A Man of Mozart and Motorcycles

Musician and conductor, sure, but motorcyclist?! The man in question is in his 30s here, I think.

I didn’t expect this time travel. It was an ordinary day, less rainy than usual. I was driving along narrow, congested city center streets, keeping an eye on pedestrians who blithely step out. Noting the varieties of architecture and views as I ran errands. But then Tchaikovsky’s “Symphony #6 in B Minor” came on the radio station. A sudden intake of breath. Warmth spreading through my chest. A car behind me honked; I had forgotten to move forward when the light turned green. So mesmerizing was the music that it was far safer to pull over and park.

It was not just the glorious symphony, a favorite of mine. It was my father. Through decades and celestial space he strode into mind’s eye, then took his place at the conductor’s podium on stage, his black tuxedo “tails” swaying as he conducted the very Tchaikovsky I heard. The symphonic orchestra before him responded readily. The scene was vivid; I stared at the street but still saw Dad at work. Each measure of music was interpreted by informed insights and intuitive response as he elicited music from the many instruments that made that composition whole. I began to hum and whistle along. I have played that piece, under his direction and another’s. It is dignified yet bombastic, full of drama and yet sweetly moving, a masterpiece among many. Dad loved this composer and others of such persuasions as well as the precision and stateliness of say, Mozart and Bach.

But back to my cinematic experience: my father leaned into the stage, then to the left side, to the right. His large, long-fingered hands gestured, first to percussion, violins and violas with the left and then the right with the baton held towards and underscoring the cellos and basses, the brass. The woodwinds, yes, and the choreographic scene played on. His feet stayed rooted while torso was fluid, his grey-white head lowered or raised, large blue eyes skimming players as they created what was needed. He lifted and bent with the progression of music. Arms and hands curved into music-spun air; it was all pulled forward, held steady. The measures of Tchaikovsky swelled, diminished, were given fresh life under command of his baton–and full engagement of fine musicians. It was an intimate conversation between each, for the whole. For the music. And one could see he was eloquent, as well.

Or so it seemed as I imagined, no, saw Dad immersed in the unfolding, blessed, possessed, then released by complicated music. The piece came to a close. My desire to go on with mundane tasks faltered. About to start the car, I was stopped when Stravinsky’s “Firebird Suite”, a programming favorite, came on. I flashed back to an interpretative dance I made up  to this music as an eight or nine year old, then had the nerve to dance in a talent show. So taken with it was I was thrilled to be under the spell of such music, as well as wearing a costume Mom had created: my simple leotard embellished with fiery red and orange strips of chiffon that flew out from my waist and shoulders when I twirled, leapt, made like a wildly ecstatic firebird.

Two compositions, one after the other that he loved. I decided Dad might have something to say to me today, but I wasn’t sure what. I started the car, finished my errands, all the while very taken with my father’s presence. I finally headed home to think.

Watching him conduct was witnessing completed transformation by personal fulfillment: a man who half-changed into a dancer, a multilingual interpreter, a conduit of musical spirits. There was palpable strength in his movements, charged with a passion for the musical notation. There was delivery of vibrant energy to the players as well as audience. He was one of the most graceful conductors I have ever seen. My father seemed able to be utterly engaged by his body while his active mind wielded such clarity of focus. He wasn’t unusually tall. Perhaps 5’11” with head up, he was shorter than his own father and brother–and later, his sons. Yet he seemed taller, certainly when conducting. On stage he recalled an athlete’s grace although his sport was bringing forth music. And there was a charisma there that rose from deep within.

As a concert finished, he bowed in an easy manner, sending the musicians his respect as there arose rousing applause. Afterwards it was not so unlike the end of a successful sporting event: his clothing soaked with perspiration, his face pinkly glistening as he pulled from a pocket a white handkerchief to wipe down. Wavy hair fell over the broad forehead. I watched from a doorway back stage. He was still feeling adrenaline as he responded to appreciative concert goers, shook hands all around, smiled readily, bent close to talk and hear, an index finger bending the upper part of his ear toward a person.

