Sickness, Health, Soup

Ten weeks post-surgery, I am still healing, or being healed. Little by little I feel more like myself. I can wear turtlenecks if the collar is loose, I can read because I can now wear my glasses, as the stitches near the bridge of my nose have healed, I can go without my bandages for hours at a time (although my nose is always coated in bacitracin ointment, as is everything around me over time), and finally I want to write again. And so it’s time for both a writing prompt and a plug for a friend’s new book.

Illness

The writing prompt is about illness. Writing about illness calls for attention to detail, on the one hand, and the ability to share the fog of being part of an altered reality, on the other. Also, nothing tugs more at the memory than being sick with something old in a new place. Literature is full of good examples of writing about illness, and our lives are a fertile place to mine for specifics.

Life

I am old enough to have had a doctor who made house calls. How often my father paced, while holding me, before dawn, while we waited for our pediatrician, Dr. Zaudy, to arrive. Dr. Zaudy had been an instructor at Harvard Medical School and saved my life when I was an infant sick with pyloric stenosis. I grew up thinking that people can survive cancer, because my grandmother survived her breast cancer before I was born, and that both men and women can be doctors, because the smartest doctor my father could find was a woman. I remember being hot with fever, as Dad held me on his shoulder and paced, saying reassuring things and checking the window to see if the doctor had come. Our floors were wooden, with rugs, and the view from his shoulder changed from carpet to wood, wood to carpet, in the penumbral darkness, until all the lights went on because the doctor had arrived, and everything was, by definition, going to be better.

My brothers and I shared all the illnesses for which there were no shots at the time. I got mumps, and was taken away from Dad and  my brother for the duration. The three of us got chicken pox, one after another after another. We had a specific puke basin for when we were vomiting, and we sometimes dosed with cola syrup, pink medicine or even paregoric. When we made it to the toilet in time to throw up there, our mother put her hand on our foreheads to keep our heads from jerking forward. After Mamma died, my brother told me that as ac child he had thought, “What would happen if Mamma died, and there was no one to hold my forehead?” It was a sad and grateful thought.

High School

After Mamma died and Dad remarried, we called our stepmother Mom. She used to read to us when we were sick, in between taking care of our growing family and everything else in the house Dad earnestly placed a soggy, folded face cloth on our foreheads and after he left the room Mom would wring it out a little and dry our necks so they didn’t tickle. We could have ginger ale, a forbidden treat, but only served warm and flat.

The worst illness I had as a teenager was a strange stomach bug that I got shortly after we moved back into the house we had lived in before my mother died. We had lived for a while in another part of Roslindale, one of Boston’s neighborhoods, but we had a series of tenants who couldn’t or wouldn’t pay the rent, including some who also didn’t want to pay for heating oil, so they burned the rosewood mantlepiece in the non-functioning fireplace. So to save money, we moved back into the house we had grown up in, but it was traumatic. My parents were in the middle of a long and bitter divorce when my mother died, and so Dad inherited everything as spouse, but some people were bitter, as was he. He thought my mother’s relatives might try to obtain custody of us, so we weren’t allowed to talk to the neighbors, who were their friends.

Moving is trauma, but life was also stressful at school. My sophomore year I had teachers whom I truly loved – the late, great John Hughes, who took things I wrote for class and typed them up and submitted them to the literary magazine without telling me, Carl Perkins who, at a time when I thought I was stupid, fat, and ugly, took the time to tell me in words and in writing that I wasn’t dumb. “This grade reflects your level of preparation rather than your intelligence,” he wrote on an exam I flunked, and gave me a 56-page assignment to do over Christmas break for extra credit. The assignment started with the earlier problems which I had somehow mastered and took me through what I hadn’t understood, leading into the things we would learn next, so when classes resumed, all of a sudden, I was good in math and ahead of the class. I had just started my job in the kitchen with Ila Moore, and I had finally figured out how to separate Latin and Spanish in my brain.

