Lilac Stitches

Photo: Richard BH

Photo: Richard BH

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I met my future stepmother in a Leningrad subway when I was eight. Luda was a twenty-year-old transplant from a small Ukrainian town, painted with shiny scarlet lipstick and heavy eyeliner and hanging out with her best friend, prowling for adventure and male generosity. Instead of finding easy fun, she got hit on by a single father in a fake fur coat, thirty-five kopecks in his pocket and an empty fridge in a communal flat. She and her friend soon discovered he was a Jew from the Caucus region, which solidified his endearing outsider status and confirmed that they had not hit the suitor jackpot. Nevertheless, they found my dad charming, naïve, and kind.

For his and Luda’s first date, Dad hand-sewed a pair of black velvet bell-bottoms and designed a pullover with billowing sleeves and white piping to match. He worshiped The Beatles and managed to create outfits from scratch based on their well-catalogued changing tastes. He sat in a chair facing a wall at a short enough distance to make his shoes curl up in the front, because he saw in a magazine that The Beatles wore boots that didn’t lay flat at the tips. He had photos of Jean Paul Belmondo and Marcello Mastroianni on his bedroom wall. He took self-portraits that he printed and developed in our bathroom. In the black and white photos he’s wearing a striped V-neck sweater and a fedora, cocked sideways atop his mop of black waves. His mouth is slightly parted and he holds up his chin with a fanned-out hand, like Rimbaud.

Luda was a seamstress. Her mother ran a garment factory and taught her how to operate a sewing machine early on. My father convinced Luda to move in, and soon after he helped her buy an industrial-sized sewing machine so that she could work from home. When she left the house on errands, I immediately sat behind her sewing table and began turning out my own projects. I managed to break the machine almost every time. When she got back and asked me why the needle had snapped off or the thread was tangled up in the bobbin, I shrugged and refused to admit to any wrongdoing. I thought that her return home was the biggest inconvenience. I was practicing being the lady of the house — I was lost playing mother.

A sewing machine is shaped like a mother bent over, cradling her pregnant belly, with the round bobbin inside firmly attached: moving, beating, fluttering and spinning out a new life. I spent long stretches of time sewing what I imagined were perfect garments only to find out that the bobbin had run out of thread a long time ago. The ghost-stitch on top was useless on its own; it didn’t hold without the bottom stitch. The bobbin is much like the uterus, holding a baby of new silky thread. It needs ongoing repair and replenishment; its umbilical cord pokes out to connect with the needle above. In many cultures, sewing machines represent fertility, growth, and emotional maturity.

The summer before I turned nine I fantasized about having a sewing machine of my very own. In June, during the White Nights, the whole city of Leningrad is drunk on the heavy scent of blooming lilacs; the boozy light of a never-dark sky seemed to liquefy all the purple bushes in the squares like Vaseline on a camera lens. The gauze of endless daylight and that bright perfume in the air kept me up at night, staring out of my wide-open windows and eventually falling asleep satisfied by the vision of a little companion sewing machine to the one my stepmother used.

In September, the Iron Curtain parted temporarily for my ninth birthday. I woke up on a Sunday morning, home from boarding school in Pushkin, to receive a plastic German sewing machine my father and stepmother surely pulled strings to procure during the Soviet era of shortages. I became preoccupied with stitching things together: anything, even paper at first. When a friend would come over and try to tell me a story or play with me, I ignored her; all of her words were muffled and spun through the whir of my motor and foot pedal furiously plowing through projects. I was making contact, making things go together, marrying shapes and creating everything and nothing, but mostly doll clothes.

I had many grown-up chores that made me feel both put upon and proud of my domestic prowess: I stood in lines at the grocery stores; I made eggs; I swept the floors; I ironed my brown, wool-blend, pleated uniform along with its black apron, and sewed the white cuffs and collar on the dress after washing it and the rest of my laundry by hand in our tub every weekend. I can still hear the sound of clothes being scrubbed on the tin washboard, like luggage moving overhead during turbulence; I remember the dead-bug smell of Soviet-era laundry soap, which looked like a small slab of congealed brown marble. My sewing was the only thing I connected to play only. When I wasn’t home to use my sewing machine I cross-stitched or knitted at school — anything to touch, to feel, to mend, to connect and piece things together.

My folks split up when I was four years old. My mother came from several generations of heavy drinkers: a lineage of tough, divorced, or abandoned women who each had only one daughter. I was the fourth and last in this birth pattern. My mom eventually abandoned me: a phenomenon far less common in Russia than being left by one’s father. She succumbed to her fate somewhere around the time I was ten months old, and was deemed an unfit parent by the court system. Everywhere I went – school, my building’s courtyard, a party – people seemed to know that I was motherless. I felt them watching me and wished to be armored better when their curiosity and pity seemed to undress me.

