Identity for me is a play of multiple, fractured aspects of the self; it is relational, in that it requires a bond to the ‘other’; it is retrospective, in that it is fixed through memories and recollections, in the genealogical process.
– Rosi Braidotti, 1994
When my mother started radiation and chemotherapy, she rejected our offer to bring yarn and a crochet hook into the hospital. I am too sick, she declared. And later, People will see me working and think I am not really sick. My mother and her friends were competitive about their illnesses, their suffering.
It was unusual to see my mother sitting without making. All her life, she had worked. No matter what else had been going on, she’d spent some part of each day sewing, knitting or crocheting, making bedspreads, doilies, tapestries, jumpers, dresses. In the evenings, after work, after cooking and cleaning up, after getting everything ready for the next day, she’d retreat to the back room of our weatherboard house and shut the door. Whatever she gave up over the years, for me and my brother, for my father, for her friends and extended family, she never gave up this work.
At the end of her first week in hospital, she relented and asked my brother to bring in a baby shawl she was crocheting for a pregnant cousin’s third child. If I die, it’ll never get finished, she said, and I nodded because I had long ago stopped trying to placate my mother with promises I had no desire to keep. The shawl, a landscape of blazing white starbursts and scallops, attracted admirers – nurses, physios, cleaners, catering staff, and even the occasional doctor. Rebecca, ward nurse (Sunday to Tuesday), the daughter of Italian parents, put in an order for a scarf. Each time she came into the room to take blood or administer medication, they discussed colours – an eggplant purple, or a deep red – to go with Rebecca’s olive skin, with her brown eyes. They talked about patterns and stitches, and about different kinds of wool. I suspect Rebecca was keeping my mother’s spirits up, but my mother took all requests seriously: she was a skilled craftswoman and, all her life, people had admired and coveted her works.
So, for months, in what turned out to be the last year of her life, spent mostly in hospital having treatments for a tumour that proved not to be as contained as the oncologist had predicted, my mother crocheted, only stopping when she was too weak to get up from the bed and into the armchair.
I reduced my hours at work to spend more time with her, visiting four or five times a week, often arriving around lunch time and leaving in the evening. I yearned to be transported back to my mother’s kitchen in Avondale Heights, where I might sit on a stool while she (younger and healthier) made dinner – my favourite dishes: artichokes stuffed with parmesan and breadcrumbs, or fried eggplant topped with tomato sauce and melted cheese – and shared the family gossip she’d picked up during her long phone calls with my aunts. Or to Sicily, where, two years earlier, for the first time, we’d visited her village together. With my arm hooked in hers, we had strolled down cobbled roads and stopped in front of the houses where her girlfriends had lived before they married and migrated or migrated and then married – girls who were now old women spread over three continents. She took me to several churches – Santa Lucia, Santa Margherita, Cappuccini – and then up the hill to the ruins of the Castle Santapau. The castle was destroyed by an earthquake in the 1600s. From Santapau, we looked over the rooftops, down the mountain to the lush valleys: grapes, olives and prickly pears.
But there was no escape; Once doctors have you in their clutches, my mother said, they don’t let you go. With the year of treatment stretching in front of us, I decided I needed a crochet project too. I have been knitting for most of my adult life, but while my mother was an expert (and maybe because of it), I rarely crocheted. This was an opportunity to learn properly – I thought but didn’t say, before my mother died. I was delusional, of course (a state partly brought on by my mother being at death’s door), because, while she had endless patience for designing, for making, often spending hours nutting out a complex pattern, my mother was a terrible teacher. She always had been, and it was unlikely that she was going to change in her eighty-first year. I remember her cousin R pleading to be taught the pattern for a star-shaped doily. We were sitting around the table, R with her yarn and hook, my mother’s doily spread out in front of her. If you show me how to start off, I am sure I’ll pick it up. My mother frowned. She and R were close; they’d grown up together, arrived in Australia around the same time, worked together in a textile factory in Richmond in the 70s, gone down to the beach together for summer holidays in their 50s when their children had abandoned them. R was more educated than most of the girls from the village, and she loved to read. But she could not crochet. My mother started off the doily; R tried to follow. She made errors, could not get the rhythm of it. My mother became impatient: I will make it for you. And then, later, when R had left: No-one ever had to show me more than once.