But Junior year was just much harder. I was keenly aware that my brother and my friends from his class would only be with us for nine more months, now for eight, soon for seven, and I had begun mourning them. I loved U. S. History with the headmaster and hated it with his co-teacher, who was equally thrilled with me. In those days I divided adults into those who liked my brother better and those who liked me better, and my English teacher fell into the second camp. She looked like Mary Steenburgen and had no interest in me writing poems or stories, only essays about how the change in the narrative language reflected the characters; worse, while sometimes she called the language used “elevated,” sometimes she called it “high falluten,” which I could only hear so many times before rolling my eyes. My glasses were not thick enough to hide this. The teacher was not bad, she had a task to do and did it well, but this year I was being taught; the previous year I was nurtured.

And so, I was wounded, And I walked like it. One day after lunch, I had a free period before English, and She was neither evil nor a bad teacher, she just wasn’t for me. planned to go to the library on the second floor. But I looked at the stairs and knew I could not climb them. A sudden urgency came upon me, and I dashed to the nearby ladies’ room and threw up, mercifully in the toilet. My English teacher had been about to say something when I bolted and instead as I emerged, she was reassuring and kind. Someone got my coat and my books, the office called Mom, and I sat on the couch in the lobby watching life take place without me, teachers and students walking by and looking at me with empathetic curiosity. The headmaster and several teachers stopped by to say kind things and tuck my coat around me. Mom took me home and I slept and shivered, vomited and slept, burned and then shivered, for the better part of two days.

My brothers and baby sister were kept away so I wouldn’t infect them. Mom read, Dad came with facecloths, there was flat ginger ale and the promise of boiled rice if I could hold that down, but nothing made me feel better. Worse, I was throwing up yellow bile, something I had never done before. I was too tired to be scared, but my parents were not. Dad tried to appear nonchalant. “Everyone feels better after a good puke,” he said. But I did not.

Sunday, though, was better. I stayed home, but people prayed for me at church and sent home greetings. My siblings lit candles, and soon it was time for, and piano lessons with my godfather. He came to our house each Sunday for this. Obviously, I wouldn’t have a lesson that day, but Sergei Yulievich came to my room and made the sign of the Cross over me many times. His wife, Madeleine, was French, and we often talked during my brothers’ piano lessons. I told her all my secrets, and whenever I was suffering, she said, “Poorrr Aanne! Poorrr Aanne!” in her beautiful accent. My brothers would say this to tease me when I complained about something at home. But this day, Madeleine came to the rescue.

The Cure

While Serge was upstairs, down in the kitchen Madeleine asked Mom about my illness. Mom explained all the highlights, and Madeleine said, “But I know how to cure this!”

Madeleine often spoke about what they used “during the war,” by which she meant World War II, and would tell us about using beer instead of eggs and how they stretched out rations. “During the war, we did not have doctors, but we did not need them for this, we knew what to do,” she said, and set Mom to gathering things for her.

Madeleine, who was usually so precise in the way she peeled, sliced, and seasoned vegetables, took only carrots, celery, and an onion. She merely washed the vegetables, and peeled only the onion. She cut the vegetables into large chunks and boiled them in a great deal of water without herbs or oil or even salt.

She told Mom, “The first day, she is to drink just the broth, with no salt. The second day, she may have the broth with some of the vegetables chopped up, but not too much. The third day, she can eat the vegetables, with a little salt, and by then, she should be hungry again.

Mom told me the story as she brought me the broth. At first, she had to feed it to me, but then I could feed myself. When it stayed down, I felt like a miracle had taken place. I was able to sit up, and have a sponge bath, and change into a cleaner nightgown.

The next day, the broth with a few mashed veggies stayed down, and by the time I could eat the bland vegetables, I was able to think about the classes I was missing and the wonderful foods cooking downstairs that suddenly smelled good. I wanted to join the living. I wanted to go back to my life.

And, my life was better. There had been kindness and mercy, carrots and celery, prayers and stories. I had been put back together by the love of others.

My friend’s book

When my friend Matushka Elizabeth, also known as the author Melissa Naasko, was writing a book on healing foods, I meant to share the story and the recipe, but then life became too busy. But when “Hospitality for Healing” came out, I was sure to buy a copy. It’s a wonderful book, full of recipes not just for people with the stomach bug but for long term conditions that require thoughtful preparation of food. She has ways of thickening foods so they are easy to swallow, recipes for syrups and soups, things that you can put in Jell-O and thing that you cannot, and more. Her soup recipes have emboldened me to now put three or more garlic in my soups, three or more instead of my very Celtic one clove.

