The mohair shawl

November 17, 2011 at 12:36 pm | Posted in Very Long Blogs | 1 Comment
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I haven’t written for a long time. So I promised myself I would use the old writing exercise of starting with whatever my eyes fell upon. I am sitting in Barker Hall, listening to Rachel’s weekly orchestra rehearsal, surrounded by my stuff: the bag holding our dinners and water bottles, my pack, my purse, two down jackets (it is supposed to snow tonight as we drive home and it’s COLD) and all my winter weather accessories. So what is the lucky theme for the evening and today’s blog post subject? Drum roll! A dollop of suspense. And the winner is…

My SCARF!

It’s nothing special, actually. I got it two or three years ago when Sierra Trading Post ran one of its specials (this occurs almost daily, but somehow it always feels like an extra bargain – call me a sucker). It is half silk, half cashmere, hence the key word: warm. But also another key, yet less desirable word: itchy. Around my neck. What makes me continue to wear it is its versatility, and of course the previously mentioned and most important quality. It is a thin and pleasantly drapey woven fabric, and though I think of it as a scarf, it actually has the dimensions of a shawl. I have worn it in many a chilly room over the past two winters, around my neck, around my shoulders and torso, or over my legs as a lap blanket.

Pause buttons “on”. Please do not worry. I am already as bored as you are. Let me take this opportunity to acknowledge my gratitude to you for having enough faith in me to have hung in this far! Let me also tell you that the reason I chose this topic was twofold. Number one, as a writer, I wanted to keep the bargain I had made with myself, and literally the place my glance landed was on the fringe of said scarf. Number two, and from here on, more relevantly, the instant I contemplated the subject of “scarf”, my mind jumped to a significant shawl from my early twenties, a gift from a significant friend, and amazingly, almost a twin to a gift from a different friend the same year.

It was back in the years when I was still oblivious to being Jewish and was celebrating Christmas. Most importantly, I was enjoying the holiday in a new way because I was earning enough money to buy some nice presents for people. I don’t know which was the more fun – the selection process, proudly spending my own hard-earned money, or actually handing each over to its intended recipient. And of course, I was on the receiving end at the same time.

This particular year – I must have been nineteen or in my early twenties – I don’t remember much aside from these two gifts. As I said before, the shawls were almost identical. Both were made of mohair. One is a little on the orange side of red, and the other leans more toward the fuchsia side. The pinker one was woven, and sold in an artisan collection. The rust one was also handmade, but by my friend herself, crocheted, I think.

One interesting detail is that up until then, I had never, ever worn a shawl, not once in my entire life. When I opened the first (I do not recall in what order they came to me), I remember being surprised by it. Of course I expressed my thanks (and I hope I was gracious.) But somewhere in there I remember a twinge of discomfort. Something on the order of “Oh! Does this go with who I am?” There was a lick of fear being fanned as I laid eyes on this gift, as if I was being asked, invited almost, to explore a new flavor of personality within myself. I had a vague image of the kind of person who would wear a shawl, and I did not think of myself as that kind of a person.

I was able to put these thoughts aside until the second friend presented me with the second, eerily similar gift. Let us hope that I was just as polite, just as gracious in my thanks. But now you know that I was socked with a second dose of this discomfiting stirring. Was my understanding of myself somehow askew? “This is not who I am!” I wanted to announce, as not just one, but two of my close friends chose to give me the same uncharacteristic, lovely, and somehow intimate gift.

As I was wont to do back then, I chose the rigid and narrow way. I put the shawls away and never wore them. I was about to write “and never touched them” but that would not be accurate. I did touch them. Every so often I would pull one or the other – or both – off the shelf and say to myself, “So-and-so GAVE this to me.” It is difficult to express to you all the meaning in that phrase. What I can tell you is that it meant a great deal to me that both friends went out of their way to pick out/hand-make this shawl. I felt somehow caressed or cared for by both friends. Even if I never wore either one, I felt warmer, as if I understood that both friends could see something in me that needed the warmth, the holding, and the beauty.

It was my friend Mary Jean who had crocheted the burnt orange, using a variegated yarn with mohair and maybe some other fibers spun together. We had first met when we were nine years old, in a beginning violin class in a summer music program. Mary was learning to play not only the violin but the flute as well, a fact which impressed all of us no end. I’m not sure how she worked out the logistics of attending both classes, and I do believe that eventually flute won out. I had not known Mary before, but my best friend from school knew her from church, which made her all the more significant to me (even if the dual instruments status hadn’t already won my admiration.)

Mary and I attended different elementary schools, went on to attend different junior high schools, and continued to run into each other at summer music events. We came together in high school and though we had some of the same friends and occasionally hung out in the same crowd, we were headed in different directions. Mary was a gifted art student, and I was continuing along a musical path. She must have been in the audience for some of my shows with my band, as I know she enjoyed my music. (And by the way, it was one of my bandmates who was later to give me the other shawl.) But all through those years we were not close friends.

Finally, after my band had split up and we were both college students, Mary and I both got a job at the same restaurant. We started off bussing tables, being too young at first to wait tables in a place that served liquor. We both served as hostesses, greeting customers and seating them at their tables, later we both trained as cashiers, and then, once twenty-one, we continued up the ranks into waitress and cocktail waitress, where the real money was.