Then he had more business to attend to. Sometimes I helped him gather and file music, take care of a misplaced instrument. But most often as a youth I remained close to the milling crowd’s edges (even if I’d played, too), observed a public man who was respected, appreciated, even loved. A duality of perception influenced my view of him: the public man others knew and the one his family knew somewhat differently.

His gregariousness always surprised me. He was far more introverted than extroverted by nature, I think, but understood how to separate the complementary aspects. As a family, we didn’t routinely spend a lot of time with him due to music-related obligations taking him out, away. More so whenever he coached our musical practice sessions.  When there, he was often reading, studying music scores as he listened to the music and then replayed the whole record–or fell exhausted at last into an easy chair. I watched him sleep more often than he ever could know. When a kid, he sometimes asked if I’d walk along his supine spine to massage aching muscles (what a work-out he had when conducting).

He did like to tell anecdotes, enjoyed plain spoken humor and groan-worthy puns; read aloud from a book or magazine something that grabbed his attention. He also read the Bible to us; we all prayed together at dinner at least. But his interests also encompassed history, nature and camping, the sciences and mathematics, classical arts, games and puzzles of many sorts, and he liked to design things much like a mechanical drawer might, or practice cursive with fine leaded pencils (he had beautiful, very rapid and small handwriting)–to name a few. Later on, he watched tennis and basketball on the TV.

He encouraged and disciplined us (often just a serious, pointed look; he had strong eyes)–but I could tell his mind dabbled in other thoughts. He often seemed to be thinking something through, perhaps music, even life’s knotty parts. So generally, to be with my father I had to go where he was, share what he did. And I was glad to do it. It might require holding the ladder steady, getting another brush as he touched up house paint every year or helping him with yard work; cleaning the ivory and ebony keys of our baby grand piano; handing him tiny pliers and a pot of warm glue as he worked in his musical instrument repair shop, down in the quiet basement.

There are other things that bring forth my father though classical music was his first passion. I might hear pieces like George Gershwin’s “An American in Paris” and suddenly think of him–he loved many American composers, too. It might be an old musical I recall– “Oklahoma” or “Carousel”–that brings him to mind. It could be Benny Goodman, the late “King of Swing” jazz clarinetist. Dad also played many kinds of music over his lifetime, on a variety of instruments, and no matter what it was he seemed in heaven. He was a person able to do what he loved, by and large, though he might have thrived more in a university setting rather than our small Midwestern city. He had two Masters’ degrees yet he chose to develop and administer music education programs, teach children and young adults, and to conduct and perform (in trios and quartets, symphonies, etc.).

What may not have been more common knowledge was this rather refined man also greatly enjoyed cars (to tinker with as well as drive), motorcycles and motorbikes (he rode at least a couple over the years), camping, sailing (rarer but a gift of joy to him) and swimming in lakes, playing tennis, bicycling, creating outdoor games and playing–very competitively–a few card (bridge, a favorite) and many board games. He also loved to go on a spontaneous drive or a road trip across the country. So those things are what I also did as I could.

I’d go out to the back yard, a favorite place, and it would be a blue-shiny day with nothing much to do but climb the maple tree. Then I’d spot Dad bent over the innards of a car, tools perched atop it all. He liked foreign cars, Isettas and Fiats for two, but drove others, especially Chryslers. He had a creaky red Isseta “bubble car” that I was nuts about. The door opened up in the front and on it were the steering wheel and dashboard. It fit two best. It was a “toy” car before mini-cars were popular, at least in the U.S.

I’d stand by Dad, peer under the hood at the engine and battery and all the rest I tried to understand. He’d start talking to me about what was wrong, what he intended to do without looking up. Before long, he’d be gesturing at things, note what did what. I tried to keep track of it all; he was fond of quizzing us. He sent me to get what I considered very interesting tools from the garage or basement and learned what each could do. I’d fetch oil, perhaps, a wrench or more stained red or white rags. I liked strong smells emanating from cars, the grime and grease streaking his capable hands. The grey mechanic’s suit he wore for such projects: it had deep pockets, covered regular clothes, zipped all the way up. Quite a different father than the one who conducted and taught, played viola, judged music competitions and lectured at conferences. It was someone who knew how to decipher the mysterious mechanics of things, could repair broken items which he generally took on for the household, too (though my mother had a real knack). It was someone who used a different vocabulary: carburetor, serpentine belt, alternator, power steering fluid, radiator fan, compressor, starter. I contrasted these with treble, tenor and bass clefs, andante, sotto voce and allegro, pizzicato, coda, dotted half and sixteenth notes and so on.