The book isn’t just recipes, it’s also about how to show up, how to heal, how to help. I highly recommend it.

The prompt

Take the reader through an illness and the way that it is or isn’t healed, using details — colors, textures, remedies and the people who offer them. If you need help getting started, read what others have done and take from it what helps you.

Examples

In children’s literature, Sharon Creech’s book “Granny Torelli Makes Soup,” a grandmother heals a rift between two children through her stories as they come together to make soup.

In “Little Women” there are numerous examples of the girls nursing each other or neighbors through the things that they cook and prepare.

In poetry, Randall Jarell’s “The Sick Child” captures what it is like to be sick and yearn for something without knowing quite what.

In nonfiction, Da Chen writes of the way friends banded together to heal him when he was bleeding internally at college in “Sounds of the River.”

In fiction, Dickens captures the confusion of Pip’s illness in “Great Expectations.”

Zooey’s lecture to Franny about “consecrated chicken soup” in Salinger’s “Franny and Zoey” is a must read.

Dostoevsky is the master of capturing illness and its fallout; Ivan’s fever in “The Brothers Karamazov” leads to the Grand Inquisitor dream.

Resources

The online magazine, “Survivor’s Review,” while itself about cancer, is an excellent starting place for writing more about illness, whether your own or someone else’s.

They have both prompts and a list of resources.

Gratefully, Slowly Healing

Thank you for your prayers. I had never had surgery before. The doctors are pleased with my rate of healing. The best surprise was that they took the skin for my nose from my shoulder, and not my forehead. It is a huge relief. I still have to keep my nose covered and clean. It took two office visits (my MOHS surgeon worked from eight in the morning till 5:30 at night, after the office closed) and an overnight hospital stay. But I am home, and happy to be here. My plastic surgeon had several young interns observe and even work on me, and the propriatery interest they took after in my stitches was touching. I have rules for four to six weeks:

  1. No CPAP machine. The pressure would crush my nose.
  2. No lying down, not even to sleep.
  3. No lifting anything more than five pounds.
  4. No bending over.
  5. No bowing my head. In the Liturgy, when they say, “Let us bow our heads unto the Lord,” all I can do is meekly lower my eyes.
  6. No blowing my nose.
  7. No scratching.
  8. But if I have to sneeze, I have to hold onto my nose with both hands.

My youngest is getting married soon and I will not be completely healed for the wedding. I am still applying ointment, xerofoam, and gauze. The thread from the xerofoam gets in my eyes and tickles my nostrils. The bandages get soaked if I drink my water or coffee without a straw. And the bandages slip off, causing me to flash people with my healing skin at coffee hour. Not a look.

That said, the doctor is very, very happy. At my first visit, I just thought my nose we congested. I wasn’t allowed to explore. But the doctor had me flip my head back and with plyers and tweezers he extracted something. He was so happy and I was so shocked that I wrote a poem:

The doctor thrust the tweezers
into my nostrils,
from which my departed uncles
had, in my youth,
removed quarters,
to my amazement.

This one, though,
surprised me more.
unfolding splint
after splint
with a flourish of his wrist.

He smiled wide and laughed, 
as had my uncles.
"Bet you didn't know
that THESE were up there," he said.

It explains
just
so much.

My husband tells me that my profile has changed, and he is correct. I have Michael Jackson’s nose from the 1960’s, sort of flat and wide. In another year they can do more surgery. But for now I just want to heal.

I am not taking most of my vitamins or herbal supplements because they might make me bleed more, and even had to dump a cup of willow bark tea because I can’t have asprin, which comes from willow bark.

Friends have spoiled us, sending or bringing me soup, a healthy dinner with zuccinni noodles, and locally sourced eggs from their own chickens. I am grateful.

But I am tired. All I can think of are first lines, not whole poems.

I am amazed at people’s kindness. I have received wooden roses, so I don’t have to water them. Three different monasteries are praying for us. My husband has gone shopping with me, his least favorite thing to do in this life, so I don’t have to lift things. And he has accepted this task with joy and patience which are contagious.