I want to stop here to make something clear. Lest it seem that I am headed in the direction of romanticizing an old friendship, I should inform you that in many ways Mary Jean drove me crazy. We became roommates for some period of time, I can’t remember how long, and I thought I would end up doing something mean, she was so annoying so often. She would greet me every single time with great flourish and waving arms, crying delightedly, “Carla, Carla!” Never, never did she say my name once. (Look, now she’s even got me doing it, just thinking about her.) I was a moody person back then, and her effusiveness made me dizzy, and I do not mean that in a good way.

But in some ways she was so very good for dark, moody, lost me. I remember one day we went to the big city together, 45 minutes away, and visited, among other places, the art museum. I had never quite seen art the way she helped me see it that day. And for our excursion I borrowed a piece of clothing from her, a skirt, that somehow made me feel beautiful in a way I had never before felt. Fashionable, attractive, and graceful. I suddenly realized I could feel like that all the time if I could dress – and see myself – with a little more flair. As I just now wrote that, it makes me wonder if that was before or after I had received the shawl from her.

We also talked occasionally, that kind of girlfriend talk that just happens if you are there for the right kind of opening in the right kind of moment. She was caring and loving, and there was an air of a certain kind of wistful sweetness all through her that almost made you want to cry. She was quite beautiful. And her artwork was beautiful, with a flourish. You could almost get drunk on Mary Jean. And then you got sobered back up by the quirks that could drive you to distraction.

She ended up marrying someone I didn’t know well, a waiter at the restaurant where we worked. We drifted apart. I don’t know how long they remained married, and then they ended up divorcing. A few years passed. The next time I saw her was at our tenth high school reunion, so we were both 28.

She arrived on the arm of a new husband named Scott, a sweetheart of a guy. And with some news. She took me aside to tell me that she had spent the last year battling lung cancer. She had been sick in the winter, thought it was bronchitis since that was going around until one night she had trouble breathing and began to cough up blood. Scott took her to the ER. She told me that she spent that night in the hospital certain that she would die before morning. But she didn’t. Then came months of treatment. Her hair, which looked like regular Mary to me, was gone – this was a wig. It was good news for the time being, as she was in remission. She and Scott were living in California, and had come to town just for the reunion.

For the next year we continued to stay in touch, through letters and an occasional phone call. The cancer returned. She returned to chemo, which sickened and weakened her. It was her artwork that motivated her to get out of bed some days, and she poured herself into it, as much of herself as there was left. I wrote to her late that winter to tell her that I was going to be driving to California in June. One morning in early spring the phone rang. It was Mary.

“When are you coming?” she asked. I gave her the exact date. She hesitated. “I don’t know if I’ll still be here.” My mind spun. Here? Where was she planning to go? It took a moment for the meaning of her words to sink in. We talked for a few more minutes, though I have no recollection of what we said in that part of the conversation, and then she told me she needed to hang up so she could rest. Breathing took immense effort.

At the end of phone conversations, there are all the normal ways of saying good-by, but suddenly none of them seemed adequate. I was 29 or 30 years old and had never had to deal with anything like this before. “Mary,” I said, “I don’t know what to say.”

“I know. And it’s okay.”

And it was. Suddenly annoying and crazy Mary was the wisest person in the world, and it was safe to be exactly how I was in that moment. I felt a great sense of comfort in the face of such utterly cracked-open-honest permission to admit my helplessness. The conversation closed and I hung up the phone, feeling strangely calm. One minute later the phone rang again. “Carla? I believe I might still be here. Call when you get close.”

The night before I was to arrive, I called her number from my motel room. Her husband answered. He spoke to me as if I already knew, and once again my mind reeled until I grasped the meaning of his words. She had urged him to go for a walk the day before. He left her with the hospice caretaker, and while he was out, she was able to let go. The hospice worker told him that often a person cannot bear to give up while surrounded by loved ones, an understanding that offered comfort to him when he came back and was flooded with remorse for having abandoned her. As he talked, I had the sense that he just needed to tell it all to someone, and I was certainly glad to be that someone. But I was also filled with regret that I had come that close to seeing her and then missed by only two days.

Two or three winters ago, some 35 years after Mary crocheted me the shawl, I took it from my closet shelf and put it on. After that, on various occasions, I rotated the other one into my wardrobe, and began to let the Sierra Trading Post scarf slip down around my shoulders. I even added a fourth to my collection, imported from Spain (purchased at a huge bargain from STP.) I don’t know what possessed me, or why, but it suddenly felt just right to wrap myself in the folds of a shawl. I now dress with more of a flair, and find that I like feeling fashionable and attractive. I can still hear Mary’s voice calling me, “Carla, Carla!” These many years later, it makes me laugh instead of gritting my teeth. I can still see her smile. And I am forever grateful for each of the gifts that she gave me, grateful that her life touched mine, and especially grateful for that moment of raw and perfect honesty on the phone, and how deeply connected I felt to her in that crystallized point of time. It is my hope that I can offer that kind of safety and some touch of beauty and sweetness to my friends, at least occasionally, and that I can be honest and true with my fellows in the grittiest, most basic way, when it really counts.  Thank you, thank you, Mary Jean.

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  1. A good lead in to Thanksgiving. The Tikkun weekend got me thinking about what sort of people my parents were when they weren’t being my parents and made me thankful for the character traits that I like instead of focusing on the warped ones. Remembering good friends (or parents) has to be a beginning for counting our other blessings.


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