One of the best moments was when he’d ask me to start the car, ease onto the gas pedal while he watched things happen, leaning on both hands at the sides of the car’s guts. I’d slip in like I was in charge finally, turn the key, just able to see over the steering wheel to raised hood. The engine roaring to life, then purring happily made us both giddy. He’d tell me to gun it or go easy. If he took it for a spin, I’d hop in and off we’d go around a few corners, his sensitive ear attuned to any odd ping or squeal, and he’d sigh, grunt or hem and haw, or even slap the steering wheel, saying, “For Pete’s sake, we finally got ‘er done!”

Once back home, the sun beat down on us as he tinkered a bit more and I’d sweep the dank old garage  that held so many car stories and mice and spiders, then tidy up tools, softly singing. He’d turn to verify the tune I sang, often from musicals or a standard from big bands, then he’d look over top of his glasses and ask if I had practiced my cello and did I have homework. He’d eventually thank me for my help. I could have stayed out there the whole day but sooner or later we both had other things to do.

In retrospect I wonder if that was the Missourian boy that came out. Though he lived in town and his father was county superintendent of schools, their lives were simpler. They tended a vegetable and flower garden. Read to one another, enjoyed music. He played with sticks and old tires, whatever they found. He learned an instrument or two at a young age (as did his brothers), took to academics and skipped grades. But he liked to just sit awhile outside, listen to crickets, study the skies, make a good fire–and work on something with his hands.

Even more interesting to me was my father’s zest for motorbikes and motorcycles. I don’t recall which brands he preferred but they all impressed me with their bold rumbles, their speed, the daring they implied. Whenever he offered to take me for a spin I’d quickly tell Mom, hop on behind him before she could tell me “no” and off we’d go. He knew just what to do as we came to a fast stop or had to round sudden curves. I was never afraid. I hung on tight to his middle as wind tangled my hair and whined in my ears. I felt something special on a motorcycle, and it was fun when someone waved and called out, their surprise registered in a laugh. They became familiar with the sight of Lawrence Guenther on that crazy thing, riding to work even in a nice suit, briefcase strapped on the back.

The last time I rode with him (that Mom knew) was the day I had the accident. I was perhaps nine or ten. We’d been out and about on a humid but golden day and finally pulled into the driveway. The motor on the machine was exposed, in the middle of it and just beyond my knees. I knew to keep safe from the blazing heat but I was wearing summery shorts. When Dad parked it and put the stand down, I hopped off too fast, didn’t pay close enough attention. My exposed thigh just barely touched it. The pain was immediate and vicious and as I wept despite my desire to be tough, Dad examined the result. My thigh soon bore ridges of blisters that rose puffy and tender from reddened flesh.

My mother appeared in a hurry. The main thing was that she was scarlet-hot with anger over it, furious with my father for somehow allowing it, upset with me for not wearing longer pants at the very least. She did not like motorcycles, now even less so. Dad was quiet, felt sad for me I  said it was my mistake, since it was. It hurt more than I imagined, took weeks for multiple blisters to heal up. I had those striped scars a long time. But the thing is I was secretly proud of them. I felt it had initiated me into a small, private circle my mother clearly didn’t understand: risk takers, wind riders, pioneers who ventured beyond a safer norm. I never regretted riding with him despite the burns, and later enjoyed motorcycles with my first husband. But we managed to sneak in a couple more short rides before my teens arrived. Then I was suddenly too big to just hang out with Dad as my own interests began to morph.

I was the very last of the gang; my older four siblings were all in college by the time I was thirteen. The aloneness felt sudden though it was spread over a few years; they were closer in age than I was to them.

