I was young; I didn’t know any better, I thought to myself, as I tried to make sense of all the boxes.
They were stacked one upon the other in the attic, large plastic bins with lids, smelling vaguely of oil paint. Masking tape labels from days gone by belied their contents: “Maternity clothes”, “Snow Boots”, “Uniforms”. But I knew what they really held: mementos of my early lovers, romances from earlier times. A hot shame rose to my cheeks as I noted how many there were. So many more than there ought to be, more than a respectable woman should have. More than I had even remembered.
Worse yet was the knowledge that most of these romances had happened since – and not before – marrying my husband so many years ago. The contents of these boxes represented guilty pleasures in stolen moments, often indulged during the children’s afternoon naps, and in the evenings, after bedtime, when my husband was away.
Oh yes, he knew all about them; the boxes had been stacked for a while in the bedroom we shared, until he suggested—and was that jealousy I detected in his voice?—that I might move them somewhere else. He said it was because they had begun to take up an awful lot of the space in our room, but I think it was because he knew they represented a part of my heart he could never have, that I dreamed of time spent alone with them, looked forward to vacations we would take together, pursued them late at night as he slept, even shared our bed with them when he was out of town.
But it is time, now, in midlife to own the truth of my past, so that I can fully live in the present. And the contents of those boxes tell of a secret life.
The truth is that I am—I’ve been—a craft slut.
The many boxes tell the story in a way my memory cannot: stencils, aida cloth, hundreds of colors of embroidery floss. Smocking plates and little pots of odorous paint and—heavy sigh—the yarn. The yarn is the most shameful part; there is so much of it. But it is the part with which I am most loathe to part.
It began in my youth, I think, when I was introduced to the wonder of potholders an industrious girl could make, all by herself, on red metal frames with stretchy loops of brightly colored jersey. In a pattern that would continue from then until now, I would start each new project with promise and excitement, often with a recipient in mind—in this case, my mother— of a handmade gift uniquely able to convey the depths of my devotion.
Stretching the first set of loops across the frame was a breeze—child’s play!—and my heart would quicken with the hope that my skills had increased since the last time, and the excitement of laying out the color pattern, as I chose only the stretchiest loops to make it easier on my little hands. Basket weaving the second layer of loops, over and under the first, in the other direction, took much longer and due to my earlier and now notably short-sighted choices, required the use of all of the remaining loops, including ones not fitting the color pattern, and ones not quite stretchy enough to reach. Looping the outside edges together, necessary to finish the project and remove the invariably wonky potholder from the metal frame, was the hardest part; you often needed a little help from someone, but you could not ask that person for help because you wanted it to be a surprise. It was at this middle point in the process—as sometimes still happens, even now—that the shiny promise of possibility would fade, some discouragement setting in and often derailing the whole process. There were only a couple of times that a potholder was brought to completion and presented to anyone as a gift.
Even so, the damage was done: the Pandora’s box of self-expression and handmade gifting had been opened. From there, things escalated quickly: brightly colored gimp twisted into square keychains to solidify a new friendship, braided macrame hangers to hold terrariums and flowerpots we did not actually own. By middle school, I was hooking, creating latch-hooked “rugs” not suitable for any floor, their short, precut pieces of colorful acrylic yarn looped onto a plastic mesh by a grown-up-looking tool with a smooth wooden handle. In the sixth grade, I spent months latch-hooking red, white, and blue yarn into stars, stripes, and the “76” of a Betsy Ross flag for a school project. Looking back, I’m pretty sure a hastily-made poster would have sufficed.
Having become a hooker, there was no going back. The rigor of high school and college kept me mostly on the straight and narrow, but once the boredom of child-rearing set in, I heard the siren song of craft stores. It was then that things really went off the rails.
I had only known printed cross stitch as a girl, and the final product never came out that great, my uneven stitches never completely covering up the light blue drawings on the linen. Counted cross stitch, on the other hand, on white or ecru aida cloth was foolproof, and the real deal. The skeins of embroidery floss were inexpensive enough that you could buy lots of them, choosing from hundreds of nuanced and numbered color variation, and devise elaborate organizational systems from plastic sandwich bags. The finished product was lovely, but the counting was tedious and I often messed it up, and we broke up after a short time together. I kept all the floss, because it was pretty, and, you know, just in case.
