Above

Above

Above. 24.5 x 45

 

Here’s my newest work, Above. It’s so named because it reminded my husband of a view of a landscape as seen while floating in the sky. This is shades of the video for “And She Was” by the Talking Heads.

My internet friend Quinn McDonald has written eloquently about how recent events have affected people’s creativity. Amusingly enough, I’m having the opposite experience. I’m turning out tons of work. Unfortunately, much of it has a depressed, apocalyptic tone or, like this piece, is executed on the fly while listening to Terry Gross’s calming tones on NPR.

Closeup2

I don’t know what inspired me to create Above. Maybe there wasn’t any inspiration, save using some excess materials that were cluttering up the corners of my workroom. It truly is a Frankensteinian creation, comprised of chunks of old bed sheet, fabric scraps too small and irregular to piece together, and a bag of exotic yarn ends. Happily, although it’s quite a bit different than my usual work, it’s already been claimed.

Closeup1

When I do a piece of work like this that’s crazy, with bits of this and that salvaged and thrown in in no particular manner, I think of my maternal grandmother. Perhaps the work is something of a tribute to her.

My mother and I lived with her parents for a time after she divorced my father. In my memories, they were humorless people and not particularly warm. Both of them were poisoned by a particular strain of southern Christianity that embraced hatred and stupidity. It’s a strain that believes that questions come from Satan, one should regard reading materials other than the Bible with deep suspicion, and that “n—— aren’t human and should go back to Africa”. The philosophy is far more focussed on relishing the punishment of unbelievers and their eternal roasting in hell than it is following the teachings of Jesus.

Given all that, perhaps it wasn’t surprising that we weren’t close. Perhaps it’s difficult to be warm or affectionate when the core of one’s life is a philosophy that’s focussed on hatred and judgement. Or perhaps having a daughter and her child land in their household put them under a strain and they resented it. Still, they took in my mother and me, and I do appreciate it. They were never cruel to me. There was a roof over my head and food on the table at every meal. This, despite the fact that I must have gotten on their nerves.

I was a genius at conjuring up mischief. My grandmother had fragrant white roses planted out in front of the house. I would rip the roses off the bushes and shake them around, purely for the pleasure of seeing the petals fall down like snow. I would also pull unripe peaches off their trees and scrape away the fuzz with a fingernail, because the fact there was fuzz on a fruit fascinated me. These actions weren’t well received. Still, my grandparents weren’t cruel to me. There were sharp words but they didn’t yell or paddle me, despite my returning to that rose bush over and over again.

My grandmother was a quilter. Both of my grandmothers were, actually. That was simply what one did in their era, particularly if one was of a particular social class. They gardened and canned, they sewed clothes for their families, and they hoarded the leftover fabric scraps to piece together quilts to keep their families warm. In my memories, my paternal grandmother’s works were pieced quilts that followed a pattern. I don’t remember much about my maternal grandmother’s work, other than the crazy quilt.

That crazy quilt was a glorious thing, patched together out of salvaged scraps of cotton, jersey, and velveteen. It didn’t contain any fancy stitching or other embellishment, but it didn’t need it. The assortment of fabric types and colors and textures was sufficient to elevate it to the status of art.

I doubt that my grandmother intended it to be a work of art, because art wasn’t part of her universe. In her world, a picture of praying hands or of a long-haired, suspiciously Caucasian Jesus was sufficient art for a household. I’m sure she simply viewed the quilt as a frugal means of staying warm. It was art though, and quite marvelous. I loved every inch of it.

I spent hours with that quilt. It was my solace. My parents couldn’t simply agree that they didn’t get along and seek a divorce, you see. There were religious considerations plus my father was determined to stay in the marriage because, I think, of me. I understand and appreciate that, but it really was quite awful. My mother was paranoid schizophrenic and my father just plain hates women, so there had to be beatings and kidnappings and all manner of other nightmarish bullshit before they split up. So many things happened. So many. Life was out of control. But after the divorce, the quilt was there.

I used to take that quilt, wad it up, and explore its topology. I’d do that by the hour, when I wasn’t intent on destroying my grandmother’s roses. I’d use marbles for the activity, pretending they were tiny human spelunkers. They’d run through the caves and canyons in the quilt. I’d try to understand how the manner in which I’d wadded up the quilt led to certain formations, then I’d wad it up a different way and try to understand that.

Eventually the living circumstances changed. My mother and I moved out, urged on by my grandfather’s bellows of “Pack your duds and get out!”, a subtle hint that we’d worn out our welcome. Much of that period is a haze. There was a multitude of different schools, a rotating cast of boyfriends for my mother, and worn, cracked apartments that smelled odd. I’d let myself in after school and sit up into the night watching Mannix or Hawaii Five-O or Ironsides while my mother slept for whatever menial job she was attempting to hold down. Her life was hell. She had few job skills and the mental illness made life frightening. Each time she got a new job, there’d be a honeymoon period, then her co-workers would be “out to get her” or (in her mind) even kill her.

She’d have “spells” of depression or paranoia. I’d try to reason her out of them, not realizing that there was something organically wrong that kept her mind from functioning properly. Something as simple as a word scratched out on a piece of paper could become a plot in which people were trying to deceive her. Sometimes she’d turn on me with a sly, chilling smile on her face, and tell me that I was trying to hide things from her but she could see through it. She was going to leave me an inheritance when she died someday. I wouldn’t try to hurt her, would I? I wouldn’t try to get that money sooner?

I was only in the third or fourth grade. I couldn’t keep up with how quickly her mind could warp facts to fit a delusion. We’d spend hours talking. I’d about have her convinced that her coworkers really weren’t carrying razor blades in their shoes so they could kill her, then I’d make a mistake, she’d seize on it, and we’d be right back where we started. It was exhausting and about as fruitful as chatting with the Mississippi River and asking it to not form oxbow lakes after an earthquake. Still, she tried. Life was terrifying for her, but she kept trying.

The summer before fifth grade, I moved in with my father and his second wife. That proved to be its own story. I never really saw my mother’s side of the family after that. I barely saw my mother.

My grandmother passed away at the age of 93. I know only a few bare facts about her life, but I still have the memory of that crazy quilt. She raised a bunch of kids, she housed me for awhile, and she made a marvelous quilt. She did the best she could with what she had. I respect her for those things. When I look at my own work, I think of her.

 

2 Responses to “Above”

  1. Neame says:

    Thank you for this post. Your wry descriptions of your family are so familiar — my family had much the same dynamic and for the same reasons, except add in alcoholism. I’m very glad we both survived and we both found quilting as balm and outlet. Hugs to you, Tanya.
    Neame

  2. Renate Watts says:

    I love the quilt and am so moved by what you wrote. I try to remember that ‘you can never know the hard row another human has to hoe’ but to read you describe yours in such forgiving terms is truly beautiful.

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