After all, we didn’t cut off my nose to spite my face. We cut off parts to save me. And it’s a miracle. I used to have cancer all over my face and not even know it. Then I knew it but still had it. And now, God has gifted doctors to be able to remove the cancer and restore my face. That is a miracle. It’s worth four more weeks of caution.

Glory be to God for all things.

Nose Goes

Photo credit: Ann McLellan Lardas

The Phrase:

My children introduced me to the concept of “nose goes” when I said, “Someone needs to take out the garbage.” (I used to say “We need to take out the garbage,” but my youngest coined the term “the Communist We” to describe such use of the word.) One son called out, “Nose goes!” and all four children put a finger to the side of his or her nose. Last one to touch his nose had to do the deed.

As a mother I found the concept annoying, because like the allegedly silent game Mum Ball at indoor recess it led to more heated discussions than active cooperation, but it’s a wonderful concept to indicate that there’s something that has to be done, and you don’t want to be the one to do it. I have pulled it on my husband more than once.

The Nose:

The phrase becomes way less whimsical when you apply it to your own nose.

My nose has been bleeding on the outside when I take hot showers since I was fourteen. Since it usually healed by the time I was dressed, I thought nothing of it. As I grew older it took longer to heal, and lately it didn’t heal at all. It took a year and a half for me to see a dermatologist because three of them left their practice, one at a time, within a week of my scheduled appointment. I finally found a dermatologist, on my own, who is on my insurance but not attached to my primary care doctor’s hospital. Her office is beautiful, with purple flowers and green vines painted everywhere and interesting things to look at on the ceiling. And her manner was forthright. She stuck me with needles to numb my nose, scraped off the pesky cells, and cauterized all the points that were bleeding. For a day and a half everything I ate tasted like barbecued me. “It looks like you’ve had this for a long time. It’s probably going to turn out to be cancer. And you will need to talk about what to do next with another dermatologist.” The biopsy proved her right — I had basal cell carcinoma. “You will need MOHS surgery,” she said.

Basal Cell Carinoma

Basal Cell Carcinoma is cancer, but it’s the best kind of cancer, in that they can do something about it. The dermatologist affiliated with the hospital my doctor uses was going to do a simple MOHS procedure, where each layer of skin is scraped and examined. But that morning, I had three new lesions on my nose. So she took biopsies instead. These proved to be more basal cells. And so she set me to the surgeon.

Lack of Sugar

The surgeon she sent me to is young, and attacks cancer ruthlessly. “I don’t sugar coat,” he said. He told me what he would have to do to fix this mess, and what I would have to do to prepare. He will take cartilage from ears and use it to support skin from my cheeks or forehead to cover the nose after the middle doctor removes all the cancer. Day one is removal of cancer in the dermatologist’s office. Day Two is reconstruction of the nose, followed by 23 hours observation, at the surgeon’s hospital. But I would have to do my part to lower my A1c, and furthter he expected me to walk at least an hour every day so I would heal properly, “and not risk the chance of profound disfiguration” from poor healing.

Okay then.

In the days and weeks that followed, I was more careful about what I ate and took what I called “forced marches,” outdoors when the weather was good and indoors at the store or gym when it was too hot or rainy outside. I did this at home. I did this when we went to Honduras to meet my son’s fiancee’s family. I did this at airports. And it worked.

Cleared for Surgery

I am cleared for surgery, removal of the cancerous cells on 8/4 and reconstruction of my nose on 8/5. Prayers most heartily welcome.

With some trepidation, I told the son who is to be married about my upcoming adventures. He put his arm around my shoulder, looked me in the eyes with great empathy, and said, “I’ll give the doctor fifty dollars if, in the middle, he says, ‘I’ve got your nose.”

My Nose, Though…..

I made the mistake of doing an online search of images for this procedure. The before pictures all look rather like me, with more or less damage. The after pictures are truly reassuring, with the faces looking normal, perhaps with a thin scar. But the middle? The photos of faces in the middle of the procedure look like line drawings of gremlins and goblins from German fairy tales from the nineteenth century.