I got a sewing machine for Christmas one year, beginning a reckless and somewhat manic period manifested in the scope of projects that I chose: elaborate Halloween costumes for everyone, an Eton suit for Easter, a duffle coat. When even the thrill of these ambitious projects did not meet the needs of my addiction, I decided that upholstery—not slipcovering, mind you, but actual upholstery—could not be that hard. I bought all the materials at a local supplier and hammered wildly into the frame of an old wing chair, using my machine to stitch the bias-cut fabric into welt. This relationship was ill-suited from the start: it took professionals to recover (in all senses of the word) from that one.
There was also much painting to be done, and on spring afternoons while the children slept, I could be found in the driveway brushing thick layers of pungent oil paint over brown garage sale furniture we could afford, or sponge painting acrylic paint onto bedroom walls to make up for wallpaper we could not. Emboldened by early successes, and to my unwitting husband’s horror, I taped off large squares on the floor in the entryway of our Cape Cod and painted brick red and ecru squares on top of a finished hardwood floor. Painting got me through a time when money was low and boredom was high, and helped me make a house into our home, and I will always be grateful for our time together.
I also spent time with painting’s cousin, stenciling. Stenciling was a quick and easy lover: you just had to make sure you didn’t have too much paint on the stiff brush. This romance yielded a heart pattern near the ceiling in my baby daughter’s room, a more sophisticated Early American pattern in ours. After discovering the holy grail of the entire alphabet, I even stenciled a blessing around the chair rail in our dining room. We were good together for a while, but I think it is clear now that I was a little bit out of control.
Eventually, I did settle down a bit. Quilting was a long, meaningful love that I thought would last forever, but mostly it just took forever. After choosing fat quarters of fabric and cutting them with the rolling fabric pizza-cutter on the large green rubber mat, you had to machine piece them together into patterns before beginning the tedious process of hand quilting the whole thing, then machine- and hand-sewing the edges together to finish it off. They always said you would get into a rhythm with the tiny needle, back in forth, in and out of the fabric in stitches you weren’t supposed to be able to really see, but though I made quilts for each of my boys, and another one for my mom, I never did. Even with a thimble, it hurt my fingers, and took so long, when the kids were starting school. We kind of just drifted apart.
Hand smocking was a classic romance, one of the most lovely and beautiful I had had, and we had two baby girls together. I had to travel out to the country to the “smocking lady” to get supplies and to get the bishop collars pleated up—which in retrospect, ought to have suggested an escalating problem—but the final product was stunning. I delighted in seeing the patterns come into being through a series of the same simple, backwards stitch of floss on gingham and flannel, turning into old-fashioned baby dresses and nightgowns that made me swoon.
Needlepoint was a perfect summer lover and a great one to travel with; we met in secret at the pool, creating together personalized wool belts for my college-bound boys, a goodbye present for them, a letting go for me. My friend Molly still sees needlepoint regularly and keeps me updated; I kind of hope we get back together some day.
Which brings me to the yarn. There is so much more yarn than anything else, but unlike the rest, I won’t be getting rid of any of it. Knitting is the one for me, and we are together for the long haul. Knitting has been by my side since I taught myself during a time I was so anxious that my hands shook unless I gave them something to do, and has stuck by me since; it has become the great, forever (craft) love of my life, the one I want to grow old with, the one who sometimes still makes me feel like a thrilled little girl making her mother a potholder.
Maybe, my love, my promiscuous past—and all the loves before—only led me to you.
via WordPress Daily Prompt: Craft
5 thoughts on “Crafting a troubled past”
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I always loved planning cross-stitch projects (all the colors!), but the doing…the doing is a different story. Metallic thread caused my hands to cramp when I was young; I can’t imagine what it would do to me now. Thank you for confessing what most of us don’t about the unfinished crafts around the house. Nicely written.
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This was as much relatable as it was hysterical! Well done!
What a wonderful walk down memory lane…creating comfort all the while!
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