Silks, Synthetics and Songbirds: The Texture of Loss

Throughout my parents’ house there are presses filled with three or four life times of wearables, scarves and hats, books and colouring books, broken crayons and blunt pencils, jigsaws with thousands of pieces, lego blocks, teddies and dolls. That is what happens when one generation after another is brought up in the same house. Bit by bit the house accumulates its very own history, its own archive. Indeed, the walls of photographs tell the story of not just my family but of my father’s family and my mother’s family and to a lesser degree of their families before them.

Each wardrobe tells a story too. Mostly it is the story of the women in my family. It is important that you know that they and we are not hoarders. However, were you to open any one of those wardrobes that is perhaps the first word that would spring to mind. Hoarders. People who are keepers of things and in this case, keepers of clothes. Those  belong to the women who have gone before us. We are not accumulators rather, none of us, including the women who have now passed, could ever attempt to dispose of my grandmothers’ ‘things’ or my aunts’ ‘things’.

My grandmothers lived with us at different points in time when we were growing up. Consequently there are still pairs of heavy dark framed glasses lying about. Any hipster would be proud of them. Somehow some of my aunts’ clothes also came to be tucked into various wardrobes. Most of what belongs to those two glorious ladies lies in one particular press and consists of scarves silk and the fine wools of merino sheep. Little did those sheep know that one day they would sit in a wardrobe beside the fur of an animal that my grandmother once wore as a stole. Even now the proximity of their respective fibres seems to threaten those poor sheep. None of these women were wealthy but their good ‘things’ were kept safe with a view to prolonging their duration. Ending  that preservation now would be untimely and certainly not something for which I could take responsibility. Somehow  my grandmother’s voice , ‘mind that now’, still  echoes behind me. There is a degree of comfort in that. The voice is after all a close and familiar one.

Of course, my mother’s clothes now hang undisturbed in those same wardrobes. Each time I open the doors her red walking jacket stands out just as it did when she wore it. So too do her array of good coats worn to funerals both near and far, to weddings, to parent-teacher meetings where reports of giddy behaviour and day dreaming were punctuated with some good stuff, to trips to the theatre and to various matches. They have no use now. But to throw them out, to give them to charity or to simply move them at all would be to undergo yet another wrench none of us could possibly bear.

For me however, this is not the sole reason for their continued presence.  They bring a sense of the haptic, that is of almost touching those that once wore them. Morbid perhaps but touching their textures works as a means of leaving an intangible storm of upset and entering the world somewhere between loss and everyday life. When overwhelming loss comes to visit it helps to rummage in the pockets of jackets to see what you might find and to trace the wear on a cardigan’s elbow.  This sense of the haptic and the unexpected  distracts, brings a texture to loss and focusses upset onto an object or material that you can then shut the door on. Exploring what hangs in the wardrobe acts like a bank where you can deposit what threatens to consume and undo you. Somehow you can  walk away somewhat sobered.

Sometimes when returning towels to the hot press I find my hands plunge into the overflowing box of headscarves sitting on the corner shelf of the press. They are of assorted colours and belong to all of those women now lost to us. One is deep red and carries the print of various song birds in blues and yellow. The birds’ vibrancy is obvious. It shines through the series of still life frames I seem to be watching from a distance for the past year.

Since our mother died life presents itself as the fuzzied images you see through window condensation. Scenes and situations are recognisable but rarely present anything with which my mind can engage. The vibrancy of those yellow song birds disturbs that state and briefly reignites an awareness of the moment and brings about a certain hope.

Grief takes turns and some turn seem crueller than others. Some  scarves still retain the faint bouquets of perfumes. They are subtle smells. Inexpensive but expressly her. I can tell you on the odd bad day I have plunged my whole face into that box of scarves in an attempt to inhale any last traces of her.

On days marked by such a turn finding a way to pause the pendulum of hurt helps and even if dipping one’s head into material of various shapes and colours seems odd, it is what must be done to help the moment pass. Grief is messy. It is a face twisted in and ache that simply can’t find sound. And grief is, to put it mildly, an endless snotty mess.  No one looks well in this state. Except those song birds.

The hot press box also holds a lace glove crocheted by my grandmother as a young woman. It is probably almost a century old by now. It still holds perfect patterns that have greyed and hardened with time but in that glove you can trace the tension of a needle and the uniform tension that transformed thread into intricate patterns. Moving it through my hands I recall an essay by Alice Walker about her remembering her mother’s creativity and self-expression through her beautiful garden.

My grandmother is long gone and I remember her now without sadness. Instead the memory of her apple tarts, crafts and terrible jokes make me smile. Her jokes were old, well-worn and a little absurd. The question “Why did Malahide?” and its answer “Because it saw Swords Killester” always called for some well-meaning eye rolling just as it does now.

The daffodils my mother planted over the years are now in various states of bloom. There are always a number of blind blooms among them. Grief is a little like that. You stand among people but you are blind to all around you. You trudge on. You function. Some days you do neither. Some time, probably years from now,  I will lift the knitted scarves from that box and the trace the memory of my mother’s hands through the perfect tension of plan and purl knits. For now, however, the texture of loss can only be felt the light weight of silk and synthetics. Not because the loss is light but because only years can allow the full realisation of what is no longer with us through touch.

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