A blind stitch is a way of joining two pieces of fabric together without showing the thread that is binding them. No one should see how the hem was put together; to the outside world, the garment should look seamless. My mother had sewn herself in as the blind stitch on everything I would wear as a little girl. But her stitch was weak, flawed. My proverbial childhood dresses would always have her worn out, loose thread barely holding together the layers that should have protected and comforted me. I have felt this weak stitch give at my most vulnerable moments and threaten to uncover and reveal me when I need covering up the most.

My stepmother was wary and callous at times, telling me that my mom was no good, that she was trash, an unfit mother. If Luda was right and I did not discard my mother’s weak thread — a promised alcoholic inheritance that was surely a part of me already — if I saved bits and pieces of it and wove it in with the shape of who I was to become as a woman, would I become damaged goods: unable to fulfill my duties and expectations, to be a sturdy and trusted foundation for my family? Would I leave my kids, too?

With only two pictures of my mother in my possession and not enough of those disintegrating threads to piece together a lasting memory, I mend those blind hems on my own now, to keep her with me after being shamed into trying to set myself apart from her at all costs. I realize that I am the only one who has any interest in preserving her name, her face, and the last remaining traces of my memories of her, dissolving like a sugar cube in hot tea; that my father and stepmother have erased her from our family completely because they, too, fear I might turn out to be a wayward drunk. By simply craving her I might already be lost.

Looking at weathered and grainy photos from the 1980s, I see the panels of a quilt representing my future as a mother. These memories are all mine to move around, sew together, and make whole:

I am five, wearing a terrycloth jumper with big buttons on the front, splayed out on the couch across a tight row of my father’s dear friends from Leningrad University. They have come over for a sedate party and brought me a banana, a rare tropical treat that I’m eating. One of the women has my head in her lap, another has her arms wrapped around my torso, and the third is playing with my slippers. All impromptu babysitters, who asked me with delight and sincerity about my scrambled egg recipe and sneaked me chocolates with crinkly wrappers.

I am reading Pippi Longstocking in Azerbaijan, one leg swung over another to prop up the book. I plucked Pippi from my uncle’s floor-to-ceiling library: from those stacks of Dumas and Pushkin that later nourished me through long and lonesome summer vacations while my dad worked selling watermelons off a truck back in Leningrad to earn extra cash. Pippi made up stories about her absent parents’ fantastical adventures: the father who was a brave captain of a ship who vanished at sea after a storm, but would surely be back, and an angel mother whom Pippi did not remember but who reassured her, while Pippi was looking up at the sky, that she would be alright alone in the world. Like Pippi, I liked to pretend that my mother was watching over me, that she and my father had a higher calling in life — I imagined her as a great painter and him as a tortured poet — that they were benevolent creatures in their remote and mysterious cocoons.

My grandmother and me holding hands, wading in the Caspian Sea, where I splashed in slick rainbows made by the oil rigs and roasted myself as dark as a coffee bean on the scorched cliff sides.

***

But it was Luda who became more than a picture for me to hold dear, who tried to protect and cheer me on with simple gestures. She sewed up the ripped crotch of my pants after I did splits on the ice rink in the park, scrunching her nose and asking me if they had ever been washed before, but plowing through anyway so that I could get back out and play. It was Luda who stayed up all night making me a stuffed cat toy when I told her, right before going to bed, that I’d forgotten about the school assignment. It was Luda who made me a polka-dot baby doll dress I wanted, and she deemed homely, in 9th grade, slipping it over my still-tiny frame, and saying, you can make a potato sack look elegant.

Luda got left behind when my dad and I boarded the plane on October 26th, 1989 out of Leningrad International Airport. In two weeks, the Berlin Wall would fall and the Soviet life as I had known it would disintegrate — a giant nation that was once stitched together from stolen and borrowed scraps now fragmented back into its disparate parts. I would never see my mother, grandparents or friends again. When my father sent Luda a visitors’ visa from America almost two years later, and she was with us again, I believed in the mending story, in returns and the journey of redemption. I thought if she came back, then someday, I would get my mother back, also. This wasn’t to be true.

