Stitches in Time: From Samplers to Surgery

My daughter strolls into the kitchen, AirPods akimbo as she listens to a call, a stethoscope wagging around her neck. A OB-GYN in her second year of residency, she beelines for the refrigerator like a child home from school. I find her something to eat and stand back, marveling that the fingers poking around the Tupperware for a decent piece of chicken are the same ones that pull babies out of women’s bodies just a mile down the street.

A few fine threads hang off the waistline of her scrubs, and I absentmindedly clip them at the base with my kitchen shears as she dispenses discharge information about a patient. She smiles when she hangs up and says “Momma — I need those; we use the strings to practice our knots when it’s quiet in the OR”. A few years earlier, she might have jerked the strings back with irritation, but now she observes me with amused detachment. Kids grow up and our roles flicker back and forth in moments like these; I take her hands in mine and flip them over and back — marveling that those familiar fingers can sew up a woman’s body after a birth. Or remove cancers from strangers I will never meet.

We thought she’d be a lawyer like her dad but she took a turn toward medicine after being diagnosed with an autoimmune disease in high school. Holding her hands, something came to me in a flash — I was the one who had taught her to stitch. When she was younger, we had spent hours needlepointing and knitting in this very kitchen where she now tenderly wipes away a tear that slips from my eye.

“What is it?” she wonders, allowing me to lead her into the dining room, where I point to two framed and faded samplers hanging on the wall, glorifying careful stitches that were a central element in a girls’ education in the early days of New England. How had I never followed this particular thread in the strand of history, the legacy of handiwork from our female ancestors to her current profession?

Our heritage, it seems, is invisible until that moment when it is revealed. I had raised my family in Los Angeles, far from Boston where my mother’s parents can both trace family roots back to the 17th Century. On a recent visit home, I’d visited the cemetery near the Old North Church, looking at family gravestones with a cousin who is obsessed with our genealogy. Nothing much gets passed down in families like ours; property, and all the drama that comes with it, are legacies for wealthier families, whose stories are told in bank accounts and legal transactions. It’s much harder to recover the invisible histories in families like ours. Surviving items are cherished, like a silver pitcher commemorating a great great great grandfather for serving as town selectman. Daguerreotypes of men with inscrutable faces, and a leather-bound tome about the history of Faneuil Hall, chronicling the kindness of our most venerated relative who was a scion of the early market.

Our phantom elders were on my mind because my cousin had unearthed a remarkable black and white photograph depicting four generations of women — finally, the women! A sepia-toned portrait of my great aunt as an infant, posed with her mother, her mother’s mother, and her mother’s mother’s mother. Women had babies at younger ages in those days and while I could easily pick out the great grandmother, the mother and grandmother looked like sisters. I yearned to know more about these women and what they did with their days.

My daughter was born on the day that my grandmother died, signaling the end of one generation and the start of another, as she is the eldest cousin. We never got a four generation photo but were darn close. Born at the turn of the century, my grandmother went to the Garland School of Homemaking (later folded into Simmons in 1976) where she learned the art of homemaking — from finance to cooking and cleaning, but also including field trips to farms that supplied their dairy and courses on the electrical and plumbing systems of a house. Decades later, Martha Stewart would commodify these household arts, but when my Gran taught me embroidery, it was just a remnant from a bygone time. Her first born, my mother, went to a two-year college (Briarcliff) and worked as a secretary in the corner office of IBM’s New York headquarters. She quit when she got married and raised three daughters outside of Boston. We all went to four year colleges (and one on to law school) and each of us were lucky to have a first-born girl. The fourth generation in this matriarchal string can boast even more schooling- with one doctor, one lawyer, and a third who is also set on medicine.

Our country’s educational system was born in Boston in the 17th Century and from the start, boys were sent to school and girls were finished off for marriage and homemaking. I can squint and in my mind’s eye see my great grandmother stitching in the parlor; she wasn’t sent to college but my mother adored her and brought her to life with stories of how she smoked cigarettes, knit furiously, and did the crossword puzzle each afternoon. I blink and it’s the present day, where more women than men are finishing college. But women’s handiwork hasn’t faded to history. Today, millions of women and men stitch — whether knitting or needlepoint, quilting or designing clothes — to pass the time, to make a living, or to calm their nerves. Just as Martha elevated the household arts from drudgery to desirable, scads of makers sell their wares, teach techniques, and swap patterns on YouTube, Etsy and other social channels. As in the days when dowries of tablecloths and bedspreads were lovingly passed from home to home, handmade items still hold the highest value.

Maybe it was the fate of her synchronous birth that my girl took to the needle with such enthusiasm. Or maybe it was those pesky Puritans, carping in my consciousness about “No Idle Hands”. She loves to tease me that I would not allow her to plop down and stare at the television. To earn screen time she took up beading, and strung necklaces while mastering the questionable art of multitasking. Beading gave way to knitting when we discovered an enticingly colorful yarn shop across the street from her elementary school, and were soon spending afternoons with the charismatic shop owner, learning to make scarves and sweaters. At times, I’d rue the day I led her to these projects — she developed a compulsion to finish each project she started, which would serve her in school and work, but was sometimes a cause of mother-daughter conflict. But the hobby stuck and a few years later, it was the painted canvases adorning the wall of an embroidery shop that caught her eye, where she easily mastered the finely tuned differences between all the stitches. She even completed a few Christmas stockings that more than proved her worth, a modern day version of a Victorian sampler.

But when we looked at the simple samplers hanging in the dining room, she laughed and said “I love that you think my being able to sew gave me a leg up in medicine. There are so many other factors that go into my job!” Of course, I do know — I know exactly how many years of serious schooling came before this residency, and I know that she studies into the night after long days at the hospital. I know that her work will always be emotionally and physically demanding and I worry about how the juggle of raising her own family will tug at her when that day comes.

She kisses me goodbye, promising to stop by again soon and I am buoyed, knowing her generation has a leg up on ours, starting with having been so well educated. Millennials are better at boundaries and asking for help. They push back on traditional gender roles which may help one day when she and her fiance raise their own children. It’s also possible that their identities are more secure to begin with, having benefited from having better role models than we had. Maybe this is what change looks like — two steps forward and one step back.

The torch has been passed. My “Ok Boomer” moment comes with the sweet knowledge that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Mothers know that what is taught in those cozy days of yore, in the forgotten moments of endless ordinary days — the recipes, the jokes, the board games and the puzzles — form a colorful tapestry of childhood. The heritage of family is also woven from compassion for others, the structure of decision making, and myriad other learnings from hearth and home that wind up benefiting careers and lives.

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Angeleno by way of Massachusetts, Blogger at The Family Savvy, Mother of 2 millennials, Photographer @sarahbowmanphoto on IG

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Sarah Bowman

Sarah Bowman

Angeleno by way of Massachusetts, Blogger at The Family Savvy, Mother of 2 millennials, Photographer @sarahbowmanphoto on IG

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