I have spent the last two decades making clothes, accessories, dishes, and beds for humans and pets. Now, that business lucrative, my reputation sound, I’m branching out, collaborating on a project which incorporates interior and exterior design with assorted leisure and work.
My design terrain is the conceptual/visual: interplaying bodies with what adorns them when working, socializing, exercising. Just as a writers sets the tone of a “Thank You for Your Sympathy” card; or a speaker determines the pitch of communication used to insist on dietary restrictions when ordering lunch in a serious restaurant; so can an outfit wearer shape clothing’s expression.
I work slowly. It takes time for me to get an idea, to find the proper fabric. Then to cut a pattern, baste material, pin it on a model or mannequin. I had solid, informal, training as a seamstress, first from my childhood nanny/tutor (we called her Nantor), then years later from my childrens’ grandmother, Rhulera.
Until I was six, my musical brother Selmon, eight, our family lived in one large, cosmopolitan city. Then my mother died of a sudden illness, brutally debilitating our father emotionally. He couldn’t stay in our house, even in our city, with so many things reminding him of mom, so requested a company transfer, requiring global travel. His new job landed him in cities for anywhere from a few days to a month. Wanting Selmon and me to stay with him, he planned on hiring two staff people: a baby-sitter and a tutor, but got both in one person: Nantor. Nantor turned out to be a gifted seamstress and cook, as well as a big-hearted, sturdily educated person; we learned foundations of cooking and sewing, along with history, grammar, and math. We dressed well (she made most of our clothes, but not dad’s suits), and ate different foods than mom cooked, something crucial for getting dad to eat. Our house smelled like tomatoes, coffee, and cinnamon, ingredients mom hadn’t focused on. After a few years, dad calmed down enough to settle. I still picture Selmon and me taking the bus, or walking home from school, seeing Nantor stand outside our house, wearing boots or slippers, depending on the weather, looking down at the ground or up at the sky. She’d take our hands, walk us inside, fed us a snack, ask (except for the year we went to a uniform- requiring school): what our teachers wore; what our classmates wore; what we ate for lunch; what had been that day’s most interesting and most boring lessons. Afterward, we did homework, then helped her in the kitchen. When dad came home he’d take his evening swim, eat with us, help us with homework. Then he’d go in his study, while Selmon and I went in Nantor’s sewing room to do stitching exercises on diversely shaped patches of cloth. Even then, my musical brother excelled at cooking, I at sewing. He, now a chef, attributes his cooking strategies and style—preference for sauces, stews, things cooked a very long time—to Nantor, and I likewise connect my design sensibility to her; particularly, the tenderness I try to infuse in my lines, and my dislike of things too neat. You won’t find head-to-toe designs, or closely matching pieces, in my constructions. Nantor, who believes in learning skills from the inside out, taught me how to find the magic in a great piece of clothing: unstitch, then re-stitch it. We did this on separates bought at flea markets and end of the year store sales.
I am no design genius. My strength is practicality; the clothes I make are feminine, comfortable, easy; these words might evoke ordinary-casual, but I stress body curves and parts. For women, I use sweaters, shirts, and jackets just a little too big, as though borrowed, but generally pair these pieces with plunging necklines, short skirts, midriffs; separates which show skin. And my evening lines are body-hugging. I work with natural materials: wool, silk, leather; and lately I’m mixing them with some of the new high-tech metallic fabrics. I use obviously fake stuff like diamonds or furs, because they convey humor so effectively, but wouldn’t use a “realistic” fake fiber such as polyester made to look like wool.
Fashion blends commerce with art. My talented peers do not generate big income from their brilliant designs, but from low cost items that sell abundantly: underwear, fragrances, T-shirts. The first income I generated came from work I did with city police, creating armored dog vests for police dog crews. I then put those earnings toward developing profitable lines of casual belts, fitness shoes, and pet clothing and utensils. I don’t mean humiliation jackets or booties for pets. Just functional scarves and sweaters for blustery, cold; interesting collars; leashes that are friendly to the walkers’ hand and wrist; bowls that won’t tip over when a pet eats or laps; and droppers and spoons for medicine, vitamins, or treats. When my own pet suddenly, violently, died, I couldn’t continue the line (also by that time, did not need to financially), so sold it to a young company started by one of my previous employees.
