April 15, 2015

On Wednesday I finished hanging my first solo art show since having children, and on Wednesday my dear, sweet Grandma Z died. What a strange soup of joy and sorrow this life on earth is.

The connection between these two events feels significant to me. In my current artwork I’m using heirloom linens—textiles wrought through endless repetition—as a metaphor for the love and sacrifice that mothers display through their endless repetitions of care for others: cleaning, cooking, laundering, mending, praying, teaching….

Grandma helped me learn to sew. Though I spent more time sewing with my mom than with Grandma, I remember Grandma teaching me to sew my first garment from a pattern and helping me put in my first zipper. I was in junior high at the time; she must have been Patience personified. I made a jumper, and the fabric was rather bold—a picnic-table gingham with little ants and drawings of picnic food printed over the plaid. I loved the jumper deeply but was too embarrassed to wear it more than a few times. I did that repeatedly—made clothes for myself, but then wasn’t bold enough to wear them. I guess we artists are sometimes shy to show our own work. She also taught me to make pie crusts and noodles from scratch during that same stay, I think.

A widow, she had supported herself and her family for quite a while working in a costume shop for stage productions. I loved visiting the “costume room” as a child, where pure magic was being wrought by designers and seamstresses. There were yards and yards of period costumes and bolts and bolts of exquisite fabrics. My current artwork utilizes linens and fabrics given to me by some of her former coworkers.

Grandma had made her own wedding dress, and from the time I heard her story about her dress, I wanted to make my own as well. I knew that sewing the dress ourselves would implicate my mom and my grandma in the process, and that was part of the motivation—a collaboration of three generations. Almost exactly 10 years ago, Grandma, mom, and I, along with one of my bridesmaids drove up Interstate 85 to Mary Jo’s Cloth Store to choose fabric for the dress and began the work.

I had to leave town to begin art school in Savannah shortly after that, so I left the rest of the dress-making in the capable hands of Mom and Grandma, but I can only imagine the laughter those two must have shared in the kitchen to mitigate their frustration with all the little glass beads on the fabric I had chosen. My wedding dress was the last of many dresses she had sewn for me over the years.

Women’s lives are made up of repetition, and there’s no way to calculate the iterations of care she poured out on all of us in her 95 years of living. But I know I am rich for having been the recipient of countless thousands of them.

Michelle Radford