Friday, October 21, 2011

The Celery Dish


“I’ll take this,” Emily said, picking a dish from the china closet and blowing on it.  Tiny dust moats, small as no-see-ems, swirled in the sunshine.

The doors of the china closet were opened wide and the three sisters stood looking into it. From behind they resembled three slats of an uneven picket fence.  One tall, one short and one in between and heavier than the others. The glass in the doors was old with the tell-tale bubbles of hand blown glass.

“Oh, but of course that’s what you would choose,” Shirley said. She was the shortest of the three with shoulders that sloped down as though her arms had always held weights that had gotten heavier over the years.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Emily turned the dish over, inspecting the underside of it. Emily was the oldest, the tallest and the thinnest.

“It’s Waterford,” Shirley said, shrugging. “Nothing but the best for our Emily, right Connie?”

“After all, I’m the one who bought it for Mumsy.”  She polished the dish on the sleeve of her sweater and held it up to the light again. “So I should be the one who gets it, right Connie?”

“Well, la-de-dah. So now you have to remind us how rich you are. I bought the Waterford,” Shirley mimicked her older sister. “That’s what you always do. She always does that, doesn’t she, Connie?

“Don’t start. Now’s not the time.” Connie turned away from the other two. Her eyes were red, her face swollen. She sat down at the dining room table and put her head down on her arms. Her hair fanned across her arms, the back of her blouse strained across her broad back and there were half circles of sweat under her arms.

The women fell silent. The only sound was the creaking of the wooden rocking chair where Dorothy, the fourth and youngest, sister sat knitting. She was working on a gray scarf, straight stich back and forth. The length of it coiled on her lap like a bird’s nest. Her fingers were oddly short and she flicked the tip of her tongue between her lips in rhythm with the rocking.

Connie raised her head and pushed her hair away from her face, tucking it behind her ears. “What time is it, anyway?”

“Ten o’clock.  We ought to leave in about an hour.” Emily said. She put the celery dish down on the table and turned back to the china cupboard.  “What do you want to keep, either of you?”

“I don’t want anything. We need to sell everything, get as much money as we can. You know, to take care of. . .” Connie’s voice trailed away and she glanced over at Dorothy.   

“Shhh.  No need to upset you know who.” Shirley closed the doors of the china cupboard and sat across the table from Connie. “I just want one piece of Mumsy’s jewelry. The charm bracelet if I can find it. The one with each of our birthstones. Why don’t you want anything, Connie?”

“You want to know what I want?  I want her back.  I didn’t help her enough.”  She pressed her fingers against her eyes.

“Oh, puh-leeze.  You did more than either of us. I lived too far away.  I don’t know what Shirley’s excuse is but I’m sure she has one.”  Emily raised her eyebrows and stared at Shirley.

“What’s the point of all of this?  Who did what, who bought what, all this looking back, looking over our shoulders. So much diarrhea of memories.”  Shirley shook her head impatiently. “The estate sale is in three days. Then the house goes on the market. And we need to take care of, you know, things.”

The sound of Dorothy rocking continued in the background, distant from the three at the table. She was concentrating on binding off the long gray scarf, placing the tip of the right hand needle into the next stitch on the left hand needle, wrapping the yard, slipping the stitch. She rocked, and flicked her tongue in rhythm.

Connie asked again what time it was and they stood in unison, preparing to leave.

“Dorothy, do you want to come with us?” Connie asked loudly.

“For God’s sake, Connie, she’s not deaf!” Shirley said. “Dorothy, do you want to come with us?” She also spoke loudly but Dorothy didn’t look up. She continued binding off the last final row of the long gray scarf.

“Mumsy sometimes left her alone for short periods of time,” Emily whispered. “It won’t take us long to check this place out. She’ll be okay while we’re gone.”

The three sisters left, their purses hanging from their shoulders. Emily’s was Brighton, burgundy leather, Connie’s was hand made in calico and Shirley’s was a straw bag from Wal-Mart.

After they left, Dorothy cut the yarn on the gray scarf and wove the end into the stitches. She lumbered in an awkward gait to a small cabinet near her rocking chair and took out two more gray scarfs. She laid all three scarfs, gray exclamation points, side by side on the old walnut dining room table and picked up the celery dish.

Carrying the celery dish, she left the house and started a long walk down the road to somewhere.


Leaves lay like toppled tombstones

In the coming cold cemetery of winter.

