I wonder what she would have been like, my little girl that never was.
A mother’s worst fear, a miscarriage, a child born too soon.
People said, “But you already have three children,” or “You can always have another.” How could people be so cruel? No one can be the same as this child.
I sometimes dream of her, what she might have been. Sometimes when I’m in my garden, or sitting quietly embroidering a pillowcase, I hear her voice, her laughter, and I look up, but no one is there. Only a ghost of what might have been.
The back story: Losing a child under any circumstance is a heart-rending event. My maternal grandmother, Mary Higham, had two miscarriages sometime in the 1920s, long before the advent of medical interventions that now allow premature babies to survive. Even though infant mortality, both premature and full-term, was more common then, it was still a devastatingly tragic event.
My mother and aunts didn’t say much about the miscarriages, just that they had happened, but their few words conveyed profound sorrow. They must have thrown a long-lasting shadow in the Higham home for my mother and aunts to remember them after all those years.
He’s been here a month. A month of spending time with his friends, smoking, drinking telling tall tales. A month of being swooned over by all the girls who think he is “so handsome!!!” in his RCAF uniform. A month of helping Cale with harvest. A month of teasing his sisters and kid brother.
But throughout the whole month, all I could see is Damocles’ sword hanging over his head. I wonder if he sees it, too. If that’s why he spends so much time “living it up.”
My uncle, John Brock Higham, “signed up” for the Royal Canadian Air Force in the spring of 1940, and was called up for training in September of that year. One year later, September of 1941, he came back to the farm at Assiniboia for a month’s leave before being posted overseas as a pilot in Bomber Command.
As happy as his mother might have been to have him home, Grandma Higham probably carried a heavy stone in her heart that entire month. It wasn’t her sabbatical, it was John’s, but she experienced it, too, just from a different perspective. The news from overseas during the Battle of Britain and the Blitz was nothing but doom and gloom, destruction and death. And her son was heading straight into it as a pilot in Bomber Command. How could she not worry?
“Real writing, I was beginning to realize, was more like laying bricks than waiting for lightning to strike. It was painstaking. It was manual labor. And sometimes, sometimes if you kept putting the bricks down and let your hands just go on bleeding, and didn’t look up and didn’t stop for anything, the lightning came. Not when you prayed for it, but when you did your work.” Paula McLain, Love and Ruin
For the past few years, I’ve been struggling with the task of writing my maternal grandmother’s story. I do mean, struggle. For the first couple of years, the story wandered here, there and everywhere. It had no focus. No purpose.
A course offered by the Alexandra Writers’ Centre in Calgary helped me find the focus and suddenly the story started coming together.
Until I hit That Chapter.
Some instinct deep inside me said, That Chapter is necessary to the story. I just couldn’t see how or why. I tried writing it a couple of times and got nowhere.
I stopped writing it. I stopped trying to write it.
It haunted me, stared at me, glared at me, dared me to put one word, any word on that virtual paper. I hid.
Until I read that passage above from Paula McLain’s wonderful book about Martha Gellhorn, an American journalist, war correspondent and author. If she could rise above the pain and struggle of writing, then so could I. I decided to use her analogy of writing as brick-laying and tackle That Chapter again.
I started with 15 minutes of “brick-laying.” You know, minimize the amount of self-inflicted pain, or something. So my hands wouldn’t be bleeding too much at the end of each session.
I set my timer for 15 minutes. I shut out the world. I starting writing. No editing, just writing. Just one word after another, one sentence after another.
Some days, 15 minutes went by in a flash. I was on a roll. I kept on writing. Other days, it was like pulling teeth (to use another metaphor). Those bricks were heavy and ill-fitting, and the mortar wouldn’t set. I was relieved when the timer went off. I went in search of metaphorical bandages for my metaphorical bleeding hands.
But guess what? That Chapter is now written. It’s terrible. It needs serious re-writing. And editing. But in the process I began to get a glimmer of why I first thought, way back when, that That Chapter was essential to my grandmother’s story. Now that I understand the purpose of That Chapter, it will be easier (relatively speaking) to write it.
I read recently that the newest fashion “In” thing is “upcycling,” i.e., recycling parts of existing clothes or fabric ends to create new clothes, preferable more expensive clothes.
I hate to break it to the fashion gurus but so-called “upcycling” has been around for-EVER!
But first, some background.
I have to credit upcyclers with combating “fast fashion” – clothes that are cheap, trendy and disposable. Wander through the clothing department of any store, especially big box stores, and you’ll see fast fashion everywhere.
Why is it so cheap? Take a close look at where it’s made. Bangladesh. Indonesia. India. Thailand. Vietnam. The list goes on. Cheap labour and horrible working conditions that have long been outlawed in Canada, the USA, New Zealand, Australia and Europe.
Remember the Rana Plaza clothing factory that collapsed in Bangladesh in April, 2013, killing over 1100 people and injured more than 2500? Or the Tazreen Fashions factory that burned in November, 2012, killing at least 117 people and injuring more than 200? The reasons so many died: faulty wiring and barred or even non-existent emergency exits.
Those people work under horrible conditions – very few, if any, breaks to eat or use the bathroom (assuming there is one); meager pay (the Rana Plaza workers earned 35 cents a day), blocked exits, unsafe working conditions, long hours, the constant fear of losing their jobs if they object, poor light, poor air circulation, and so on. They continue to work under those conditions because they have no choice, because their families depend upon that meager income, because if they objected (and were then fired) there would be thousands of others battling to take their place. If severely injured to the point of not being able to work, they receive no compensation from the factory, no workers’ compensation, no unemployment benefits, no long-term disability payments. Nothing.
And all because we’re too “cheap” to pay the price for clothes (and other products) made locally by well-paid employees in safe workplaces (this article speaks to the situation in the USA but Canada can learn from it, too.)
So where does “upcycling” fit in this, you ask? Consider this: how long will you wear that piece of clothing and what will you do with it once a) it wears out, or b) you get tired of wearing it?
Some discarded clothing goes to thrift stores, about 15% according to this web site, and some is burned for energy recovery, but most ends up in the garbage. In 2014, just over 10 million tons (TONS!) of discarded clothing were sent to landfills in the USA alone.
Thus, upcycling – a way to turn clothing that would be otherwise discarded into something “new” that is desirable and fashionable and green. But upcycling is nothing new.
During the Depression of the 1930s, upcycling was born out of necessity, not out of choice. My mother grew up with it. She told stories of her mother making underclothes and boys’ shirts out of cotton flour sacks and remaking hand-me-down clothing received in relief shipments. Fortunately, my grandmother had received extensive training in all the fibre arts, including pattern-making, when she attended the Practicing School for Girls in Truro, Cornwall, England, in the late 1890s. She put that training to good use during the Depression, not only (re)making clothes for her family but also training other women how to do the same. My mother told how Grandma could look at a picture of a dress, then draft the pattern for it using newspaper and make the dress on her treadle sewing machine.
In 1941, Mom was hired fresh out of high school to clerk at the Bank of Toronto. She had no suitable work clothes, only the dress she wore to school and the dress she wore at home (imagine, only two dresses!), and there was no money to buy her a suit. Grandma created one by taking apart one of Grandpa’s old suits, turning the fabric and recutting it. Mom wore that suit until she earned enough to buy herself a store-bought one.
So the next time you contemplate buying that inexpensive (cheap) clothing article, look where it’s made and think of the underpaid workers labouring in conditions you wouldn’t even put your dog in. Think of the tons of waste clothing already in landfills. Think of my mother with only two dresses to her name. Think of my grandmother clothing her family during desperate times by “upcycling.”