I'm not even certain when I started the kitchen sampler in the photo above, but I'm guessing no later than 1993 or so. Now some 25+ years later, I finished it, framed it, and sent it to its new home. I am glad to see it go to someone who wants it and who knows the person I've become since then.
When I finished my bachelor's degree in 1992, I went through an incredibly rough patch. In the spring of that year, I started having panic attacks. I wasn't really sure what they were, but I thought I was dying. I had married in the fall of 1991, and, in my memory at least, it was then the panic attacks started. When it came time to turn in and go to sleep, I would drift off with a book in my hand, only to wake up some time after, clawing at my throat, feeling like I couldn't take a breath. Often, this was accompanied by dreams of swallowing my pillow or some impossibly large object.
Before those panic attack became nightly terrors for me, I had only experienced this once before. It was when I was in high school, and I remember having a dream I was choking and woke up with the same conviction I couldn't breathe and something horrible was happening. Since it only happened one time, I forgot about it. I wish now I could remember what was going on then that triggered what was likely my first panic attack.
In 1992, I somehow managed to get through my graduation and spring semester. We moved to a converted garage on Martin Street. I still occasionally dream of that apartment. The bedroom was downstairs and to the left as you came in. Upstairs was a large living room, kitchen and a bathroom. It was a cute apartment, but I was miserable. I'd only applied to graduate school in two places other than my alma mater and no one initially offered me an assistantship. My application to the MA program at UCA was late--I'd put it off because I didn't want two degrees from the same school, as I thought it would keep me from getting a job or into a doctoral program. By the time I applied, the assistantship spots in the Writing Center were already spoken for.
Thus began a May and June of real difficulty. The panic attacks didn't just happen at night. Exhaustion and depression led to them starting when I was doing other things--even simple things like stopping at a red light or trying to watch a movie could send me into hyperventilation. Other than reading, I didn't have any real hobbies. And, for a lot of reasons, I was filled with dread and fear--all of the time.
My family helped me. Renee was going through her own particular rough patch, and I remember talking to her on the phone a lot. I also remember we were so broke I actually got a job telemarketing for a bit, ironically to pay the home phone bill. None of my job interviews worked out, as it was clear to folks I interviewed with I was going back to school as soon as I could find a way to do it.
My dad told me to start moving. "Exercise never made anyone sick" I remember him saying. I started working out for the first time--I found step aerobics (which I still do). And to keep my hands busy, I started doing craft things, which, with the exception of sewing for 4-H projects or an odd embroidery project here and there, I hadn't done before. I made a really horrendous needlepoint thing of cartoonish looking swans. When I finished it, I threw it away. The end product wasn't the point--the learning how to focus on something right in front of me was.
In the fall, I went back to school. The Honors College started assistantships that year, and I was one of the happy recipients. Even though I returned to the Writing Center as soon as someone else dropped out of grad school in January of 1993, I remain grateful for that assistantship.
My ex's mother is a cross stitcher. She made me things from time-to-time, and I was always honored she gave me something she spent hours creating.
I never really felt like I was a good fit in her family. She didn't understand me. We were so different; I knew I would go on for my doctorate. She'd been an unwed mother first, then the wife of an alcoholic who gave her two more children. The second man she married was abusive to her and her children. While her third husband was rough around the edges, his requirements of her were simple enough and they seemed to get along well enough.
To me, she seemed incapable to me of standing up for what she wanted from herself. I now realize she likely never had a free moment to explore what she really wanted. Her entire life had been serving others--her sisters, her abusive husbands, her children. She did want grandchildren. On the day of my wedding, my mother told her how at the age of twelve, I indicated I hoped my parents would be happy with the grandchildren my sisters gave them, as I would not be having any.
Perhaps I took up cross stitch so I could give her something she understood and valued.
I chose the sampler for her to go in her little white house set off a two-lane road. Her kitchen was large with white cabinets and blue carpet and a countertop always full. She spent hours in the kitchen cooking peas, frying venison steak, making gravy, boiling chicken and dumplings. I wanted her to feel cared for while she cared for others.
And even when she was no longer in my life, I kept schlepping this piece with me as I moved from state to state. In between my own projects, I would work on it for a little bit, thinking at first I would finish it and send it to her. I still have her mailing address in an old address book. She always best to make me feel welcome, even though there was so much dysfunction in their own family, even without the dysfunction in my marital relationship, no matter how little she understood me. Over time, I stopped carrying all of the darkness the sampler represented, including my guilt over never telling my former mother-in-law how much she taught me about the danger of lies and secrets.
At some point, I realized sending the finished piece to her would only make concrete the ways I never could live up to her hopes and expectations for her son's wife. While I had my own secrets and told my own lies in 1992, like her, I didn't do it to harm others. Like her, I thought I was protecting others.
Even as I was destroying myself in the process.
Sometimes as I worked on it I thought I would keep it. But that didn't feel right--the pattern had been picked out with her in mind. And to give it to my sisters or mother didn't feel right either.
When I was finished with my Christmas projects for 2018, I pulled out the sampler again. Looking closely, I realized I only had maybe half a dozen tiny pictures to finish and some outlining. At some point over the years, I had gone ahead and done all of the backstitching/outlining of the pictures I'd completed. The sampler was too much work to just toss out. So, I asked my Facebook friends if anyone was interested in the piece.
USPS delivered it today. I hope Mindy loves it. and I am grateful the piece has a place in her home. Finishing it knowing where it was going allowed me to see it anew, and the finishing was a celebratory act, rather than a burden. Like all good handiwork, the project became a meditative piece, with a new purpose.