I downloaded a pattern for a granny square rug, constructed by sewing together a hundred individual squares. This was the perfect project. Simple. And portable. I could crochet a couple of squares each hospital visit. And my mother and I could sit and make together.
Each day, I arrived at the hospital carrying food (Vietnamese salads and spring rolls were Mum’s favourites), a clean nightie and underwear, and my wool and crochet hook. My mother, in her pale-blue dressing gown, sat in the recliner, her feet up. I sat opposite her in a visitor’s chair or on the bed, the hospital in full swing outside the door: disinfectant and antiseptic, buzzers and alarms, overworked nurses and suffering patients. We crocheted and talked. She told me about her morning and her treatments, her interactions with nurses and doctors (good and bad), and we crocheted and looked at each other’s work. Sometimes, she gave me advice on the colours and the combinations for my blanket; occasionally, she took a square out of my hands, fixed an error and gave it back. Mostly, though, she told me stories about her childhood and her mother, and the things she did when she was a young woman.
I knew early on that I would not keep the blanket. There were too many solid blocks of blue and green; the orange clashed with the reds. The blanket was going to be too loud, too strident. But I kept making it. This is not unusual for me: rarely does the finished product live up to my expectations. I love the making: the materiality of the process, the feel of the yarn, the idea and the design, the expectation; but mostly the rhythm and movement of making by hand, the dance of body and material. I have knitted several jumpers, sewn them up, and then pulled them apart – sometimes without even trying them on. In this way, crocheting and knitting are not that different to writing.
Two days after the doctors called us in to tell us she was probably not going to make it through the night, my mother, finding herself still lucid, demanded I help her finish a rose-pink hat, more of a bonnet with its scalloped rim. She had begun crocheting it a few weeks earlier when she thought she might lose her hair. Under her watchful gaze, I attached the crocheted flower. It’s yours, she said. The last thing I’ll make.
After my mother died, I felt compelled to finish the blanket. I used it as a throw on the couch for a couple of weeks, but the sight of it tipped the balance of the room, of my life; lying underneath it, I felt myself unravelling. Finally, I packed it into a large shopping bag and donated it to the local op shop. I hoped that someone else might find it warm and comforting.
My mother never donated her handmade scarves and doilies to the op shop. She donated other things – old clothes and crockery. When visitors came to the house, she took them on a tour. Her works were carefully curated; they adorned tables and sideboards, the backs of couches, the shelves of the credenza, the windows. White or beige, her intricate openwork – flowers or birds or swirling patterns – was like webs of lace trapping the light.
I appreciate her skill. I wear her scarves, I have kept the hat, but the doilies sit in a box unused. Don’t sell my doilies at a garage sale when I die, my mother instructed. We can’t send anything she made to the op shop, my brother said as we sorted out my mother’s things after her death. Even though she gave so much away while she was alive, we are left with boxes of doilies and tablecloths. My brother rang my female cousins and they gathered, swooping into the boxes like magpies.
Everyone else but you, my daughter, loves my doilies.
My grandmother, my mother and my aunts were all makers; it was not just their livelihood, but what they were born to do and they could do it all day long. When my mother reminisced about her childhood, it was often with a nostalgic longing for those days spent gathered in the kitchen with her sisters and girlfriends – sometimes up to fifteen young women – sewing, embroidering, knitting and crocheting while they gossiped and laughed as her mother told them stories or her cousin – the only one who did not want to make – read them romances out of magazines.
The philosopher Judith Butler argues that gender is produced through performance: ‘Gender identity is the stylized repetition of acts through time.’ As an adolescent girl growing up in the 60s and 70s, I understood that performing the domestic work my mother did, including her craft work, would shape me into the kind of woman I didn’t want to become. I did not want to be my mother. I did not want my life to be controlled by a husband, and to be limited by and to the domestic. While my mother spent nights working until late, finishing a dress or a skirt, I curled under my bedcovers with a torch and a book and dreamed of another kind of life.