I didn’t yet fully realize how fortunate I was to have those parents, of course. My father and I were not to stay what felt like close to one another as I grew up. Perhaps predictably in our culture we each crossed into proscribed domains where neither was as readily welcomed. He had issues with my being on the telephone so long, stepping around me on the floor with a frown and a word, nearly tripping on the stretchy cord. He had more serious issues with the length of my skirts during the mini-skirt era. We argued politics when I became a Make Love Not War hippie activist. I snapped at him as he tried with fraying patience to help me with the algebra and geometry that came so naturally to him. I did manage to keep my grade point high which was a relief to us both. I did know better than to challenge his authority–or Mom’s– too much, as it was a serious thing to honor one’s parents.

He had his work, I had mine. Our paths crossed more often publicly at school, during various performances. We still played a game of Scrabble now and again. He would play piano, get out the ratty standards song book and I would still sing. But he also didn’t know of the abuse I had experienced earlier for years, that I suffered more as time went on but could not say why. He’d have been filled with despair and rage if he had known of it all; it also would have been a monstrous scandal in the 1950s-60s to inform authorities, take legal action. And the predator had warned me to remain silent. I believed I had to protect my family and just deal with it–as countless others did in those times and sadly, still do. It eroded me, changed me in ways I never imagined it would

Thankfully there were more happy moments to experience with him. There was still hope in the male of the species because my father was a good man, so I carried on with dating, my head filled with romance and mystery that made syrupy poems. There were saving graces of writing, music, figure skating, theater productions–and my friends. There were church and family events. I sought the warmth in his eyes, kindness of his smile, and did at times find it there. But we moved in two paths that did not converge much or so well again as my life got more complicated. And he grew older. He regretted I did not finish college before getting married; his eyes told me he knew I did, too. And then I had my family, was long gone. He was a kindly grandfather, a great game player with them. And then he passed on when I was forty.

And yet. And yet. Those times, those years made so much difference to me. To be included (and in something other than music), to be welcomed into other activities, to be treated with appreciation and affection–this is the kind of beginning every child should be able to experience. There were so many joyous times growing up that they were a shocking contrast to many unexpected difficulties. Yet they provided a bulwark against storms to be weathered–and still do. Dad’s presence was no small part of the goodness and truth I counted on as beacons in my life, a basic sense of security even as things fell apart.

Just like that, we are given back moments that can illuminate us with something important. A certain song, the way my brothers move or laugh; the shape of my son’s hands, his physical and mechanical skills; all my children’s feel for music, their commitment to creative work. Or even a particular slant of light easing through a tiny window. Just like that, my father is present in my consciousness and daily life again.

I must have needed to remember how much he loved me.

Once he showed me photographs taken while on a European trip after I had left home for good. It was of sunlight filtering through a smudged, mullioned window of an ancient building; then of light streaming through bunched dark clouds, slipping onto a sliver of river. He turned to me and said, “See there, how the light falls through the grayness and reveals hidden shapes, how it gives more life to everything, the light that always comes.” And his tired, lined face shone with appreciation, faith and hope.

Yes, my father, I feel you watching over me. And like the glowing constellations you once pointed out to me, I will keep alive what light I am given or first must find. The creative spirit you encouraged in me, the care and time you shared as you could–these things are embedded in my soul. Your determination to lead a life of prayer and service taught me much, and this has bolstered my journey. I hear you, see you. Let us be well reconciled, at peace.


(I’d love to show you pictures of Dad in midlife and us together later on, but this is all I found handy for this post. Please forgive yellow coloration.)

Dad in dance band–far right playing saxophone (and clarinet on floor) in his twenties.
Dad was around 41; I was about 2
Playing his viola
Dad in later 70s. He passed at age 81 of complications from a quadruple bypass.

A Confession of Unwanted Uncertainty

A Confession of Unwanted Uncertainty


I feel flummoxed, a little unmoored. I would rather not write, rather not release one drop of thought or feeling against the whiteness of this page. But language attends and surrounds me, rises and falls like a sheaf of leaves, a cascade of dust in pale light, a congregation of small letters that pile up within that center where who I am lives. Words that cannot measure the breadth and depth of much besides themselves. Some days. Others, they sing or open or rest with the elegance of swans upon water.

