For me, the guiding passion behind my 20 year dance through the looking glass of my past has been the need to know the stories behind the dates and the names. I grew up listening to the stories about life up home, on the farm, stories that my great grandmother used to entertain me during the long lazy summer days I spent at my grandmother’s house, stories that my grandmother would tell me on Saturday nights as she patiently guided my hands through learning this embrodery stitch or that one. And as always, the conversations on those long ago Saturday nights were filled with stories of watching this afgan being knitted or that set of bedsheets and linens being stitched. A history made up of needlework and creativity, flavoring my images of the women that came before me.
I tend to think of the people on the other side of that looking-glass as stitches in the pattern that makes up who I am, each generation leaving behind their handiwork on the canvas creating corners of the whole pattern to who I am. Not really an odd analogy when you consider I come from a long line of needle jockeys. My mother does lovely work, she never travels without her sewing bag. My maternal grandmother was exceptionally skilled, each one of us has various treasures that Gram created with her needle and thread. Her mother, my great-grandmother was the head fitter at the Paris salon at Huztlers Downtown Baltimore and did some of the most incredible needle point I have ever encountered. My paternal great-grandmother knit and crocheted and won 1st place at the state fair back in the 50’s with an afghan that I have a duplicate of. Stepped back another generation, my maternal great great grandmother, Fanny Lillian Kreglo Houck created some of the most beautiful linen work table cloths and napkins I have ever seen. I imagine that it was her hands that guided Gram’s through the first beginning stitches as Gram’s guided mine two generations later, giving me a real sense of continuance and connection with these women who make up part of who I am today. And touching these items gives me another dimension to those names and dates in my past, which is, after all, what makes the journey through the looking glass so much richer than just dry little names and dates on a chart. Which is, after all, the real meaning of searching for where you came from, isn’t it?
Take for example the story of my 3rd great grand-aunt, Mathlide Root Simpson. On the surface, there’s not much to tell. She was born April 5, 1857. She married December 29, 1856 and less than a year later, she died in childbirth. Bare bones facts. No flavor to them at all. Now, take a look at the image at the top of this post. It’s a counted cross stitch image of a beautiful bouquet of roses. Although hard to see, there are delicate shades of color in the threads, giving a rich dimension to the needlework. I strongly doubt it was done from a pattern, but even if so, it’s a testament to an incredible skill with a needle when you realize that instead of canvas, it’s actually stitched on perforated paper. It was carefully and expensively framed, behind glass and paper backed. And on that paper backing are two lines. Tillie Root 1854. And then look back at that simple dry little entry on the tree. Mathilde Root Simpson 1839-1857 suddenly comes to life. She literally jumps off the page and becomes three-dimensional. She was Tillie Root a teenager with an incredible skill with needle and thread as she completed this piece at just 15 years of age. She was a treasured child/sibling as this work of needle art was expensively framed and preserved with tender loving care for the last 156 years. Tillie is no longer just a foot note to the family tree, my 3rd great grandmother’s sister who died young, but somebody so real you can almost reach out and touch her. And that, my friends is what the journey through the looking glass is really all about.