In my childhood and adolescence, my mother made most of my clothes. These encounters were difficult even when they started with the best of intentions on both our parts. We’d go shopping together, flick through pattern books and sort through rolls of fabric. The dress would never live up to my expectations; I was overweight and bore no resemblance to the blond models on the pattern covers. My mother altered and changed aspects of the pattern, sometimes to suit her skill level and the time she had available, sometimes to suit her sense of appropriateness: lifting the neckline to avoid too deep a cleavage, adding to the seams and the hem to make the garment looser and longer. By the time the dress was ready for a fitting, it was too late. If I complained too much, my father would spiral into a rage at my lack of gratitude.
I think about Butler. I think about my mother, and about gender as performance. My mother understood that I was slipping away, that I was becoming the kind of woman she did not understand. She made me dresses as if they were costumes for a theatre production, but I could not inhabit the character she had envisaged.
It took a number of years for me to understand that craft is important women’s work – that it is an expression of creativity, a way of giving voice to love and passion and desire. Like many other feminists of my generation, it took time for me to understand that it could be reclaimed as a feminist project – both in the form of activism (think yarn bombing and subversive stitchery) and when undertaken as an everyday practice. I didn’t start sewing until I left home and moved into a shared household with other sewers. We sewed because we had very little money, because we enjoyed sewing and because it gave us a break from our often-stressful jobs. During my five years as a youth worker in Footscray in the 1980s, when I often worked sixty-hour weeks, I sewed most weekends. We would light the fire on cold Melbourne winter days and drag our sewing machines into the living room; we would make and talk and tell each other stories. It’s not until I write this now that I wonder if I was trying to re-create the kitchen in my mother’s stories of her life in the village.
My mother and I had such different lives that it’s hard to believe she was only twenty-five years older. She grew up in the village as a daughter of a peasant farmer. She didn’t see her first car until she was thirteen, and in her household there was no phone or radio. When she left Sicily to go to Australia, she was twenty-two years old, and had never been further than the neighbouring village. Her marriage to my father was arranged by her brothers: the families came from the same village; my mother had gone to school with my father’s youngest brother. She agreed to marry him because he said that he planned to return to Sicily. She’d only been in Melbourne for a few months, but she already knew migration had been a mistake.
My mother taught me the importance of creative work, of the daily practice of making. I learnt from her that creativity and imagination are crucial, and sustain the spirit even in the darkest times. That it is through making that we can connect with and contribute to others. From her, I learnt that inspiration is only ever one small part of the process of creating something new. That even those things we are passionate about take work, hours of it, knitting and unravelling, sewing and unpicking. From her, I learnt that it takes years of continual making to understand one’s art, one’s craft.
I laugh often, most days, at myself, with my husband, with friends and family members, but no-one makes me laugh like my mother did. When my mother laughed – especially with her sister, my favourite aunt – she could not stop. Doubled over with laughter, they could not speak, they could not tell us the story or the joke, they were lost for words, but we were infected, we laughed with them, our bodies shaking and shimmering. My father found this laughter annoying: What are you laughing at, he demanded, sure they were laughing at him. Sometimes they were, and sometimes they weren’t; he had a tendency to take himself too seriously (which, when it wasn’t terrifying, was funny). This laughter was a form of resistance. My father and my paternal grandparents could try to control her life, restrict her access to finances – to freedom – but they could not stop her laughter.
Mothers and daughters. Craft and writing. Home and not home. My mother and I found it hard to see eye to eye. It was impossible to give each other what we wanted. For as long as I remember, I wanted her to leave my father. As an adult, my judgement of her failure to rescue us and herself was harsh. As an adult, I wrote stories of my childhood that implicated her, that she hated. You are never to write again, she said to me once in a fit of temper after a memoir piece was published in The Age and a well-meaning cousin translated it. I laughed at her rage, turning and spinning on the other side of the phone. I won’t stop writing, I said.
In those last weeks, crocheting in the hospital, we reminisced; but we stayed away from those memories that we would never reconcile. She never asked me what I did in my travels around India in the two years when I didn’t speak to her or my father. I didn’t ask her what it was like to have your twenty-two-year-old daughter run halfway across the world to get away from you. We were mother and daughter, with no more or less between us than most mothers and daughters. Neither of us would ever change enough, neither of us expected it anymore.
Recently, I cleaned out some of my kitchen cupboards (writing avoidance) and came across the box with my mother’s doilies. I never use them. My mother has been dead for four years. I am an atheist and don’t believe in an afterlife. I couldn’t get rid of them, I tell my brother. Of course not, he says.
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