Today they flutter, unable to settle. I risk saying too little or too much, more than usual. It is not my strong point, ignoring what wants to be made known. But this time too much trembles around me. It is vast uncertainty that brushes against the waning light and I am captive. I know its capacity; who does not? Nothing is rock solid unless we deceive ourselves. Our births and deaths are certain, isn’t that all? I have not lived the safest life so uncertainty has been familiar, this sense of standing on a precipice and wondering about wings and feet. Knowing it can be done, the falling down and also the rising up. And standing there, breathless, contemplating a myriad possible vistas. It comprises enough of life. I am all in, one way or the other.

He had day surgery like so many do and it all ended not quite right. Medical expertise seems at best a guess based on past similar circumstances and calculated interventions. There are exceptions to any expected outcome. The body is a puzzle, so intricate it surely is like a holy secret in its design. Also: not infallible in its response to all events. And when there is sudden interruption, if wild card factors find their way into the mix, there can be chaotic complication. There was trouble six months ago and more now but they each make zig zag points. No full clarification as on a graph, which he would love to see. Meanwhile, who can be held at fault? Caution can create issues in health matters; risk creates issues, too.

I sat by his bed and listened to his informed silence–a man who reveres statistics as the rule, not much else to add in any crisis. He rested impatiently; there is never time, we believe, to be less than able-bodied. Life demands we stand up, move forward. The hospital bed and flimsy gown clarified: we were/are not in power. That blank room comprised another, figurative cell. An affront. I looked through the one rectangular window, hand touching his hand.

Sometimes we do not acknowledge much less speak of fear–other times it blares at us, but I was not aware of it for several days. This is the way we do it, take in and digest in small bites, do as told, ask smart questions, wait. Rest until rest feels elusive or heavy and pointless. And for me, sleep between the sleepwalking of each day, when everything is opaque, a blur of form and light. I was the ambulatory person yet sat and gathered time into a net of overlapping details, seeking presence of mind and strength for the next batch to catch, sort and tally.

Then, a corner rounded as improvements were noted. And finally, at last, home. Still weak. Such comfort for him again to read, hear music, eat solid food, watch junk and antique buying or gem mining or hunting shows. Later, a slow walk down a couple of blocks felt a tremendous distance and I tucked him in to walk alone awhile, head empty and lungs and eyes full of vivid autumn. And then attended to him, took care of business. My hand to his face and hand, eyes meeting eyes. Mind to mind, yet still apart. Talk easier when there is that taste of relief but the greater reality is a hard edge pushing against vulnerability. We had need of softness, a break. A cocoon to pull about us.

A daughter called from far away last night when we went to the corner cafe to order chicken tacos. She wanted to know what we knew and how we were. Her anxiety and love were so real I felt the heat and tug of her. I hadn’t experienced things that way, not really–that pressure of fear trying to break open damp, chill, quiet nights, her voice carrying–did all the children sound that way?–worry. And then I did. That is what people feel, isn’t it, when they are not clear all will be well. Yet a boundary between this moment and whatever is next was set the night I took him to emergency again. That call broke apart the intense calm and rightly so.

He has not been ill, not ever–only a virus here and there– until the past year. My own living can be mapped in part by medical events over many decades: I go into serious crisis and survive and recover and go on. One gets used to being felled despite one’s will; surprise is known more as resignation. It can always be worse, thus far. Mortality and frailty do not shock me. I hold high regard for the body’s restorative powers. And work and fight hard and long when meeting obstacles. Dealing with chronic medical issues prepares you for much. Not all. So now I am meditating, looking for a moment of refuge while trying to be present for him.

This isn’t my health, it is his. His that is tricky with incomplete family information, people gone or missing or adopted. So this is my viewpoint and he has his own. I am an intimate bystander to a large degree, if also his best friend, spouse, household manager, life cohort. A person who works better with a rich lexicon to define and nail down. Tell me what something is named, how it sounds in a paragraph; let it set on my tongue, take hold of a conversation or page. He wants numbers. An engineer, after all, a man in love with mathematics’ beautiful abstractions and ready equations. Hard evidence or a researched forecast telling his tales. He dealt with matters in just this way: he noted his own comparative data on the dry erase board and presented his own conclusion. The doctor, also a statistician, did not find faulty with it.