This would all be easier, I suspect, if the cancer were someplace that my clothing hides. This is the nose that my siblings and cousins share. This is the nose that my father stroked and my uncles “stole,” that siblings tried to nurse when Mom was out and which countless wrongdoers have accused me of sticking where it doesn’t belong. (They were, of course, wrong.)

And this is the nose that was beeped.

“A Beep on the Nose”

I won’t give his name, not online or in person over beverages, because he and I are both grandparents now and he is a grizzled clergyman and I cling to whatever gravitas I can still muster. But when I was engaged, almost forty years ago, my fiance took me to the Blini Dinner Dance at a Russian parish near New York City. Blini are the pancakes that Russian Orthodox people make before Lent starts, and the parties surrounding them are often elaborate, with many rich toppings for the pancakes (smoked salmon, caviar, chopped onion, melted butter, sour creme, pickled herring, and more) and the last real parties before Lent. This was a glorious celebration, and by the end not everyone had danced off the vodka they had consumed.

A young seminarian who had been at school with my now husband and my older brother came over to me at the end of the evening. He was very, very earnest, and was weaving a little. “Anna!” he said, “I know that you love George, and you both are getting married, and I respect that, but I, I just have to do this. I’m sorry, but I have to.”

You know how the responses to trauma are flight, flight, or freeze? Reader, I froze, wide-eyed paralysis. I had no idea what would happen next.

He gazed at me steadily. He leaned in closer. He stuck out his index finger and reached for the tip of my nose.

“BEEEEEEEP!” he said.

I didn’t think I could open my eyes any wider, but I did.

“You don’t get it?” he asked. “A beep on the nose is a sign of very great affection.”

And then I did get the reference. He was a dear boy. And now he’s a dear man.

But, my father was careful not to let me spend too much time with the seminarians, and I didn’t know all the names of my brother’s classmates and friends. And I couldn’t tell, at the time, who this one was.

Fast forward several years. I was very married, and pregnant with our second child in three years; I felt like an ugly troll. My oldest was still a baby herself. But the youngest of the bishops had come to our parish in Boston for a feast, bringing with him the youngest of the deacons, newly ordained. I didn’t get to spend a lot of time in the service, between my daughter and the usual pregnancy complaints, but at the end of the meal after I stared hard at the deacon. If I could picture him with a little less beard, he might have been the one who beeped me. But I couldn’t be sure.

The bishop blessed us all and left, and the deacon was still gathering the bishop’s things to load into the car for the ride back to New York. He came over and spoke to me kindly, with greetings and kind things to say about my daughter and husband and parish. And he paused.

“You don’t remember me, do you?” he asked.

“I…. I don’t know,” I stammered.

“That’s okay,” he said, good natured. “Just one more thing.”

His eyes flashed. He reached in.

“BEEEEEP!”

Well, glory be to God for all things.

So, nobody should beep my nose for a while after the surgery. I can’t use my CPAP mask and for now I can’t take any pills or vitamins that are blood thinners and I am sure I will receive new restrictions in the days to come.

And frankly, I am not sure if I will be healed by my son’s wedding in September. I offered to reschedule the surgery, but he said, “Mom, it’s cancer. We want it gone. And we want you around for a long time.”

I offered to stay home but he scoffed at that. So now I am playing with ideas for what to do to hide the healing process, if I still look like a troll in September. Etruscan helmet? Face mask? Veil? Fabulous hat with a blusher veil? The answer will come. (I do have some friends who are beekeepers…..)

There are things we get to choose in this life — whom to marry, what to read, how to look at a problem — and there are things where our choices are limited. The cancer is there. I don’t want it there. It has to come off. And if it means surgery, thank God I can have the surgery. And if, in the end, I am changed, it could be for the better. And yes, I do know that I could look like Voldermort if this goes way wrong or like a Bejoran if the worry lines on my forehead are too deep. But I can’t afford to think about it. Sometimes thinking makes things better. But sometimes it’s not good. The late Fr. Theodore Shevzov told me, “I got to be a certain age by keeping straight in my mind two very different things — things over which I have some — SOME control, and things over which I have no control whatsoever. For things over which I have some control, I have a duty to exert myself. But for me to concern myself over things over which I have absolutely no control whatsover — already, this borders on sin.”