***

I gave birth to my son the month before I turned thirty. Until that day of static August heat I believed that our insides were red in color. Placenta is actually purple. So are the lips of a woman’s vagina as she pushes out her child. I saw myself anew as I watched the swollen-with-fear, purple ring of fire contract and expand with a tuft of wet monkey fur. The midwife I’d acquired moments ago in the emergency room wheeled over a mirror to guide me out of being stubbornly stuck. She was still wearing glitter from the party she had just left. I had begun laboring in an inflated warm pool in my living room and planned to give birth in my bed, but ended up on the fourth floor of the county hospital, ripped apart, looking out of a filthy sun-drenched window at 6:06 am, waiting to hear my purple child cry. It was taking too long.

After twenty-six hours of labor, complete with eight hours of pushing that were deemed unproductive, Jake was abruptly vacuum-sucked out of me. My little boy emerged like a wilted lilac bush, immediately shadowed by a haystack of doctors rubbing him back to life in grotesque silence. Tubes were pushed in and out of his throat, and then my Purple Heart was at last placed onto my chest to suckle and scream, suckle and scream — the ultimate badge of courage. Stranger, I have known you for so long.

The remains of us were still to be delivered. I was asked to give a few extra pushes to allow the placenta to come out. This wasn’t difficult, as I had already sustained third degree tears with no anesthesia; the love drug of oxytocin had erased all but the baby in my arms. The midwife held up our placenta in the air for my viewing and moved a little piece of translucent skin over it like she was turning a page from a book at story time. She said, “Look, it’s shaped like a heart.”

It was veiny, it was dark, it was shiny and it was my second Purple Heart that day. I had done something very ordinary that required the extra courage to believe in my mothering abilities; to have blind faith in the piecemeal quilt my stepmother made to protect me when I was left as a bare leaf on a branch.

As I was stitched up, the midwife made a perplexed face she couldn’t hide. She had trouble finding the seams — couldn’t figure out the way to make the explosion become a road of what was there before. She told me it was the most complicated mending she had ever done. Later on, at my six-week check-up, the now-invisible stitches still sore, she examined me and pointed at my newly healed lavender flesh: “Aren’t they magic? It looks like you had never been ripped apart in the first place.”

I have always wondered about the magic of putting myself together after unraveling. Memory is like a stitch on the brain. At the end of each row, a reverse stitch secures the seam. But going back on a stitch can also alter the lines, change the memory. The brain as a recording device is not wholly reliable. Going over a seam too many times makes it hard to undo; we then have to deal with its permanence, or toil with a lamp and scissor, or throw the garment away.

A brain that has to process loss on a constant basis has larger receptors for absorbing fear and pain; the molecular structure can change due to a single shocking event or a series of emotional tremors. The neurons responsible for delivering and receiving pleasure from a love object can shrink in cases of a prolonged absence. Accessing these neurons is like trying to get a drink of water by running closed fists under the faucet and bringing them to the lips. The brain must be taught to cup two hands together to gather the water, which might temporarily put an end to a thirst adapted to long ago.

***

I was sent home from Woodhull Hospital with my insides living outside of me. I had the baby I had wished and waited for, along with the tub of placenta I’d asked to keep so that I could bury it under a lilac tree in honor of my mother. I had my new sewn-up body to mourn and understand, to study in building a less gruesome relationship with a productive kind of pain. I came home to a deflated kiddie pool and stuck the placenta in the freezer. I was immediately lost in getting my baby to latch onto my breasts, which became solid with untapped abundance — the nipples, huge, hot bruises that slid off my baby’s mouth each time he tried to take me in. When I looked up from his milk-drunk face again it was suddenly April, the cruelest of the months, and time to break ground to plant my mother’s tree.

The lilac tree is the bloom of my motherland. Imperial Russia was over-planted with lilacs by Empress Alexandra, who was enchanted with these flowers and had her decorator make silk mauve fabrics to mimic lilacs — lilac being the color that symbolizes pride and youthful innocence. Lilacs also stand for first love, valiance, and protection. Like all potent and gorgeous things, lilacs’ bloom is brief, and the flowers appear hyper, giant, and impatient. Constraint and limits make them more intense.

In Leningrad, lilacs possess an extra vigor and perfume because of the shorter-than-average summer bloom season and longer hours of sunlight during the days of the White Nights, when the trees bask in the slow burn of low twenty-four hour sun.

Once, when I stayed with my mother after my folks had split, she woke me up in the middle of the night, probably drunk but happy, and asked me to go out picking flowers with her. The city was silent. She felt adventurous, bored, and impulsive. She got me dressed and we went out into the warm, dusky light. We prowled the parks with statues of a bronze Peter the Great mounting a horse or a granite Lenin bust squinting thoughtfully; they tended to have the best landscaping. We picked off branches and blooms as though harvesting our own private garden. I fell asleep blanketed in sweet pollen and petals. When I woke up, every surface of the room held a container with lilacs, roses, tulips, mimosas and carnations, spilling out like bowing servants. My mother had draped over her gaps and absences in this stolen beauty. I have always wanted more of that night.