The most brilliant designers fuse bits of history and contemporary culture with irony and glamour. One gifted colleague of mine made a series of lines influenced by an athletic style of dance involving lifts and throws. Her pieces trapped into notions of identity and expression, using images of heavy and light in a way that was shriekingly genius. (Note: her profits came from the perfume, dance-like shoes, and assorted tights and leggings she made to accompany the line, not the dazzling line itself.) Another fashion genius I know combines prints on delicate, sheer material, with stark colors in heavy, flat fabric, resulting in an exquisite blend of hardened and fragile. That isn’t me. My work isn’t abstract, because my abilities don’t lie there. My abilities lie in defining subtle, almost diary-like differences of fairly obvious emotion. Take, for example, two successful lines of my relaxed cotton trousers. One I developed for a subject to sit in while contemplating a friend in a non-sexual way. The second line, tighter fitting, and made of more delicate material, is for the same individual to wear when contemplating someone in a passionate, desire-infused way.
The difference between those experiences is great; the difference between the two pairs of pants is slight, subtle, and infinitely fascinating to me.
That is my professional past. Presently, I’m out in the country, planning an adventure community with a colleague I spent months trying not to become physically attracted to. Physical attraction is a decision, not a four-wheel vehicle with no brake mechanism, I told myself. But then I learned his feelings toward me were also highly charged.
The entertainment complex is located in a small country town, my colleague is the town’s mayor.
I wouldn’t doubt this change— from clothes and accessories to collaboration with the mayor— started when I started to wrinkle. Wrinkles don’t bother me aesthetically; they illustrate my history, its thrills and mistakes. My wrinkles are not unattractive, however they do drive home the fact that my days are numbered. And tragically losing my pet drove that home, too.
Working hard on new projects is a good distraction from personal problems, and some of those have cropped up recently. Years before, I started and left behind a family. If you want to judge me negatively, do. But no one is harsher on me than me, and I only left after making sure everyone was safe, loved, and over-all provided for.
As I mentioned, because of my mother’s death and my father’s profession, we—Selmon and I—grew up globally, living in different cosmopolitan cities, many overlooking rivers, lakes, and oceans, experiences I took for granted until I went to college in a small, landlocked town (fields, horses, barbed-wire fences), and fell forcefully in love with its big meals, big spaces, and, the big men who grew up there. One big man anyway.
My brother and I left home for college the same year. I started college one year early; Selmon, who played in a popular local band, started one year late. Our departure was hard on dad and Nantor, who encouraged us to study away from home, but at the same time, enjoyed us nearby. Selmon’s exit saddened them enough, but at least he was going to school in a place we were familiar with (and had even lived in for short periods of time). My departure not only saddened, but deeply worried, them for one pregnant reason: they were anti-rural regions. Those zones, they then believed, were homogeneous, uneducated, and violent. Later in life, they would live happily in small, country communities, but at this point they were anti-rural regions.
Selmon left one week before I did. We were all excited in the car on the way to the airport, singing, clapping, joking, but we cried when he boarded the plane, and the three of us drove home silent. The next day I got a letter from my college, written by someone named Bry, explaining she had been assigned as my Big Sister. Our college, she wrote, had a Big Brother/Big Sister program for incoming freshman. A same-sex older student to help newcomers in the emotional and practical needs of the college orientation process. The letter from Bry had a warm, friendly tone as she explained she was a child psychology major (specializing in early childhood development), had grown up in the college town and planned to open an alternative elementary school there after graduating, she looks forward to meeting me, will be there if I need her, etc. The friendly, informative communication was so nice, it couldn’t help but ease dad and Nantor’s anxiety when they took me to the airport the next week, though, they were still more subdued than when we took Selmon.
Just before I boarded the plane, Nantor whispered, with a short laugh, she hoped me studying in a rural region would knock any notions of long-term living there out of my system. Then went on to say, tears filling my eyes, Please be careful, adding that she knew I’d learn valuable lessons, she only hoped not at too great cost.
My first night at college I caught the airport shuttle to my dormitory room, where I met Bry—tall and beautiful—who told me I had a double room to myself, because my would-be roommate had unenrolled. The college never replaced her, so I was alone in that double room the whole year. Bry took me to a party with other incoming freshman and their Big Sisters and Big Brothers, and we all went to a restaurant that served plates piled with immense portions of food, and seemed to be full of handsome boys and men wearing boots.
