by Patricia DeMarco
As we are all adjusting to the pandemic of COVID-19 as it spreads through our communities closer and closer, I find myself in a reflective mood. I am among the highly vulnerable population because of my age and my compromised immune system from my recent bout with chemotherapy. So I have been thinking about making productive use of this time in self-imposed isolation.
My forthcoming book “DEFIANCE! The Triumph of Life” seems more urgent than even in this time of threat. I have decided to focus on finishing this manuscript and sending it off to some potential publishers this month. I am also finishing the Alaska Wildflowers quilt I started in 1997 as a way to deal with my fear of flying. I share an essay from DEFIANCE.
Laying Down Thread
I learned embroidery from my Nona when I was six or seven years old. She taught me to sew by hand doing the hems of the flour sacks turned into dish towels or aprons. The flour was purchased in 25 -pound cotton sacks. These were emptied into the flour hopper in the kitchen, with a sifter at the bottom to sift flour into a bowl when needed. In Nona’s house, bread happened once a week in a large batch to serve the working men of the house with lunches, and the rest of us with nourishment. The empty sacks were washed and taken apart to lie flat, and I learned to draw a thread for a straight seam, and hand-turn a hem. Of course, nothing was sent to use without embroidered embellishment- a prayer or blessing in white thread on white cloth at the minimum, or freehand flowers trailing along the edge. Counted thread work and smocking decorated aprons. And of course, there was the endless darning of socks, turning of shirt collars and cuffs, and mending. Such routine household tasks occurred in the evening after dinner over rich conversations.
In one of my earliest memories, I recall a Saturday afternoon in summer on my Nona’s back porch. The grape vines are so thick that the sun is shaded through the heavy leaves. I sit on a little stool at my Nona’s foot with my embroidery hoop working on a set of pillow cases to be embroidered with flowers spilling from a basket. Mrs. Nichola, Comare D’Alessandro, Aunt Bernice and Aunt Matilda are there, each with some hand work, all talking and laughing over stories they share. It is a mixture of mostly Italian and some English, I am oblivious of the content of the conversation, but remember that I deeply connected to these ladies who could laugh and be happy in spite of the hardships and separations from their families. I would show my Nona my work, and sometimes she would be pleased and give me the next color to add to the design, or sometimes she would tell me to take it out and start over. The back had to be pretty too! No tangled messes were tolerated. Sometimes she would send me to look at a flower growing to see the shape and the detail of leaf and flower form. The embroidery came from the mental image to the cloth.
As I grew older, I came to treasure these Saturdays with my Nona, mending, embroidering, and sharing time. We talked of problems and fears and hopes. I marveled that she had so much wisdom and so much strength. Bare root grape vines and fig trees came to America in Pop’s pockets now grown to shade the second-floor porch and offer fruits to eat with cheese and bread and wine as we talked. Nona listened to my struggles for independence from my Father’s rules, from the unfairness of women’s place in the world. She was wise in many ways. She told me “The men may rule, but the women govern.” I watched at the family gatherings over Sunday dinner where all major decisions were made. Pop would declare the outcome, but the discussion and arguments were guided by Nona, sometimes with force, but most often with a well-placed question or observation. And it was Nona who executed the logistics and the details.
I think about the many embroideries I have done over the course of my life. They are mostly given away as presents to other people, or on children’s clothes long dispersed to the winds. When I embroider the flowers where the forms evolve from mental images through thread laid down one strand at a time, I think about my Nona and all she endured to make her family a better life. Embroidery captures the sadness, loneliness or fear and makes it beautiful. I lay down thread and remember my Nona.
I hope this small excerpt of DEFIANCE offers comfort in this difficult time. It is really the simple things that give us solace and transform trouble into treasures.
Be safe. Be well. I hope to see you again soon.