Saturday, October 15, 2011


I own an Irish knit dress. About twice a year I see it: in the spring when I put heavy blankets in the cedar chest, and in the fall when I take the same blankets out of the cedar chest. The dress, folded in fragile tissue paper, has become part of my window-washing, season-changing routine.
I turn back the tissue paper and see the intricate pattern of the eggshell white yarn. I touch it, first with one finger, softly tracing the outline of one of the patterns, then I rub the palm of my hand against it. I pick it up and hold it close to me and smell the sheep-smell of the yarn and feel the harsh texture against my skin and feel a pause in the pushing forward of time.
I first saw an Irish knit dress at an ethnic arts and crafts show. The display card said that, for centuries, the wives of Irish fishermen spent the long winter days knitting clothes for their husbands to wear while tending the fishing boats.
Traditional Irish knits of untreated yarn are all the same yellowed white. To offset the monotony of the color, Irish women began knitting patterns in their garments to represent family histories. A diamond pattern symbolizes fishing nets, and the bulky, twisted cable represents the strength of the hand-made ropes used on the boats. The mock cable was formed into a never-ending tree with upturned branches. This signified family: generations of men fishing and women knitting. The dress, and its history, fascinated me, and I decided to knit one.
For about two weeks I worked on the dress. I found the knitting dull and repetitious. The yarn smelled, and no matter how often I washed my hands, the odor of sheep lingered on my fingers. The patterns were intricate, and too often I ruined their symmetry by daydreaming while working on them. I tired of ripping out my work and starting over, so I put the coarse yarn in a corner of my closet and forgot about it. Let the Irish women knit; I had more interesting things to do.
Sometime after I had abandoned my project, our son, who was then 3 and our only child, awoke with severe chest pain. His color was gray, and his skin was clammy. He was apprehensive and restless; his fingers picked at the bedsheet and he cried with pain. He had been born with congenital heart defects, and I knew he was in cardiac trouble. The day kaleidoscoped: contacting doctors, hospitals, airlines, and finally flying to Children's Hospital in Pittsburgh. For some reason, I packed my knitting bag into my suitcase.
The days that followed were measured by crisis and fear. Surgery is necessary, we were told. Without it, he will die. Surgery is a great risk, we were told. With surgery, he may die. I began to knit. The surgery took more than six hours, and my fingers felt cramped and arthritic. Finally, we were allowed to see him in intensive care.
He looked defenseless surrounded by so much lifesaving equipment. Under his eyes were gray, smudgy circles. He had intravenous needles in both arms and a hard, black plastic airway in his mouth. Electrodes were taped on his arms and legs, and a gastric tube was taped in his nostril. A fan was blowing cold air over him, and he was lying on a circulating ice-water mattress.
"Please nurse, just one blanket?" I asked.
"No," she said.
A thin diaper crossed his groin and a huge adhesive bandage dressing covered his chest. The adhesive was stark, sterile white against the mottled marble skin. I could see his ribs, expanding and contracting as he sucked in air.
Back in the waiting room, I began to knit. I didn't want anyone to touch me. I would fall into little Picasso pieces on the antiseptic tile floor if anyone touched me. I couldn't talk because my throat seemed to be swelling shut, and if I tried to talk, I knew I would suffocate. Let me knit. Knit one, purl eight, yarn over. God, don't let him die. Knit one, purl eight. God, I'll finish this dress. Slip two, knit one. If I finish this row, God, let him have a blanket.
The days passed. The dress began to take shape. My fingers were oily, and I smelled of wet sheep. I carried the knitting bag with me to the waiting room, to the motel, to intensive care. He was getting better. Thank you, God. On March 17, St. Patrick's Day, the doctors said he was well enough for my husband to return to his work in Ohio. I would stay in Pittsburgh with our son. I would watch him get better as I knit, the umbilical cord of yarn always with me. He was getting better. The nurses were in a gay mood. The head nurse was named O'Brien; she had a green plastic shamrock pinned on her white uniform and her dark red hair curled close to her head under her stiff white cap. She was allowing us extra time with him to celebrate the Irish holiday.
I sat by his bed and talked to him of how we loved him and wanted to hold him. I ran my fingers across his forehead and he smiled. A very old smile. A very young child. The smile faded and his pupils contracted, dilated, contracted. The very efficient cardiac monitor beeped, beeped, beeped. The very efficient Miss O'Brien sent us out to the Lysol-smelling waiting room. I saw the rush of white uniforms. Everyone was so intense, determined, yet detached. Knit, purl, please God help him. Knit, purl. My fingers were frozen to the needles.
Knit, purl. I couldn't stop knitting. The resident stood before us and talked. Knit, purl. "Cerebral accident ..." Knit, purl. ... "possible brain damage"... Knit, purl. ... "not good ... not good." Finish a row.
Finish another row. I knitted a prayer into that dress. The twisted cable was the will to live. The diamond pattern was a calendar of the days of help and the days of fear, together and overlapping. The never-ending tree with upturned branches was every mother, any mother, reaching up for strength.
I never wear the dress. It's hot, bulky and uncomfortable. Even after years, it smells of sheep. But I keep it because I can't throw it away. It has a history. I can understand the Irish women knitting and praying for the seas to be calm, for the fog to lift, for their men to come home. After our son was discharged, alert and well, I knitted him a sweater with the same patterns as my dress. He wouldn't wear his sweater, either; he said it was too hot and it made him itchy. So the dress and the sweater are stored together in the cedar chest.
When I see the dress twice a year, I pause and remember the mechanical movements of my fingers using thin knitting needles as a rosary against fate. I feel the coarse yarn and smell the heavy smell of wet sheep, and I can understand the Irish women knitting and praying. I understand.

Previously published in Pittsburgh Magazine and the Tribune-Review.

Friday, October 14, 2011


I grew up with a rotary party line phone and black and white television with rabbit ears.  And now I have a blogspot?  You gotta be kidding me.