But I float away from that sentence now as I think of him at work today. Gone back far too soon, I think. Feet dragging while his brain is engaged, work to be done, to be done, done. Tackling things, in control, being in that role best grasped. My intuitive response and stubborn reach lost their grip as he headed out. Let me go into all front lines, I want to shout, I’m the steadier now.

How uncertainly things unfold as we plan, convinced of the next right steps. I have a tidy daily agenda but it is blank today. I’ve found myself attracted to clouds above on my walks, as if their shape-shifting can reveal something more. There is wisdom and it is within reach if only I can bring it closer. My spirit clings to the universe and to God with confidence as the days go on. But I still feel a sense of helplessness creeping in.

What is the more complete picture of his health? When will causes and effects be utterly exposed? How to field questions that assail me like startled bats streaming from a cave? I look at them and know they are necessary and know they mean no harm. That they are preparation for greater knowledge and a clearer route to take. Sentences that end in question marks are guides for mind and life. But I am a human being. I am made of heart. We are both made of heart. I do not want more harm but no one ever does.


We are older now that we ever have been, that’s the truth as well. We’ve been musicians and student protesters, poetry makers and helpers in the struggle to alter sexist and racist barriers and educational systems; raised several children and cobbled together good careers. We’ve figured out lots of things the tougher way. Our own peculiar and meaningful lifestyle has evolved, just doing what most do. But then something unaccounted for stirs, slinks into sight or grabs us by the throat. We come to attention and turn on the light, gather our resources and might. And we also gaze into the face of  mortality with each passing year. Welcome or not, there it is. We dig for the richness in it if there is any hope and faith at all.

Perhaps soon it will all be better illuminated. It may be discouraging or bring a deep relief. It adds up to more lines in a chapter of our life together. Who can say what awaits us any day? Uncertainty is a hallmark of being alive; it challenges, it disenchants. I determine to move with it; I will stay the watch as have done before.

I didn’t want to write today; writing wanted me so prised the words free. And, too, I danced my thoughts and emotions. And walked long and far, no camera for once. Found myself humming then singing an art song I performed long ago. The music was composed by Samuel Barber and the poem is James Agee’s. Somehow it says what needs to be said as I finish this. I leave you with it.

Sure On This Shining Night

Sure on this shining night
Of star made shadows round,
Kindness must watch for me
This side the ground. 
The late year lies down the north.
All is healed, all is health.
High summer holds the earth. 
Hearts all whole.
Sure on this shining night I weep for wonder wand’ring far
Of shadows on the stars

-by James Agee


Handmade: Being a Seamstress’ Daughter

The wished-for dress for my first formal, 1965, my mother completing the finishing touches
The wished-for dress for my first formal, 1965, my mother completing the finishing touches

Watching my mother sew was witnessing a mistress of textile creation in her glory. With a light touch, lengths of fabric were fed under the flexible metal foot, that part through which a strong, sharp needle pierced material with dozens of stitches that always met their marks. She’d sever a tail of thread on the tiny razor edge above it, hold up the piece to examine the work, then get on with the next hem or zipper or seam if satisfied. The passion of her intention was clear. One interrupted only if there seemed a significant lull, or if she invited you to come on. Or if there was spilled blood involved. I wondered how she got done what she did with all of us.

I could often locate where she was by following the sound of the Singer’s (later a fancy Pfaff, which she disliked) machine motor as it revved up and slowed, or scissors snipping or perhaps frustrated vocalizations, sometimes punctuated with a “Thunderation!”–the closest she came to swearing. She was a tough quality assurance inspector of her work, scrutinizing each action. It had to be perfect because there was no other way an item would merit being offered to someone as proper clothing. Including hats; she was a milliner, as well.

I’d run upstairs and peek through the half-open door. I sat or stood nearby as she worked and talked, explaining the success or failure of her project. And she’d listen to my updates on school or some boy. Sometimes I came close and stayed quiet just to observe her hands flying as they measured and cut, adjusted the machine, smoothed out, tore apart to re-do, then realigned parts. Wherever the sewing machine had taken up residence, the most convenient at any moment–my parent’s bedroom or an empty bedroom or the den–was the space she would inhabit. That is, when not teaching elementary students, cooking and doing  housekeeping tasks,  intercepting  messages for our administrator/teacher/musician/conductor father, entertaining, working in the yard, attending church or community meetings, and overseeing the needs and wants of our family of seven. She made my daily grind, which felt slammed with activities, look like nothing at all. I hoped against hope I’d have her energy when I got old(er).