The next week, one of those boys in boots turned up in my math class. His name: Euge.
Math was a strong subject for both of us, and we became friendly when our teacher asked us to tutor some of the MC (mathematically challenged) students.
My Big Sister Bry was, surprising to me, one of my MC students. I learned quickly that she had no problems with math, as long as she moved along at her individual pace. Together we made excellent progress; I adored her.
Euge was on the college football team, but had broken an ankle breaking a horse (one of his family’s many businesses was raising horses) so had extra time for math, not being able to ride (except leisurely) or play football. Maybe this also gave him extra time to date, because he asked me on one.
On our first date we went to a college football game he would have starred in had his ankle not been broken, then sat outside, looking at open fields and sky, talking. We were physically exotic to one another. He: huge; pale, strong; I: tiny, dark, “heady” (his words). “You are so heady,” he used to say, explaining later that meant smart. I know a lot of people besides me have this experience when recalling young loves: You think back, trying to capture the dizzy rapture, but there are impediments, usually connected with things happening after the dizzy rapture. Dizzy rapture’s aftermath. It is sometimes difficult to think of things that are sweet, when sad things that follow bleed into them.
Which, I know, means re-thinking pinning those sorts of value judgments to experiences in the first place.
Euge and I spent months in dizzy rapture: sex, lemonade, leisurely horse rides. He lived at home, but the double dorm room I had to myself gave us privacy.
At his mother’s suggestion, with the help of a neighbor, and my total support, he switched horse training tactics from horse breaking to horse whispering.
Meeting his extraordinary mother, Rhulera, only enhanced my breathy, nearly all-encompassing attraction for Euge.
Rhulera, in a coincidence too great for me to ignore, was, similar to Nantor, a seamstress and cook. Unlike Nantor, she had turned both abilities into highly lucrative businesses.
She had started a food specialty business out of her home, now located in town and managed by her oldest son, a businessman trained as a chef, which exported her recipes and fruits.
Here, again, another coincidence: Euge and I both have brothers fascinated by cookery.
Rhulera’s other business involved making and mass-marketing fabric-based kitchen items: aprons, towels, tablecloths, oven mitts, and curtains. She had two lines: one was inexpensive, geared toward the starting up household. The other, which used finer materials, and featured exquisite embroidery on the aprons and the tablecloths, was geared toward the higher income or, as she said, more established, household. She enjoyed designing and cutting out these pieces, putting them together on her machine, stitching parts by hand, especially the embroidery. But had a small crew, headed by her neighbor, Kit, to do that work when she didn’t have the time. In addition, this crew delivered supplies, picked up the finished goods, transported them to stores and distribution centers.
When Euge’s ankle healed, he returned to football practice, serious horse riding and whispering (which by now totally replaced his earlier, harsh methods of horse breaking). Rhulera and I sewed together and grew increasingly close. We started off sitting on her large, wrap-around porch, or in her sewing room, making aprons. We worked quickly together, and mutually inspired creative suggestions. I learned about embroidery, fabric cutting, simple sewing. But as much as Rhulera enjoyed sewing, she had no interest in making clothes. She wouldn’t consider putting together a dress for me, a shirt for her, pajamas for Euge; she’d happily buy them. Her favorite things to sew were goods that spiff up a kitchen; cloths, hot pads, window treatments, items that are used and seen a lot. And are immensely profitable. Still when I confided my interest in making a line of clothing that would include comfortable separates like day skirts, shorts, and swimsuits, she, who was remarkably kind but also keen on spotting potential profits, was patiently, incredibly, helpful. Mass-marketing, I learned, was Rhulera’s fascination; I picked up tremendous business knowledge from her.
Our first year away from home, dad, Nantor and I visited my brother who went to college just outside a large dirty “highly entertaining” city for winter break. Selmon, in a newly formed experimental rock band, showed us a tattoo he got on his left leg. Because of his involvement in the band, he was enrolled in only two classes; our family spent long evenings in music venues, listening to his band and bands of his friends.