My mother’s Christian roots, which remain buried and unmentioned per my dad’s request, are mirrored in the cross-like four-leaved shape of the lilac flowers we both love. And so I baptized my son in her honor at the Russian Orthodox Church in the fall and planted the frozen, heart-shaped placenta under a sturdy lilac tree in front of my house in Brooklyn in the spring.

The tree I bought at the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens, where I got married, was extraordinary in its resilience; the roots were not shocked or damaged by the cold mass of flesh that eventually melted and nourished it by giving way to the dirt. And so my mother could grow for me, could open up and bloom each April over the August of my son — the heat of his summertime birth that began to thaw the chill from the wet storms my mother left behind. Every new, fickle spring season I looked forward to my tree getting bigger along with the baby. But inhaling the perfume of a childhood that hardly prepared me to be someone’s mother, I also had to do the work of counting the losses, to make space for a foreign kind of bonding.

Not having a mother is like not having enough fabric to finish a dress. It can still be worn, but it will always be too short, have no pockets to warm the hands, or be too tight on the chest. There’s no changing not having enough fabric. And everyone notices the girl with the too-small dress when she’s a child. When she grows up, her own children will find the tiny dress in the attic and ask questions that make fists again out of warm open hands.

The fear that I will desert my children seems involuntary. The neurons firing off in my brain know the path to abandonment like a veteran coal miner feels the grooves and bumps on the walls when he enters the dark tunnel. But that mine is a relic, a bad source of harvesting energy for the needs placed on me as a mother. My stitched-over brain grows new connections out of an evolutionary penchant for self-repair. Every friend, boyfriend, teacher, good book, curious therapist, and fiercely loving grandmother, and the stepmother and father who stayed, contributed in stretching the wires to meet and defiantly fire off in defense of pleasure. The torn post-birth flesh can be fused back together and heal to its original shape, and so the elastic brain that has been depleted of the love hormone can be stretched and expanded, but it is indeed a stretch — a mended garment. It is not the prototype of the intended pattern. It’s a need to look for and drink in a substitute when the original is gone like a spent bloom.

***

I make little books that I sew together. I photocopy and draw over old pictures, glue ribbons and typed-out words around the images, put packing tape over them for protection and run each page through my sewing machine — surging the edges, then binding the booklet into place. I have always meant to make one with an old passport photo I have of my mother from around the time I was born, but I never seem to get around to it. Working with her image feels too much like erecting an altar, and I don’t know if she is still out there, maybe living in Russia.

My son was almost two years old when he got into my wallet where I keep the photo of her, much too casually, and began playing with it, folding and scratching it up. When I saw him holding one of the last tangible artifacts of her I had managed to dig up and steal from my father’s desk drawer as a teenager — the grey dust flaking off the little square of her face — I yelped and grabbed it out of his hand and hugged him tight, telling him that it was ok and he didn’t know how valuable this thing was to me, that I should have taken better care of the photo. It seemed like I needed the hug more than he did. I took a deep breath, put packing tape over the tattered image, and hung it up above my desk, still unsure of how the book I will eventually make about my mother might turn out, how I can fix this one bit of loose thread in place for myself, for my son, for our whole family.

I am hoping that, when I am ready and they are old enough, my children could help me press the lilac blooms from my son’s tree as a halo around her head; we could make copies and fill in the white lines across her face or color in the lips; they could draw pictures of ornate, onion-shaped church domes from my Leningrad landscape; I could teach them how to use my sewing machine to seal the edges; I could write out her name and date of birth in cursive Russian and let the kids practice the English translation.

When I am ready, maybe, we could give my mother’s fading photo a final resting place in the fabric of our familial legacy.

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About Sophia Pfaff Shalmiyev

Sophia is currently attending the MFA Nonfiction program at PSU where she is the recipient of the Kellogg Award Fellowship and the Laurels Scholarship. Sophia is at work on her first book about marginalized female figures, misogyny, and escapism as a familial legacy.

Sophia is the Nonfiction Editor at Portland Review and writes a bi-weekly column for the PDXX Collective.

Comments

  1. Lovely. Thank you for sharing this.

  2. Marlena Baraf says:

    Absolutely gorgeous.

  3. A beautifully written and tender story about family. Although the details are different from mine, the essential message is quite the same: we are all forged from the threads of our family, and in most cases, a dysfunctional family. How you embroider those pieces together is entirely up to you. Thank you for a delicately rendered story.

  4. Oops- Sophia, beautiful!

Thoughts?