Nobody wants to border on sin. Especially when one is going to have real surgery for the first time. And so let me focus on getting exercise, preparing for surgery, keeping my sugar levels down, and saying something kind to everyone before the doctors get started, just in case.

Thank you for your patience with me and my sporadic and often rambling writing. God bless. We will keep you posted.

The Day My Thesis Was Printed

Not my thesis, but it looks good.

Facebook shared this memory with me. I forgot how good it felt to see my words in print. I share it because sometimes these things do not go as we would wish.

===============================================

I waited a long time at Staples, in line behind someone who was coming up with what he wanted on a banner while I and increasingly more other people waited. “I do not wish to be an angry person, Lord. And yet here I am,” I prayed. “Help me to be patient, at least, even if I don’t feel that way.”

The lady at the counter continued to help the man ahead of me, but the man who had helped me two days ago came over from the self-serve copiers, where life was temporarily going as it should, and said, “May I help you?”

“Yes, thank you! I’m waiting for my two copies of my thesis?”

I spelled our name, and he tried three times and found it at last.

He ducked under the counter and stood up again.

“Here!” he said triumphantly, and handed me the folder with my original thesis. No box, no bag, no remaining paper. He beamed at me as if he wrote it himself. And at first I start to smile back. It is a lovely thesis. But there seemed to be too few pages.

“Wait. That’s my thesis.”

“Yes!” he said, happily.

I shuffled through the pages. Only one copy. *The* one copy that I dropped off.

I took a deep breath and didn’t let all of it out.

“I had asked that you make two copies on the paper that I bought? And I wanted the leftover paper?”

“Ah!” he said, and dug under the counter.

“Here!” he said, once again triumphant.

It was the work order and the leftover paper in a box with no lid.

I channeled the person I have to become to substitute for Kindergarten, where their intentions are always good, always, one tells oneself. Always.

“This is the extra paper, which is good, but I had wanted the thesis? Two copies? And could I have a box for this, please?”

“We took your lid for the paper box?”

“Yes, apparently, ” I said, with a regretful little nod, as if I were the one who lost it.

He looked around, and could not find the lid, so he took out another box for copies, giving me a look that bordered on reproachful

“Could we find the copies of the thesis?” At this point, it was a real question.

Once more he looked under the counter.

“Ah!” he said, and handed me two boxes.

With no small amount of trepidation, I opened them. Yes. Both had one copy each of “Words So Far from Roslindale.”

“Thank you!” I said, smiling at last.

“You’re welcome,” he said, and seemed genuinely pleased.

“And, could I have a bag?”

His face fell.

Apparently, I could not.

“We don’t have one the right size,” he said. “But wait! Would this do?”

“This” was a large box, somewhat crushed, one foot by two, maybe four inches tall, missing a flap.

It did do. Close enough. If I took the box and smiled, I could leave the store.

I took the box, thanked him, smiled, and left, oh, I got to leave, I left the store.

And now my thesis is handed in.

And glory be to God.

Writing prompt:  The words don’t do anyone else any good while they are still in your head.

Write something.

Print it.

Share it.

 

Writing Prompt — The Sewing Box

My sewing box is nowhere near this neat.

In the Orthodox Church, the first week of Great Lent is called “Clean Week,” and some people take this to heart, literally cleaning things in their homes the first week of the fast. A friend mends pillows, fixes hems, and makes those small repairs on things that upset her the rest of the year. People dust picture frames and wash walls, cull their clothes for charity donations and finally clean out the kitchen junk drawer. In anticipation, I have been gathering some things that need attention — my favorite dress, which has a tear, a flowered blouse that’s missing a button, and some other similar things. When I dug through my sewing box, in preparation, I remembered how I got it.

When we lived in Connecticut, I didn’t know the neighbors as well as I wish I did. One neighbor had sold her house and was moving to assisted living. She had a yard sale that was as good as an estate sale. A yard sale has things that people have decided they do not need any more. An estate sale has the things that people used every day, but which their loved ones don’t want or need. At a yard sale you can find interesting things. At an estate sale you can find essential things — seasoned baking sheets and well-worn cookbooks, real cotton bed linens and woolen blankets, toys that aren’t made any more and sturdy hand tools. My neighbor had all of these for sale, plus her sewing box.

