Roberta Branca

Finding peace within by making peace outside

In Friendship, Private Musings Gone Public on December 26, 2012 at 8:28 am

This year has been one of making peace and refurbishing broken bonds. I have been making connections with people I had cut myself off from, or been cut off from, for decades. This Christmas season, I spoke by phone with an old friend who I’d feuded with years ago. First came the unbidden realization that I wanted to connect with this person. The angst about whether they would want to talk to me, or that the conversation might be difficult or awkward, simply was relieved from me. Somehow, I found the will to accept whatever consequences came from reaching out.

If this person, who was very dear and very close to me through our difficult adolescence, had chosen not to talk to me or had met my overture with silence, I was at peace with that. If they responded with acceptance and a mutual desire to renew our friendship, so much the better. But I held no preconceived expectations and it made all the difference. The words I needed just came to me as we talked; I had no plans ahead of time.

The issues that once divided us were substantive and real, but I can see now that my responses to them at the time lacked compassion and love, and respect for our friendship. Ironically what had festered inside me for a long time leading up to our final “break up” was the sense that the special bonds of our friendship were weakened by events that now seem like a normal part of growing up and breaking away. Yet when I was put to the true test, I did not factor that special relationship into my calculated decisions. I did not look at the full picture of the place my friend was in emotionally, even when she pleaded with me to do so. I responded with a 20-year temper tantrum, yet she responded to my overture with simple joy. What a blessing.

This morning I feel that I have washed myself clean of this cluttered past, like I can stop punishing myself in small ways and take care of me and connect to the world without falling apart. More importantly, I have the capacity to be a friend on whatever terms are available between us and I don’t need to direct those terms or have a road map handed to me.

This friend and I have decided on a specific form of contact: snail mail! I will send her a card so that she will have my return address, and the card will have my email address so that she can send me her email address — this was the product of a spontaneous plan that precluded having time to simply exchange addresses over the phone. I think the reality is that we were simply making a commitment to a “step two” in our contact chain.

Since I am airing my private affairs in public, I cannot let an opportunity pass to portray how bullying in our culture played a role in this friendship. We have many things in common: quiet natures, reading, writing — we would have found each other’s friendship regardless of our social or familial situations. But it has to be said that bullying from some peers also bound us together, sometimes too tightly for either of us to breathe. My friend and others in our circle recognized before I did the need to branch out to make connections separate from each other; as we grew up and our peers did the same, each of us found some connections that were the products of our own efforts rather than our group. I told myself at the time that I understood and respected this new reality, but in truth I rebelled in a vengeful way. I once believed that we were “destined” to be friends forever. The truth is the friendship is and was a garden and it was up to me to tend it, guard over it, and make it ¬†a safe place to return to when the day’s travels were over.

Today I have cleared away the frost from that garden to find that my friend has been doing the same; we may have been hoeing and plowing in separate patches of the field, but the seeds are in place for wild flowers to grow.

Algebra and Knitting

In Knitting, Support on October 21, 2011 at 8:40 am

I took Algebra for the first time in 7th grade. I got a zero on the first test. So my mother sat down with me and watched as I reworked a few of the problems on the test. She stopped me during the first problem and asked, “Where did you put the N?” (Or X, or whatever the letter was. It’s unnatural to mix numbers and letters.)

“I don’t need it until the end, so I took it out.”

It seems I misconstrued a shortcut the teacher taught us. I don’t remember now what the shortcut was but after that I never questioned the unholy alliance between numbers and letters.

It took me three tries to pass Algebra, but eventually I got the concepts and the application. I had to work hard on the details, though, checking my work carefully, working through problems more slowly. The year I finally passed Algebra was the year I had a friend tutor me just to make sure I wasn’t inadvertently inventing any new “shortcuts” as I learned new concepts.

Knitting is a lot like Algebra for me. In fact, it turns out you have to do a fair amount of math if you want your project to turn out right.

I’m not at a point of following a pattern yet. I’m knitting a scarf using a simple two-row repeat: one row of knitting, and a second row of Knit-4, Pearl-4.

I’ve unravelled my work three times now, and my wool/mohair single strand yarn is starting to get ratty. But I persevere. And along the way, I’ve sought the help of other knitters. Couldn’t do it without them.

