On Creation, Loss, and the Things We Don’t Say to Each Other

for mom

The yarn was the color of vanilla ice cream.

Usually my eye is drawn to vivid color, the brighter and gaudier the better. I told someone recently that my general aesthetic is “insane hippie,” and the truth is I like things just this side of tacky. Give me variegated, give me self-striping, saturate me with all the colors of the rainbow and then some. Give me chocolate and hot fudge with rainbow sprinkles on top.

But today, this ball of plain, cream-colored cotton yarn in the sale bin at Michaels was calling my name. I squished it in my fist. A lightweight summer shawl—that’s what I would make with it. It is so astonishingly, offensively hot in Tennessee in the summertime, hotter than the devil’s own butthole as I’ve been known to say. But because everyone blasts the air conditioning in their businesses and homes, I am always cold, even in July. Something to wrap around myself indoors to knock the artificial chill off, that was just what I needed to make.

Yarn in hand, I strolled down every aisle, brushing my fingers against bolts of fabric, eyeing neon T-shirts and puff paint, sequins and beads and jewelry-making tools, papier-mâché birdhouses—three-dimensional blank canvases waiting to be decorated.

It happened among the rows and rows of silk flowers, arranged in tiers by color—that was always her favorite aisle. As I stood there, mesmerized by how many hues fake flowers could come in, I suddenly couldn’t breathe. A ghost had punched me in the gut, knocking the wind out of me. Tears sprang to my eyes but didn’t fall, as if they were holding their breath too.

Those shelves of flowers became a time machine. I was no longer thirty-seven but seven, skipping up and down craft store aisles, and she was there, strolling along patiently after me, waiting to see what I would pick out for us to make together that day. Her twinkling blue eyes sparkled with some shared secret mischief, the lines that streamed out from their corners sinking into well-worn grooves as her face crinkled up in a smile.

The time machine then skipped ahead, right past me, to an impossible future as my grandmother’s face became that of my mother, trailing her own grandchild down those aisles, collecting supplies for a day of creating—a grandchild who did not, would not, could not exist. The precise fact of that absence crashed into me, a tidal wave of lost potential: that I had not been able to make someone who would get to be loved by my mother the way that I had been loved by hers.

It’s the only time I ever really, truly lost my composure in the aftermath of the miscarriage—that single burning moment in the middle of Michaels. It felt like drowning.

When my breath returned to me back in the car, I was surprised to find myself there. I don’t remember making it to the parking lot. I was even more surprised to look down and see a plastic bag in my lap, containing a sales receipt and two balls of vanilla ice cream–colored yarn.

In one of my religious tradition’s creation narratives, the Creator sculpts a human out of dirt and places that human in a lush garden. Then the creator makes animals out of that same dirt and parades them before this earth critter “to see what he would call them” (Gen. 2:19 NRSV). I have always been struck by the divine curiosity in this process, the creator laying down any personal agenda and handing the creature the reins. “What shall we call this one?” I imagine God asking. “And this one? And this one?”

“What are we going to make today?” my grandmother was constantly inviting us. Welcome to our shared work, our shared world, inside the cozy orbit of this kitchen table, this galaxy of splattered paint droplets and rogue biscuit crumbs. What will come out of you? Let’s find out. Let there be . . . .

She had crayons and paintbrushes in her grandkids’ hands from the moment we could hold our own heads up. She delighted in getting dirty, was forever outside in the Alabama humidity letting us help her plant things and play in the garden, mixing up what she called “good dirt”— the kind of soil and compost combination that reliably makes plants grow, whether hardy, spunky pansies or finicky tomato vines. She believed, deep in her bones, that this earth and everything in it was good, including and especially the good dirt that grounds our lives. (The lone exception to this was squirrels. She did not think the squirrels that terrorized her garden were part of God’s good creation. A wicked, merciless loathing possessed her when she beheld one, and, reader, she drowned them. But that’s another story.)

We called God him and Father in church, but I was always listening with Mimi’s face in front of me and her warm presence beside me (producing butterscotch and cinnamon candies from her bottomless pockets, to keep me quiet during the sermon). My creation story is Mimi handing me a spade, a paintbrush, a spatula, and saying, “Here, you do it now,” asking me what we were going to make together. Inviting me to invent the world.

“You can’t be just a little bit pregnant,” people often joke cheerfully. But oh yes, you can. You can be such a very little bit pregnant that you’re throwing up your cereal on the same morning the ultrasound technician looks at you sadly but won’t say why. You can be such a little bit pregnant that while you’re still kind of pregnant, you’re pregnant with something that is dead—but before they can schedule the surgery to scrape the death out of you, you’re still meticulously following the rules until it occurs to you that maybe you don’t have to anymore. “Can I have a beer now?” you might text your doctor, and the question will sound so absurd to you that you are laughing instead of crying when she texts you back. Yes, of course. You don’t have to follow the rules anymore.

