Material Culture & Daughters

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You will die. You will not live forever. Nor will any man nor any thing. Nothing is immortal. But only to us is it given to know that we must die. And that is a great gift: the gift of selfhood. For we have only what we know we must lose, what we are willing to lose… That selfhood which is our torment, and our treasure, and our humanity, does not endure. It changes it is gone, a wave on the sea. Would you have the sea grow still and the tides cease, to save one wave, to save yourself?
—Ursula K. LeGuin

Disheveled and disgruntled as only an 11 year-old after a tedious school day can be, Abigail flopped into the raveling thrift-store chair opposite my desk. It’s everyone’s favorite chair; threadbare on the arms, an earthy green brocade with sea-blue weft threads, thick and heavy cushions worn to the shape of humanity with time. She stared over my shoulder out the window, opened to the unseasonably warm January afternoon.

I let her be, alone with her thoughts, keeping one eye on her as I quietly wrote. Her gaze shifted to the wall over one of the bookshelves lining my tiny office. A linen tapestry hangs there, embroidered with blue morning-glories. “Did you make that, mom?”

I look at the piece of needlework, flashing briefly through the dozen different walls in my homes on which it has hung. “No, I didn’t. I bought it at an estate sale decades ago.” I have reached the point in my life where I still feel young enough, but it’s possible for me to say a sentence like that and for it to be true. Decades ago… I have lived enough time now that decades ago seems close enough to touch.

“Why would someone sell that?” she asks, admiring what surely is familiar to her. It’s hung nearby her whole life. The fine linen square, once intended to cover a small table, is now covered in late-afternoon rainbows from the prisms hanging in the sunlit window.

“Hmmm.” I stop typing quietly and regard my daughter. Her hair is deep brown like her grandmother, but she has my wild cowlick on her hairline, splitting her bangs forever into disarray. Her eyes appear brown, until they are hit by sunlight, where they show their true deep green. I think the Punnett square precludes a brown-eyed daughter from two green-eyed parents I smile to myself. “I don’t know why anyone would get rid of something so pretty. And it’s not just that it’s pretty, it’s an example of material culture. By material culture, I don’t mean fabric—though it is fabric—I mean the things women make that denote their own histories.”

As I suspected this would, it piques her interest. She is so bright, and so interested in what is happening around her. She moves through the world in a bit of a cyclone, trailing bits of paper, glue, ink, rocks, sand—anything that has captured her imagination this week. We discuss women’s history, and how the gatekeepers of what we know as history have often been men, and women’s work is historically quieter, harder to find, but it’s there. And this is why I buy linens and samplers and recipe cards at estate sales. Some people don’t recognize this for what it is: women’s history, speaking just as clearly as the trumpeting of men, but quieter, and requiring eyes to see it.

She looks at me, her mind visibly rolling these stones over. “Is this why you write, mom?”

My heart flutters. “Yes. This is why I started writing, for certain. I was a young mom at home, not even pregnant with you yet, and I wanted a connection with my grandma. I missed her, and while I have things that belonged to her, I didn’t know what she thought, what she felt, when she was home with three little girls. So I started writing.”

“It’s kind of weird that there’s a record of every day of my life. I mean, I like it, but I don’t know anyone else who has something like that.” She is relaxed, staring out the window again.

I smile at her over the tray of pens and papers and candles on my cluttered desk. “Yeah, I guess maybe it could be weird. But it belongs to you, this story.”

“I like it. I like reading back over the stories of when we were little. I like the memories that are there. I like knowing dad is there, too.” Her father died two summers ago, and she is the child whose bruises worry me most. She is quiet, and I am grateful she finds solace in our collective record.

I nodded at her, resting my chin on my hand and closing my computer.

We talk quietly for a while about history—mine, hers, her great-granmother’s, and about my idly imagining someday, maybe someone, would find what I thought would be a humdrum life interesting. She laughed. She already knows that’s not exactly how things worked out.

“I’m hungry.” She peels herself from the great green chair and circles the desk to lean on me, her version of a hug, and kisses the top of my head. Our enormous dog trails behind her in hopes she will bless him with scraps of her snack as she heads downstairs.

It’s time to introduce her to Laurel, I think.

***

(This was posted to my personal blog as well, but I believe it’s relevant to my Mormonism in the preservation of women’s material culture and in the quieter but no less important ways women’s history has been recored and now must be sorted out and woven into our narratives.)

Comments

  1. This is lovely and makes me think of the pioneer women who made hair art. Literally taking peices of them self to tell their story.

  2. Wow! Not just a marvel in it’s own jewel-like presence, but a wonderful reflection on a writer I will miss and a few I can still appreciate. .

  3. it's a series of tubes says:

    LeGuin’s voice will be sorely missed. I cannot thank her enough for how her writing broadened my perspective as a teen and young adult. Plus, she wrote my all-time favorite short piece, “Another Story”.

  4. Beautiful and thoughtful post. Thank you for sharing this with us.

  5. My mom quilted her whole life, just like her mom before her. The last quilt she made, about a year before she died, was for my daughter. It is a treasure.

  6. My mother kept a journal for her own mental health. It helped her to work out all her feelings and problems. Reading her journals has helped me a lot as an adult woman, and I treasure them because she wrote them with her own hand. Although I used my personal blog as sort of a journal when my kids were younger, I decided a couple years ago that I wanted to write one by hand again, to have something more tangible to hand down to my kids. Or whoever.

  7. That’s a good idea, RJ. I’ve thought about that, too. I write longhand terribly now, and trip over my own words since my hands cannot keep up with my thoughts like they do on the keyboard. But maybe it’s worth the try.

  8. Kevin Barney says:

    Beautiful; thank you.

  9. Kristine N says:

    Oh gosh, that’s beautiful. I’ve thought often that the works we women focus on often leave little behind. The meals, the clean rooms, even the well-dressed bodies and beautifully painted faces–all of them are transient, impermanent things meant to be enjoyed in the moment. Yes, I know that’s true of many things men do too, but it seems that the things we are culturally expected to engage in almost all fit into the category of things we consume or use up, or only enjoy for a relatively short time. It’s gratifying to know there are crumbs that are left behind, and people do collect and think about that history as well.

    I love LeGuin’s take on life. She was a truly wise person and I’m so glad of everything of hers I’ve read.

  10. Beautiful and made me tear up (since my mother’s passing, this is rare – my deepest regret is not having my mother’s stories, what she thought, all the things you mention about your grandmother). I keep a quilt – hardly fancy, as my mom wasn’t a seamstress – mainly because it’s one she made for her grandmother and it was passed down to me. Women’s history is no less worthy for being worked in cloth – if anything it’s closer to the daily pains and joys for being so. ❤️

  11. Beautiful.

  12. Paul Ritchey says:

    The English “material” is a derivative of Latin “mater,” which means mother. That’s what I first thought of when I started reading, and I suppose it’s not wrong.

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