It was a clear plastic box with several layers and she had it loaded with thread, elastic, extra buttons, pieces of trim, and some lace. When I went to pay for it, her hands lingered on it, and I realized that this was the essence of who she had been to her family. She had gone to this box to put patches on Boy Scout uniforms and to take in prom dresses, to move buttons and to fix hems. When she got rid of this, who would she be?

I, too, hesitated. “Perhaps you shouldn’t sell it,” I said. “You may need it, or your family might need something in it.”

“No,” she said, and looked directly into my eyes. “Take it. You need it. I see how many kids you have, all of them running and falling and growing. You need it. And that part of my life is over.”

Sewing boxes are repositories of secrets.

Your sewing box is where you keep things that you don’t want the children to mess with, things that you don’t want your husband to find. It holds extra snap closures and bra strap buckles, thread to match the outfits you tear most often. My whole soprano section, two elderly sisters, died one year, and each of their sons gave me his mother’s sewing box. In each box I found the Christmas ornaments I had given the choir members over the years.

Sewing in Literature

In Susan Glaspell’s story “A Jury of Her Peers,” a group of neighbors gather clothing for a woman, Minnie, who had been arrested after her husband’s death. The men are trying to determine if she killed her husband or if someone else had. The story is well worth reading as the women discover things about Minnie’s married life and reach conclusions. One of the more important developments is when they dig into her sewing box to see what she planned to do to finish a quilt in progress.

In “The First Circle,” Solzhenitsyn tells of the prison life of Gleb Nerzhin, a mathematician who is not in one of the labor camps — the lower depths of hell — but “only” in a research prison, the first circle of hell, where he is assigned to determine which of three men made a damning phone call which was treasonous, and which had been secretly recorded. He decides to say he cannot say which man it was, to spare one from arrest, but to his horror, all three men are arrested, instead.

Having shown us daily life in the prison, Solzhenitsyn uses the arrest of one innocent man to show what arrest is like in general — the confusion, the removal from friends and family, the need to begin life afresh in these strange and unpleasant conditions. The newly arrested man loses buttons when he is detained, and when he complains, the prison guard hands the man a needle and thread so that he can sew the buttons back on. This, the man has never done. And so Solzhenitsyn describes how the man learns how to do this, figures it out, invents sewing, as he will re-invent and freshly discover so many other parts of daily life.

Non-fiction Sewing

Sewing is also essential to some works of non-fiction. “The Dressmakers of Auschwitz” tells of a group of prisoners who were chosen to create high fashion garments for prominent Nazi women. A children’s book, “Sewing Stories: Harriet Powers’ Journey from Slave to Artist a book by Barbara Herkert and Vanessa Brantley-Newton,” tells of how a former slave used her talent with needlework to support her family after the Civil War. And Sewn Stories is a blog dedicated to stories about garments that writer sewed or had sewn for them.

Different cultures sew differently. In WWII, the United States bought clothes from refugees to help the spies who were sent abroad to work undercover. Women working for the spy agencies learned that American sew their four-hole buttons in an X, while in Europe buttons were sewn on in two straight parallel lines.

Writing Prompt: Work sewing into your writing. You could write about the first time you sewed something, or the first garment anyone ever sewed for you. Characters who need to talk in a work of fiction can go shopping together to buy sewing supplies, and their preferences — fabrics, colors, quality of threads — can further underscore their differences.

If you don’t sew, never sewed, never want to sew, and don’t know a thing about sewing, that’s okay. (It’s also essay worthy — why? Who sews for you? Do they recognize the things they made when you wear them?) There is a first and a last time to use everything. Think (and write) about the thing that you would part with last — handing over your work badge after clocking out for the last time, giving your adult children your favorite skillet, or maybe handing your car key to a stranger. There are things that we don’t know we are using for the last time — the last hospice visitor’s pass, the last sanitary napkin, the last time you eat off the family china. Things can stand for who we are, what we do, what we did. They are the milestones we don’t notice until they are behind us. Look around. Think about the things that are essential to your daily life, and that some day will not be needed.