The Wanting Season, the Rayon Christmas Roast, the Soft-Stained Glass Meal, the Frankenstein Failure, and the Secret of The Sewing Stamina
I started learning how to sew right around the summer of the first pandemic year. Wanting an escape. Wanting a different practice that would ensue and ease in my life. What I ended up learning was that the idea of something being easy, of any art being easy, is only ever an acceptable one if it’s left as just that—an idea and not a practice, and certainly not a practice performed by the hands of a person.
My escape ended up becoming something else entirely, different from my usual dayish-to-dayish writing routine but equally as complex and challenging. Mock-ups in place of first drafts. Resizing in place of revisions. So many symmetries that naturally made me think of my grandma. My grandma’s quilt making is like working on a manuscript. Each quilted and stitched square, a chapter all on its own and as one? A beautiful body of work. Blanket making was just as book writing.
I wrote this piece in honor of my grandma because through her artistry, she taught me that the difficulties that we often place upon art-making were really not so difficult at all and in taking out the wanting of the things that we want, and wanting them right now, they begin to no longer matter as much. I wrote this piece in honor of my grandma because she taught me that the ease we all seek is achieved by learning how to dial down some of the rush in our doing.
You can take a year, or years to write a book. You can take a year, or years, to make a quilt. Eventually, they will get done.
December 2021, Greenwood, MS
It is the cold, crisp Christmas season, and so many people are in the wanting spirit.
Not one, not two, but all six of her grown-yet-still-children children, wanting.
Make me a quilt, they ask, they tell, they tell-ask.
Because their mama is old and getting older.
While you still can, while you still here, they add to soften the tell-asking, so it doesn’t seem like they’re making demands. So it doesn’t appear like they’re stepping out of their place.
As she steadies herself. Set. Starts. Grandma’s hips begin to swoon. When she sews, the needle swims through the cotton depths, plunges beneath the cloudy under-innards, and back up to the clear air again to breathe. Her hand is a shaky ship, stirring the needle upon and through the unsettled blanketed sea.
I am the sewing student, fingertips tapping against themselves rather than making butterfly wind from the fluttering of a pencil, studying my grandma.
In hoards, the family hunters scythe through the dense jungle of our closets for clothes that no longer fit to our waists, and clothes that still fit to our waists but we no longer use to feed Grandma’s soon-to-be butcher hands.
She carves them all up like they are a rayon Christmas roast—the brocade pockets are the breasts, the silk sleeves the wings, and the denim dark meat the leg and thigh.
The zipper is the spine, the plastic-tooth piece that when broken and seam-ripped, unbecomes everything apart.
Grandma holds the slices up on a white quilt board where the choicest prime cuts hang. Dust flies sprout from the insides, neoprene-nuclear-bomb, and swarm over the fabricated-meat, and around her.
During the butchering, I am reminded of how vulnerable the body is. How the body and fabric are the same. One snick, and it all comes undone.
I am reminded that we are just cross-stitches of strings.
Just slates of skin.
Just something to shed away when a soul can no longer make use of it.
The more Grandma clips through the threaded veins, the more the rayon Christmas roast becomes less and less whole, only pieces of pieces of pieces.
Saintly, she nicks through the snip-strings, shears through their sheer-thin skeletons. Quickly, they join the grave by a merciful hand that is still here, here, here.
The denim dark meat thigh, silk sleeve wings, and brocade pocket breasts get trimmed into big slices, then those big slices become shapes—big squares, wide rectangles, small squares.
Quilt setting is all about where and how things are placed, and being able to see what it’ll be before it even begins.
Grandma serves the shaped-slices upon a blank quilting platter. Drapes and dresses them like a holiday serving table, and the big squares, wide rectangles, and small squares are the plates.
The quilting platter gets gifted with soft stained-glass meals to be swallowed by her children’s eyes, and not by their bellies to be digested away.
When the soft-stained glass meals will fall on her children’s boned bodies, they will not shatter. They will sheath, they will cover.
Grandma has a sewing stamina that I haven’t earned yet.
I intern and do my residency at her home, watch and learn as she doctors the polyester-made patients.
I am a Frankenstein Failure. I cannot make my pattern parts become alive.
I still stab the pink plum of my fingertips when I try to thread a needle. Still struggle with tying the knots too small to keep the running stitch from slipping out.
I am supposed to give the fabric their own veins so that it may suffice as a clothes-cast to hold other bodies, but all I do is seek the needle into my very pulse. And though the fabric and the body are similar, though they are the same, the difference is that they cannot share the same type of vein.
As she unsteadies herself. Unsets. Stops. Grandma’s hips settle deeply into the recliner. After its journey, the needle makes a new-world home of a scarlet-red mountain, proudly pierces the plush flesh to claim the territory as its own.
It is a southern warm Christmas day, and so many people are in the receiving spirit.
Not one, not two, but all six of her children rush to pick out their quilts, drawn to them like flaming-rufous presents beneath the tree. Her hands are a star anise stop sign, and she halts her moving-moth children from their claims because she has already picked out the quilts for them.
They have succeeded in tell-asking her what to do, but she has won by showing them what they will get.
The children have their quilts where pieces of all the family hunters have been stitched and found themselves, together.
They trace the threads that have slipped and slid between their mama’s fingers, marveling at how solid they are.
The children hold their quilts, smile in relief, because they think they have saved the last of it, of her.
Because family is the strongest zipper spine, it is the unclippable vein.
Like scraps of fabric, there is a scavenging process to save whatever bits that can be found from the body’s yard, grasping them with selfishness for the promise of their preservation.
I am a wanter, too. I have been wanting my whole life because wanting seems so easy when so much of getting comes without any thoughts as to who gave it, or how much work it took to give it to me.
Grandma has taught me that giving is never that simple. It is a craft of having to surrender and sacrifice the self, over and over, so that someone else may be able to receive.
Grandma has shown me that giving is the surest way to keep those we love most around forever.
I have watched as the quilts are made from what held other bodies, made into its own body, by a living somebody.
I have learned the sewing stamina, and like most grand things, it is not as complicated as we think, and it begins and ends in the most simple and secret way—
“I sew a little bit,” Grandma says. “I rest a little bit. I do that until I am done.”
Exodus Oktavia Brownlow is a writer, budding beekeeper, and a rising seamstress currently residing in the enchanting pine tree forest of Blackhawk, Ms. You can find her at exodusoktaviabrownlow.com.