The next time we were all physically together was for our spring break; happily Selmon’s and mine coincided. We both asked permission to stay at our schools, rather than come home for the summer. I wanted to stay by Euge, and learn more marketing strategies from his mother; Selmon hoped to enroll with his bandmates in a special summer term or camping/music study in the woods. The conversation started after the four of us had a long swim in our pool, and were sitting around, wearing warm-up suits made by Nantor. Dad and Nantor looked at one another before presenting Selmon and me with their own, surprising—to us—summer plans.
They explained: when Selmon and I left for college, together, they felt a blank, a void; they experienced crisis. Their response: involvement in various forms of physical and spiritual healing, a commitment which helped them decide to spend the summer, and possibly fall and winter, on a quest, which required that they temporarily knock off communication with anyone “out there in the world,” even us their children. But they would not do this, would not even consider doing this, without complete blessings from Selmon and me.
I said my father had been debilitated emotionally by losing mom. For years he went through motions: wake up, swim, shower, eat, hug and kiss my brother and me, travel to work, come home, swim, eat, help us with homework...but he was always thinking of, or looking at, something else.
He dealt with his grief privately.
He was physically present, though, giving us what he could, and clearly did not want physical separation from my brother and me. He did not want to travel, or stay away over night. That’s why the year we both left was emotionally upheaving for him.
This evening, dad started to talk. Saying he’d never healed from losing mom because he just kept stepping forward, that stepping forward helped for a period of time, but wasn’t working any longer. Nantor said a few words herself. That she left behind things in her own past, memories just now creeping back to haunt her. And she feels she can face those things by embarking with dad on his quest.
Ultimately, they hope we as a family, unlikely to be together geographically again anytime soon, could learn to be with one another in our hearts and our minds, if not physical bodies.
I returned early to school—dad and Nantor were pleased about my boyfriend, and the personal and professional relationship I’d developed with his mother.
I loved them, and truly appreciate now, the body contact Euge and I shared. Our physical relationship was vital: burning and calm at once. Euge understood how to heat up a girl’s body; he was also a dead solid sleeper who did not kick and twist, like some others I have slept next to since, do.
In the middle of my fall term, I learned I was several months pregnant. My period had never been regular, so I didn’t pay attention to missing it, and I never felt sick, though my breasts ached. Euge noticed they’d grown in size. When I realized I’d missed a few periods I took a home pregnancy test, on a whim. When it read positive, I was stunned. And when I went to the hospital, and learned I was several months pregnant—with twins—I was shocked.
Two embryos, though, I comforted myself, seemed to prove love.
Who, besides Euge, could I tell? Dad and Nantor were off on their spiritual journey; my brother, ill and worn out from recently acquired food allergies was taking time off from school to learn about cooking; I didn’t want to divert or upset him (my brother—I thought then—was easily upset and diverted). I adored Bry but did not want to appear needy to her, my MC student (even though she was my Big Sister).
Who I did tell was Rhulera. She took my two hands in her own, looked me in the eyes, and asked me to move in.
At that time, life in the small town still seemed clear, comfortable in contrast to the busy cities I’d spent my childhood in. Sitting on the porch, or in the sitting room with a view, designing, cutting, sewing with Rhulera held concrete appeal. Doing anything with Rhulera held appeal. With her support, I didn’t mind telling Bry about the twins, who responded with characteristic kindness and practicality by sharing textbooks and articles from her early Child Development classes on pregnancy. These books were filled with information about weight gain, foods to avoid, fitness during, child psychology, new mothering, birthing, nursing, postpartum depression.
I haven’t said anything about Rhulera’s husband, Euge’s father, and it is because I don’t trust myself to do so now, because he looks and acts exactly like the mayor.
Rhulera’s presentation, unlike most citizens in her small, western town, was more made up than scrubbed clean. She told me from the day she moved there, she was determined to save the town from dreariness, so wore flowing silky gowns, even to water the plants in her flower and vegetable gardens (not, though, to dig in them; she bought pedal pushers for that).