Mom was forty when I was born so that meant when a teen, my siblings had already gone on to college: I had her (and Dad) to myself. I began to appreciate the skill and labor it took to turn out one of my wishes. Decades of practice made her extra-dexterous, her sense of touch highly sensitive and her eye for design more refined. She knew how to resolve the knottiest problems. Her creative impulse and drive kept her going many nights when she should have slept more–but she would to be deterred from having my outfit done for an occasion the next day. I knew her work was expert, proud of what came of her efforts with a sewing machine, a needle and thread.

Mom sewed first because she and her sisters had been taught to sew when very young on the Kelly’s family farm. It was a necessary skill, required for repairing clothing rarely replaced, rendering basic items not affordable, and because the knowledge could carry them forward in life one way or another, perhaps provide them with employment. My two beloved aunts also sewed well. Aunt Mary, the feisty one who did occasionally swear and had been divorced from a reputed scoundrel, a scandal all around, was owner/ head seamstress of her successful business. She whipped up custom clothing, exquisite quilts and decorative items. I found her  as well as the business exotic; she was a big personality who managed to be financially independent even back in the fifties. My mother did the same, but on a vastly smaller scale in our home, making everything from formal gowns to down jackets.

But Mom also sewed because she was drawn to the beauty and challenge of design, to all the materials–including a wide array of fabric– needed for sewing projects. Visual and also visionary, she liked to draw a little, arrange flower bouquets and create appealing meals for a decked out table. She enjoyed crocheting and embroidering in the evenings or when not feeling well. She even reupholstered our furniture a couple times and made drapes. Her hands had to accomplish something for her to be most fulfilled and at ease; idleness didn’t have a place in her frame of reference regarding life.

I was mesmerized watching her lay out yards of fabric on our dining room table: scissors snipping away without any worry of crooked lines, her keen eye cuing an adjustment on a tissue-thin pattern as she suddenly got a better idea for style and fit. A half-dozen pins poked out between pressed lips; I worried she’d swallow one or it might nick her lip but neither occurred. She slid one out as needed, infrequently using the pin cushion when up to full speed. Then to the Singer she would go, and the creation began to take form like magic. She was known to make an entire dress in a couple of days.

Mom primarily sewed for my two older sisters and me, even as we grew up. As our two brothers gained stature and attitude, they were less willing to sport handmade items. Still, she sometimes made trim sport coats, slacks and shirts, even impressive leather vests (there were a few years she figured out how to make darned near anything out of leather for us all). And they had blue jeans to wear any time, they had flannels or simple T-shirts. We, on the other hand, had dresses, skirts, blouses, trousers and pantsuits, then miniskirts (“Not THAT short,” Mom warned) and beyond. She liked (we mostly liked) the classic look but when I turned into a hippie girl, I was on my own.

There were too many children to keep so well dressed; no doubt she was propelled by duty, as well. And it was no dishonor to wear these items. Her handiwork was widely admired by others in town and it pleased us to note, “Thank you, my mother made it for me.”

She also made her own dresses for concerts and other dressy events. They were jewel-colored, sumptuous of fabric, fit for a queen we all thought, as she descended the stairs to join our father in his suit or even tails. Both transformed. It seemed my parents were the perfect duet with matching silver-white hair, dignified bearing and good-natured ways.

We lived only about four blocks from the part of town called “The Circle”–businesses fronted a circular street system, a sort of modified clover leaf. I enjoyed walking up there, visiting the pleasant stores from home goods to pharmacies and a bowling alley and the only movie house. But one of my favorites was Hansen’s. Mom and I visited there when needing to select a pattern and fabric for one of my upcoming musical performances or school dances–or just some new outfits for the start of another school year. I bought things, too, but who didn’t enjoy custom clothing?

