burger joint, we parked in the back under the sheltering trees and indulged in hamburgers, fries, and shakes, as we had in my childhood. I was behind the steering wheel now and Mother the passenger, but our enjoyment of everything made us equally children.
We stepped outside of time and our sorrow to give that whole day to each other. We poured it slowly through our fingers as children play in sand, while the sun climbed the sky and stood awhile. When he climbed back down to find his bed, we went to find ours, too.
Under the trees in my mother’s yard, the shade was lilac with twilight. Lightning bugs flared and winked under the lowest branches, and beyond them the hills let out their breaths into the coming night. My room was quiet, cool and dim, the light inside like looking through a screen door. As the day tucked itself in bed, I watched from my childhood window.
Mother’s crocheted slippers whispered across the carpet to me. We drew together by the window viewing the swirled blood of the horizon, the black iron of the trees. She put her arm around my waist.
“We went shopping today,” she said, but a question.
“Yes, ma’am.” I answered.
“We had a good time today, didn’t we?” I could hear the smile in her voice.
“Yes, ma’am, we did.”
She leaned her head on my shoulder and squeezed my waist. She sighed and said, “I wish you were my daughter.” A deeper darkness slid into the room then, quiet as a black wing, a reminder of her Alzheimer’s.
“I wish you were my daughter,” she had said, a blessing as sharp as a good kitchen knife. Now I know that knives and blessings can cut you up or they can feed you. It depends on how you hold them. My face composed, I said quietly to her, “Well, aren’t we lucky, Mama. I am your daughter.”
She surfaced back into her eyes then. Her hand squeezed mine. She said, embarrassed, “Of course you are! What’s wrong with me?” A pause. A smile. “I had such a good time today.” She was with herself again, and with me. But she could not stay.
Unraveling is easy. A little tear and things come apart quickly. Making something of what’s left behind requires patience, skill, faith. The buttons of the sweater in my hands wait in Mother’s jar for their someday resurrection. Once the cut is made in the right place the yarn pulls easily into curly skeins. Wound onto a cardboard form, cut in half and machine-stitched onto a muslin square, it becomes a wig that I position carefully into place and fix with almost invisible stitches. My fingers comb the strands and twist a dappled-brown braid over each small, green-clad shoulder. I handle her gently, smoothing her clothes and hair carefully into place. A doll is helpless. She has only the dignity we give her.
The floor was flecked, gray on darker gray, but the walls were a hopeful butter yellow. Down the long corridor she waited in the place that, despite my sister’s best efforts, it became necessary for her to live. Such a tiny woman, hollow as a bird’s bone, her eyes still the color of leaves in shade. She was glad to see us all and smiled prettily as we explained who we were in turn, and again. She had managed to hold on to enough of herself to take pleasure in her family, even in her uncertainty of them.
The afternoon light drifted through the window to settle on the afghan at the foot of her bed, a familiar friend. It moved down the colored squares as we chatted through her confusion. After a while I stepped back to the doorway to reassure my husband who waited in the corridor. He was devastated for her, and for me.
Touching his arm, I said, “It’s all right, Honey. I can stand this. I can stand what I have to stand.” From her perch on the side of her bed my mother’s head turned. She was with us, looking at me from inside her eyes. In a voice clotted with longing she called, “You’re home.”
I swam through the space between us then, and dove into my mother’s arms. Her embrace quenched my orphan thirst like a baptism. It filled my backbone. It fed my hungry skin. A 40-year-old woman, I let her rock me like a child. When finally we drew apart, she touched my hair, my cheek, my chin. Cloudy eyes trailed her fingertips down my face. “Oh, my, young lady,” she said wonderingly., “You must be related to me somehow. You look just like my mother.”
You can hide many faults in careful stitching. You can ease an imperfect cut into a slow seam. But someday the stitch or the fabric will fail. There will come a time when even the most earnest patch won’t hold.
Out the window and down the road, crows gather in a weathered oak. Their calls rip along the street like a saw on bones. When the phone call I am waiting for comes, I calmly answer, “Hello.”
“Hello, Mom, it’s me. I’m in London.”
“Hey, Baby,” I say, “That was quick. How was the trip down?”
“OK — the bus was crowded.”
“Well, you’re there now. Are you having a good time?” I ask.
“Yes,” she says. A pause. “It’s different here.”
I relax my face. I know she can hear the smile in my voice.
“I miss you, too,” I say, “but you’re with your friends. Enjoy the play. Your teachers are there if you need help. You’ll be fine.”
“I know,” she says, “I have to go now. I’ll see you Friday. Bye, Mom.”
My daughter is not much for idle chatter. It’s enough that our voices have touched. “Take care of yourself,” I smile into the phone. “I love you. I am so proud of you.” I don’t know if she has heard me.
The North of England is far away from Alabama in time, space, and temperature. A chill edges in the window, sliding over my idle hands. Down in the grass, shade pools into broad lakes. Doves pat the treetops with vowel sounds. I am losing the light.
On the dining-room table there is a box addressed to my mother. Inside it is a beating heart in the shape of a rag doll. Her threads are neatly clipped, her seams ironed, her lips smiling. She lies trustingly, wrapped in fragile tissue paper, sprinkled with rose petals, with lavender, and with rosemary, for remembrance.