Rhulera and I got into a routine of enjoyable, non-stop work. We made multiple aprons, towels, tablecloths, and started—as I said, at my request—an interesting line of clothing: jumpers and skirts and blouses, giving a twist on homespun-type apparel: slim-fitting slit skirts, pedal pushers, apron dresses, all in red checks. Things sold well—Rhulera had accurately figured out the consumers to target—and the work was immensely satisfying. Euge continued in school, and helping his dad with the horses. Large, pregnant, I worked, took walks, and was sensible with food and diet. I dropped out of school; too embarrassing, too physically uncomfortable sitting through lectures, with my diminishing bladder. And, because of my work with Rhulera I was gaining in something besides size: independence. The clothes I was making with Rhulera earned a good income. She counseled me carefully when the fat checks came in, handing me my portion, one half, of our money, with instructions: “These earnings are yours. Keep them private and safe; they belong to you.”
She talked about women and money. Rhulera knew women whose husbands were stingy, and women whose husbands were generous, like her own. She knew women who were born wealthy, and those who worked to get that way like her neighbor who runs the grocery store. The grocery store owner isn’t married, Rhulera points out, adding that she believes there is something to this: some husbands would feel diminished by wives who earned more than they did.
My tastes changed. I went from desiring Euge, to tolerating him, to being repulsed by him. By seven months pregnant, he made me physically ill. On the other end of the spectrum, I increasingly adored Rhulera and Bry. Then (swinging the pendulum back) I started detesting the town’s landscape, and immense food portions.
Thanks to Bry I had a relatively easy natural labor: no cutting or stitching. That was good. Here is what was bad: I’m ashamed to say this, but I will: At first I felt nothing for those babies. Red, squirming, causing me nothing but pain, needing attention I couldn’t possibly give. Pulling at my breasts (Bry and Rhulera both insisted I breastfeed and I did; that pain rivaled labor) leaving them scabbed and bloody. The babies were born in February. I didn’t feel I could burden my brother with the knowledge (this turned out to be a crucial mistake). Dad and Nantor were sailing on their spiritual journey until next fall. Rhulera helped me, Bry helped me.
I was terrified of my children, couldn’t stand their father, adored their grandmother.
When tragic events strike, they really do structure your life. In June, a drunken teenager (driving his family truck) killed Rhulera while she rode her bike down an open road. Now, here I should step slowly and detail, but won’t. I can’t. I must speed through, skip details. Rhulera’s death devastated me. I’m sure it replayed elements of my own mother’s death, but it wasn’t just that. I truly loved Rhulera. It was Bry who helped Euge and me cope with our loss and our children. And I saw something happening, at first with jealousy but gradually with acceptance and finally relief. It was a developing tenderness—too great to harness—between Euge and Bry. I also saw how naturally and lovingly Bry treated our babies.
Life in that town without Rhulera was inconceivable.
I easily imagined Bry and Euge living together here, together parenting these children; I imagined them encouraging, standing, crawling, first words; imagined them covering up tired, chilly bodies, buying seasonal clothes, soothing toddler tears.
I could not imagine myself providing any of this. I was looking into a bleak, black funnel.
In August, when the babies were 6 months old, I stopped breastfeeding and switched them to formula. In September I wrote a note to Bry and Euge, kissed my babies and left.
I can’t remember my note. I know it included some expression of my relief at their affection for one another and parental abilities in the face of my personal disintegration. I know I begged them to understand and to take care of the children and not to try to find me. I emphasize my state of mind: looking into a bleak funnel.
I didn’t include my address (though I sent it later) but knew Bry had dad and Nantor’s address, if she ever needed to find me. In fact, Bry and I keep in touch. I haven’t seen my children in real life, but she sends me pictures. Smiling babies, perched on Euge and Bry’s hips; toddlers riding bicycles with training wheels, wearing Halloween costumes, youths dressed up for junior high school dances, on stage with their junior high school drama club, the two of them, horseback riding.
I don’t want to detail more of this right now. But want to say: I do continue what I do for them, and for Rhulera; I carry them all with me.
I did not tell my family about these children. I never felt I was keeping secrets from them; I believed I was closing a chapter of my life, while sparing them anxiety.
I might have told that tale of my past (the children, the father, grandmother, and stepmother) unemotionally, indeed, leaving had been a frighteningly easy decision. I could tell you about the sleepless nights, or intermittent bouts of self-punishing behavior I’ve had since then, but I’m not up to detailing those periods. I’m documenting portions of my history, not all my accompanying emotions. That may be a future project. Certainly those emotions emerge in other areas I may or may not be aware of.
The preceding is an excerpt from Lynn Crawford’s Simply Separate People, just published by Black Sparrow.