Upon entry, Mom and I were greeted by distinctive smells of a multitude of fabrics, the air a dry richness overlaid with acridity of dyes permeating bolts of material standing upright on tables. The wooden floor creaked; overburdened shelves were unevenly lit, a little dusty. Along with fabrics were all the odds and ends that were so critical to finishing a creation: rainbowed spools of thread in neat rows, windowed packages of zippers, packets of needles and pins, each in their own section. The fabrics were organized by type. I loved their names. Cotton and linen, wide- or narrow-wale corduroy, polyester and rayon, satin, taffeta, velveteen and velvet, woolens,  seersucker, organza, brocade, boucle, charmeuse, pique, rib knit, chiffon and many more. I would instantly become heady with possibilities, prickling with excitement as we took a handful in our fingers to test weight and texture. The drape of fabric was important; how the light awakened colors made a difference. The variety of prints held me in thrall as we made our way between a maze of narrow rows. The store seemed huge, choices endless (though, in fact, it was a modest place).

I would head to the table where a half-dozen large, heavy pattern books lay in wait. We pored over pictures, finally making the decision of appropriate style for material I preferred, then I’d locate the slim package in the file cabinets. I recall thinking how amazing it was that frail tissue paper boldly outlined could be pinned on fabric, then to evolve into a kind of wearable art. Occasionally we discussed redesigning a pattern, something she was adept at after years making clothing for discerning customers, too. Often I most looked forward to dressier fabrics and designs made for special events.

When thumbing through many photographs in search of those showing these clothes, I was surprised I could easily recall each handmade outfit worn, even the affair for which it was made. They were good, attractive, sometimes beautiful things. They were made more valuable by the patient, caring hands that created them.

She made clothing and blankets and quilts and more for her grandchildren, as well, a legacy of her love and also her industry. And some also have the ability and desire to make unique art or clothing or jewelry or furniture with their hands.

Photo: Naomi J. Falk

Fabrics, creating, and love: I thought of all this recently when viewing a photo Naomi, my oldest daughter shared. An artist, she took a workshop on dyeing fabrics, the Shibori method, she noted. The indigo color and designs are fresh, lush yet simple, too. I felt a stirring inside, a desire to engage in more visual art again. But mostly I thought of Naomi growing up with her two grandmothers, both talented seamstresses, and her trying her had at making things with them. I knew when she was a child she inherited what I did not, that something extra that enables her to use (ambidextrous) hands to construct surprising objects from unusual or ordinary materials. She once made a several yards-long quilted piece in memoriam for soldiers lost during the Iraq War, of organza, batting, flannel and thread with porcelain “bones”. It was entitled Recall(ed). She’ll continue to explore textiles as well as her chosen medium of sculpture; it’s all in the blood. I think how pleased my mother must be, that her granddaughter is still working with needle and thread.

But not me. I so tried to learn to sew well under my mother’s tutelage and her unerring hawk eye. I got the basics down, can mend, once made simple children’s shorts and dresses, a skirt or two for me. I can make pillows, the easiest projects. But do I have that more glorious finesse? Not so much. Maybe I gave up too quickly, a deep vein of perfectionism dooming me. Or it didn’t hold my interest; there were plenty of activities I early on found more fascinating. But I think of it, still. I have a covered sewing machine in my closet. When I go into a fabric store for a notion or yardage for grandkids’ projects I’m met with the feeling again that imagination’s doorways can be thrown wide open with a little fabric in hand.

Mom would be a consultant if she could but she’s long gone. I can almost hear her delighted laughter as she’d look over Naomi’s newly made fabric, an index finger alongside her nose as the questions and ideas poured forth. The thought of them together makes a happy picture.

And I know she didn’t care I was never a seamstress, didn’t find me some abject failure in the end. After all, she was a storyteller, too, and would ask me to read my latest writing to her as she sewed or washed dishes or sat awhile before bed. A year before she died, Mom read the first finished draft of a novel I’d long toiled over. She told me she couldn’t get enough of it, to keep at it, always be true to my passion.

Homecoming, 1966; dress by Mom
Homecoming, 1966; dress by Mom
Recall(ed) Quilt 2010-ongoing by Naomi J Falk
Recall(ed) Quilt 2010-ongoing by Naomi J. Falk

(Note: Some of Naomi’s other work: http://www.naomijfalk.com)