I learned the basic knit stitch, and later the purl stitch, from my sig-other’s mom Sandy. I supplemented this with some book-learning and an attempt to fly on my own with simple patterns. Sandy re-taught me everything about three times. The very last time was because she noticed I was working the wrong side of each stitch. Knitting backwards. It was striking to both of us, because in spite of this I happen to knit a very even stitch. Or so I’m told.

Then there’s Kristen, my college roommate who lives on the West Coast. We follow each other faithfully on Facebook and talk on the phone about once a month. She’s shared with me her knitting stories, like how she first learned to knit from a friend who was dying of cancer. At the friend’s funeral, most of the people wore a scarf this friend had knitted. True to her outgoing nature, Kristen has emphasized the importance of socializing with other knitters. She says knitters are forgiving of mistakes, and it never hurts to ask for help. She has provided me with a list of knitting websites as well.

My friend Elizabeth in Minnesota is a champion knitter. Literally. She carts a plethora of projects to the state fair every year and wins ribbons. I can email her any time or rely on a well-informed Facebook comment. She pointed me to a knitting social website called Ravelry where I can log every pair of knitting needles I own. If I can find the time.

Then there’s Jennifer, a friend of mine since we were 6 and 8 years old. Today we’re two middle-aged broads trying to pick and choose what traits and habits we inherit from our mothers — including knitting. It was Jen who first gave me the idea of learning to knit. I inherited my mother’s sewing notions, including 25 or so pairs of knitting needles. When Jen read this in one of my previous blog posts, she immediately offered to teach me how to knit. Jen lives 45 minutes away, and is the mother of a teenager and pre-teen. Sandy only lives 20 minutes away and is retired.

So I learned the basics from Sandy and practiced on my own, in private, until I felt confident enough to try knitting in public. I arranged to meet Jen for coffee, and we both brought our yarn projects. Jen finished off one crocheted potholder and started a new one in the space of about an hour and a half.

I proudly pulled out my purple wool/mohair scarf project and showed Jen the stitching. From afar, she said it looked like it was too tight. I held it out across the table so she could examine it further, and she said, “Nope, it’s fine. You don’t need my help.”

I confided my fiasco with the backwards knitting, and admitted that I was worried I was doing the same thing with my purling. I told her what I was doing, and asked if I should be doing it differently. She said it sounded like I was doing fine, then she demonstrated a couple purl stitches for me so I could be sure.

Then I pulled out my “cheat sheet,” an index card on which I write down which row I should start on when I pick up my work. She titled her head and looked at me quizzically. “You haven’t learned how to tell by looking at it yet?” She then explained how one stitch is flat, and the other is bumpy, and I’ve already forgotten what she said.

Nonetheless, since that day I’ve practiced comparing one set of four stitches to the next set of four, so I can understand how knit-purl stitches look compared to a row of knit stitches. And, after perusing a “knitting dictionary” and reading instructions on how to pick up stitches, I’ve added a crochet needle to my project kit and I now patiently pick up stitches I drop. The overall project still has rough spots. For one thing, I’ve noted that the stockinette stitching that comes from knit-purl alternations doesn’t show through evenly. Somewhere along the way, I repeated rows of knitting when I should have done some purling.

The day after meeting Jen for coffee, I sat at the beach, pulled out my knitting, and examined the work I’d done while talking. I found a lot of dropped stitches so I unravelled a few rows. It was then I decided to teach myself how to pick up stitches.

A few days after meeting with Jen, she sent me a package. A beautifully worked potholder with a note: “For you!” It made me glow for days.

Twelve Days Without a Mother

In Family, Private Musings Gone Public on March 23, 2011 at 5:42 am

In the twelve days since my mother died, I have learned that my mother was greater than just the sum of her parts. She wasn’t simply a mother of eight children; she was a mother eight times over, playing a unique role in the lives of each of us whom she gave birth to.

This revelation began to dawn on me when my father asked me to write a memorial booklet for the funeral, containing memories from each of the eight siblings. It grew to include most of the grandchildren, and all of the husbands, wives and partners. I learned many things I hadn’t known. She made Easter outfits and other clothing for the older children. Like me, she loved Janis Joplin. Yet she died without either of us knowing we both admired the same artist. She gave my sister her first set of oil paints.

