Friday, February 26, 2010

Memoir I: Aunt Nettie's Legacy

I have two heirlooms from an aunt I knew but didn't know while I was growing up. One came to me before she died, the other years after. The first was one of the occasional gifts my brother, sister, and I would receive, usually out of the blue, from Aunt Nettie. An afghan that was large enough to completely cover me twice over when I lay down on chilly days for a couch nap. I was already grown and living on my own when I got the afghan; and I displayed it proudly, neatly folded on the loveseat I got from a divorce settlement--a loveseat that had only one arm because it was actually part of a larger modular unit that wrapped around the living room of the house I didn't get (but also didn't want) from a divorce settlement. The unit was a neutral color and at least ten years old by the time I had it in my own place. It rested perpetually against, rather than pulled away from, the wall so that the stropped and frayed back of the seat wouldn't show. Aunt Nettie's gift made the loveseat seem pretty and new again. Like my life.

The day my Mom gave us the afghans--Aunt Nettie had made three of them, one for each of us, and each of equal size and purity--I wondered first how long it had taken her to make them. Then I wondered how she could have known that the colors of the rows of perfect stitches on mine were all my favorites. Probably, she didn't know; probably, it was only coincidence.

The first time I doubled the coverlet (blanket?), draped it over me and tucked it around my face, I tried to place the smell of it. It was the yarn itself perhaps, but I'd never really noticed before that yarn even had a scent. It was somehow familiar and distant. The smell of a baby's head. Or of a favorite shirt I wore over and over again when I was 16. Of innocence, something like that. I expected the smell to wear off--not that I wanted it to--as soon as I'd washed the afghan for the first time. But it didn't (still hasn't, so many years later) no matter how many cigarettes have been smoked in my living room. No matter how many times the room's hidden odors have been exposed by heat and humidity because I waited until I could scarcely breathe before turning on the air in summer.

Aunt Nettie was tall, dark, and very quiet. One thing I especially remember about her is how little she spoke when she would visit and have meals with us. When she brought fork or spoon to her mouth, she stared, her eyes wide and intense, at nothing, not even the food. This was unsettling to me, especially when I was a child, because most of the people I'd known kept their eyes on their plates if they didn't feel like talking.

Much of what I knew about my aunt came from my mother, who was ten years younger than Nettie. I knew she'd married my uncle, they'd adopted my cousin when he was a baby, they'd divorced after some twenty years of marriage. During my teen years, I remember feeling very sorry for Aunt Nettie and hoping my life would never be like hers. In my 20s, 30s, and 40s, even if I hadn't seen or thought about her for a long time, even after her death, she would suddenly leap into my thoughts after one of my own break-ups. But I also know that her life didn't end when her marriage did. Though she didn't marry again, she did date, well into her 50s, maybe even into her 60s. This gave me hope; I breathed easier, for her. And yet, I still have a firm memory of the day my Mom got a phone call from Nettie, saying that the man she'd been seeing for quite a while (they might have even been engaged), had died of a heart attack.

When Aunt Nettie died, and my cousin told Mom that she could go through closets and drawers and take whatever she wanted from what was left in Nettie's house, Mom found stacks of afghans and quilts in various degrees of completedness, knitting, needlework, fabric, thread, yarn, and an Elna 500 electronic sewing machine, neatly nestled in its flawless, hide-away cabinet. Not a needle or a bobbin, a zipper foot or any other attachment seemed to be missing. The thread spun evenly and tightly around each bobbin was a different color, and some of the bobbins were full, half full, or almost empty. Inside the stool with the removeable top where she stored her legacy of textiles, metal, and color was the top of an old shoebox which she used as an organizer for thread and sundry items. There was a small crocheted Santa head there with plastic eyes, the kind with little black moving pupils that spin around when you wiggle the head. On the underside of Santa was a safety pin. I imagine Aunt Nettie wore that Santa herself, and I wondered when I saw it if she had put it there, forgotten about it, and then couldn't find it when the next holiday season came around again.

When I die, only my brother and sister (and my parents if I go before they do) will go through my closets and drawers. They will find fewer quilts, most of them unfinished. I only finish small, pet-size quilts because I like to feel I have accomplished something in my life. They won't find any afghans (except for Aunt Nettie's) or knitting because I never mastered those arts. And Aunt Nettie's afghan will still smell the same. And now, I have other things that smell like Nettie's afghan. All of my thrift-store clothes believe it or not. And they have in common with Nettie's art piece that their smell also doesn't go away no matter how many times you wash them.

When I go, my brother and sister will find reams and reams of used paper, books and articles and stories I've written, which remain unfinished (or unpublished). My sister will find box after box--labeled for her eyes only, to do with as she sees fit--of spiral notebooks. My life in nutshell. Truthfully, I don't think she or anyone else will ever read them, but I can't bring myself to destroy them. They are my evidence, at least while I'm here, that I have been here. They will also find Nettie's Elna 500, proudly displayed in my living room, a bit more battered or gently used perhaps, and all the bobbins will be wound with different colors. And then, Nettie's legacy will be mine.

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