A few years ago, I called my grandparents’ home on my grandma’s 90th birthday, mostly hoping to wish her birthday greetings and chat a little, but also, for a brief moment, hoping to accompany her, however implicitly, in the mourning for her younger sister whose death had come not even two weeks earlier.
My grandpa answered and told me Grandma wasn’t home – she was at her sister’s house with a niece or two, going through my great-aunt’s stuff and helping figure out what to do with it. If I called back later, he said, I’d be able to talk to her. How awful, I thought. What must it be like, on your 90th birthday, to spend it in your baby sister’s vacant home (she was only 82), the same house that you grew up in together, sorting through all the things she left behind?
We don’t talk directly about serious things, my grandma and I. She is far more comfortable talking around them, making seemingly-casual comments that allude to unspoken depths of feeling. Some may say this constitutes denial, but I can’t disagree more. I think, mostly, that the right words aren’t there for her to draw on. Her place, time, and culture didn’t reward plain-speaking, especially in its women. So it’s often difficult, sometimes impossible, to know how she’s really feeling. As vexing as this might be for us, how much harder might this be for her, a woman with intense sentiments and without the instruments to express them in a way we more easily grasp?
And sometimes I wonder – has a cultural obsession with efficiency and directness robbed us of the patience for slowly, carefully, even tentatively listening for and responding to the unspoken ways people speak? Yes, obliqueness is frustrating. But so is, I think, living in a world that rewards only forthrightness when, for any number of reasons, frankness may not come naturally to one. Most simply, perhaps, it’s not within their nature to be so open. More insidiously and likely more often the case, it is a means of communication denied them by those more powerful. How many stories we lose when we listen to only the simplest, most easily digestible ones.
When I called back later and Grandma and I had cycled through the usual birthday conversation, our talk turned to the half-finished knitting projects she’d taken home with her from her sister’s. One, she said, was something simple that she could figure out what her sister had been making and finish it easily enough. The other project, however, was a complete and utter mystery. She and her nieces searched the house for a written pattern that would correspond to it but without any luck. Whatever Ardis had intended the fabric to become, it was a secret she took with her to her grave. She’d have to unravel it and find some other use for the yarn.
In this, then, we circled her sister’s death, never coming outright to say how her absence in my grandma’s life could never be filled again, or how it might feel to be the last of four siblings now living, left holding their collective memories. But she still said all this, and more.
There is something resolutely practical about picking up the knitting projects of our dearly departed, but also could there be anything more intimate?
We are then, in truth, in private conversation with our dead.
What were you making here? Ah, I see what you were thinking! Yes, I can help you finish. What your hands laid down, mine will pick up. Go in peace. I’ve got this.
What on earth were you making here? I wish I knew what was going through your mind when you made this! Your ideas were uniquely yours, such as never will be thought again. Without you here, how can I carry on? I’ll have to make it my own way.
A few months later, visiting my grandparents, Grandma asked me to pick through and take whatever I wanted from the two massive bags of yarn that came home with her from her sister’s. It turns out that not all of this yarn began with Ardis – rather, a sizable portion came to her after her daughter-in-law’s mother died (at least I think that’s the complicated chain of relationships involved in this inheritance), which, of course, included a few half finished projects. Before her death, Ardis hadn’t worked through much the yarn or figured out what to do with a few knit pieces seemingly meant for a larger baby blanket. I ended up shipping a large box of yarn (and those blanket pieces) home since I hadn’t brought the suitcase for it – and not entirely because I wanted it all, but because it is essential that my grandma knew I would take care of it and make something from it.
I am but one node in a dense web of women who pick up each other’s fabric when it grows too heavy for those who came before us.
We weave time from the loose strands previous generations have left for us to continue working.
For so much of human history, writing and public speech were not media in which women were welcomed to communicate. Class barriers kept even greater segments of people from joining the realms of the literate and writing. The people in our past about whom we can say, “In their own words, they described [X]” is overwhelmingly biased in favor of male elites.
Whose stories are we losing, missing, because they are harder to hear?
It is this vein of musing, comprised of half-formed thoughts I’ve had tumbling around in my mind now for years, that made me so grateful for a forthcoming book in my field that I read earlier this year, Li Yuhang’s Becoming Guanyin: Artistic Devotion of Buddhist Women in Late Imperial China. I was privileged to read an advance copy and give some comments on it at a gathering organized by the Society for the Study of Chinese Religions in March. Li’s advocacy of the legitimacy and value of unspoken, indirect, non-textual sources speaks directly to my musings.
(I’m cribbing a little now from my remarks back then.)
The interdisciplinary methodology Li weaves together in her book in order re-center historical women as expressive actors has far reaching implications. She reminds us how difficult it is to find sources that allow us to study the religious experiences of women in the Ming and Qing without the mediating veil of text, particularly when writing itself was frequently a gendered activity constituting the performance of masculine qualities. What this highlights for us then is the necessity and incredible difficulty of using non-textual sources to confront our preconceived notions and our blind spots in history of people who were not elite men. At the end of chapter four, Li directly addresses this: “Where written history is silent, we should turn to material objects as evidence and explore the logic of those objects in relation to their owners.”
For the sweeping range of our history, relatively few have been able to translate their thoughts to the written words that we, as hyper-literate readers ourselves, find the most comforting means of communication.
What will we have to give up if we too dare to follow Li’s example and, when confronted with lacunae in written history, venture into the realm of embodied belief and tacit knowledge?
Or, as she says in the introduction, “Rather than studying women as they have been objectified in texts, I examine them in action and one window onto this moving world is the objects that woman created and used.”
I am fortunate, then, to participate in co-creation using any of the objects left for me by the women who have come before.
My heart and hands will try to pick them up. I may understand what they wanted. I may not and go my own way. Nevertheless, go in peace.