The revelations continued as we all gathered to hear her final wishes. First, there was The Secret. We all knew there was something in my mother’s family past that she did not want to talk about. I began to get an inkling about it years ago when a family friend with a penchant for genealogy “discovered” that my mother’s father had been married before and had children from that first marriage. I knew just from the look on my mother’s face when he told her that this wasn’t new information to her. I also knew without asking that she was not going to talk about it.

So over the years I played a game with myself: what was The Secret? Had her mother and father had an affair? Had her father gone back to his first wife, or had he really died when she was ten? Finally, my father felt we could all handle the truth: her father had never divorced his first wife, and her parents had never been married but had lived happily for ten short years before her father killed himself during the Great Depression.

After this revelation it was time to decide, as a group, how to dispense with all the possessions my mother had brought into the marriage and many others she’d acquired along the way. I learned as much about my father as my mother in this process, because it soon became clear that there is a stark difference between what my mother is willing to save and what my father is willing to keep around in what is now his home.

Ironically I have become the keeper of my mother’s sewing machine, sewing baskets, and all the sewing notions. I say ironic because I don’t exactly sew myself. I mend things. Sometimes I mend the same garment four or five times before finally releasing it from my misery. So I can never acquire too much thread, needles, and buttons. I have a book called Sewing For Dummies that I have consulted more than once to find just the right stitch for a new mending job.

If my brother hadn’t told me my mother used to make clothes for the children I would have completely misunderstood the wealth of sewing equipment I inherited. While I was growing up, my mother earned a college degree at the age of 49; worked as a substitute teacher, an Avon salesperson, and a secretary. She took us to plays and concerts and the beaches on Cape Cod. She did not sew, although she did teach me how to use a sewing machine. I now know that her lack of sewing activity was due only to the amount of time devoted to doing everything else. By the time she retired, arthritis was gripping her hands. It was only when I started sorting through her sewing basket that I understood that she was giving something up by not sewing.

At least 25 pairs of knitting needles. Lace basting fabric in pastel hues, jewel tones, and earth tones. A wooden tool for pressing creases. A metal board with magnetic tape stuck to it. Boxes and bags of ¬†buttons. The button collection I can understand; you have to buy a set of 20 randomly-matched buttons just to find one that you can use. You don’t part with buttons without a fight.

It took me a couple of hours to go through each item in the three-tiered, double-sided sewing basket. During that time, I thought about how my sister had told me that she serviced the sewing machine six years earlier at my mother’s request. My father joked at the time that my mother would never use the machine, and when I heard the story I thought my mother was like me. Prone to starting things without finishing them. I think now that there was more to it than that. As I sorted through the sewing collection, I thought of a woman who made suits for her children, collected seam-basting fabrics, and acquired exotic wooden implements for making creases. I think my mother had the sewing machine serviced with every intention of going back to her projects, but her arthritis had other ideas.

I think about this seamstress-mother as I twirl a silver ring with rhinestone “diamonds” around and around on my finger. I think about the woman who collected so much jewelry that her three daughters grew bleary-eyed trying to sort through it all on one too-short afternoon. I think about what different people my parents are and were. My mother saving everything from sewing notions down to a Red Cross certification card my brother earned when he was twelve. My father urging us to take everything away, from that Red Cross card to framed pictures of ourselves.

My parents argued a lot over things. I used to think it was just marriage-fatigue, but in some ways it was the essence of their differences. My father wasn’t just griping about clutter; he really, really doesn’t like clutter. My mother wasn’t just carping about discarded bits and bobs out of routine; she really, really, needed to know the things she valued were somewhere safe even if it was hard for others to see the value.

During the last twelve days, I have thought a lot about my mother’s love of color, her loud and hearty laugh, and the deep sense of shame that seemed to simmer beneath the surface in every interaction. Now that I have learned the likely source of that shame — her unmarried parents — I am both saddened and awed by the burden she kept to herself in an age where most people probably wouldn’t give two hoots who her parents were or what they did or didn’t do.

As the days turn into months and years, I know I will have many more insights about my mother and her relationship to her. It seems like there could never have been enough time to truly know my mother in the way she deserved to be known. But perhaps it is not too late to learn a few things about myself.