Mimi was a knitter too. I didn’t know that until the last year of her life. She just decided one day, decades ago, that she wanted to learn. She took classes, bought all the supplies, and, by all accounts, knitted furiously for a few years. Her kids started calling her Knitwit. Then, just as abruptly as it had started, the mania that had possessed her passed and she quit. We never talked about it until her soft, veiny hands were too arthritic to hold needles, even if she had still wanted to. We never got to knit together. I wonder if I’ll quit someday too.

Nitwit (n.): a person with little intelligence (a nothing-wit, someone who is witless). “Nit” can also refer to the eggs of a louse. Someone with louse egg–sized brains. An insult.

Or maybe just someone who knows how to pay careful attention to small things.

On my mother’s side of the family, I am the only granddaughter in a small but mighty sea of grandsons, and I spent my childhood and young adulthood trying to scramble out from under the weight of what that meant, the suffocating mold of white Southern domestic femininity. I was forever feebly defining myself by way of negation, my own defiant little via negativa: I do not play with dolls. I do not sew. I do not cook. I do not wear pink. I do not like flowers. No, I do not need to register for china or a gravy boat or a KitchenAid mixer, thank you very much—I am a feminist,and I am going to use cuss words and go to grad school,and I am going to have a career and tattoos.

This apophatic approach may work just fine for describing deities, but I found it somewhat less effective in the process of becoming myself. Creatio ex nihilo may be all well and good for creating the universe, but I needed some substance out of which to create an actual personality. It turns out, to my great consternation, I in fact do like to cook, and I do sometimes wear pink, and I do use my damn KitchenAid mixer. Those things can be true, I realized, and I could still be a feminist and get tattoos—even tattoos of flowers!—and go to grad school. Making a self is messy.

I needed to unpack, to dismantle, to distance, to deconstruct—yes. To strip myself of so much of what was handed down to me as truth and then figure out what was truer. But this one shining thing I never stopped clinging to: the gift of creativity, of nonjudgmental wonder in the face of raw materials and a wide-open Saturday afternoon. That pure goodness was Mimi’s gift to her children and grandchildren. I have a long list of things I never want to pass down to another generation, but that is the thread I am determined to leave intact, unbroken.

She died on a Friday. We buried her the next Tuesday—a quick turnaround, simple, no-fuss, just like her. All of her children, all of her grandchildren, and most of her great-grandchildren were there to return her to the good dirt.

In the year that unfolded between my miscarriage and her death, I kept thinking about the four-generation photograph of my grandfather, my uncle, my cousin, and my cousin’s infant son. Every month I would think: if my body really gets a move on, maybe Mimi will live long enough for us to take a picture like that. But the blood would always come instead.

I don’t have regrets about my choices, about the timing. I want to be very clear about that fact. This is not a story about how I wish I had tried to become a mother sooner. There can be emptiness without regret. There can be loss that just is.

I bought Olay Original Beauty Fluid, the kind in the pale pink bottle, the kind that’s been around for sixty years, so that my face would smell like hers.

Mimi had a miscarriage too, I learned from my mother long ago. The thing my mother remembers about it is that when Mimi came home from the hospital afterward, my mom asked her mom if she was OK, and Mimi only said, “We are never going to talk about this again.” And they didn’t.

I never, not even after my own loss, asked her about it, valiantly bearing the “we are never going to talk about this” flag into a whole new generation. I should have asked her how it felt and what they did to her at the hospital in those years right before Roe. I sit here in the weeks right after Roe has been snatched away from us, staring back at her in a fifty-year-thick mirror, wondering whether hope and terror were constantly at war within her like they are in me, whether she was scared like I am scared—of being pregnant, of not being pregnant, of what they’ll do to me at the hospital if something goes wrong again, or, rather, of what they won’t do now.

“You can’t be just a little bit pregnant.” But I bet Mimi knew that you could, even as she laughed along with the joke.

I should have asked her how she kept going even through the sucking mud of helpless grief, if it was the creating that sustained her. If that brief flame of obsession with knitting might have been the thing that helped her keep getting out of bed.

If, because she could not knit another someone together in her womb, she knit things together outside of it instead.

I’m seeing a physical therapist for a mysterious wrist injury I don’t remember sustaining. I keep telling people it’s probably from yoga. But I am secretly quite certain it’s from knitting. I’ve been knitting with gusto lately.

I have Mimi’s old knitting needles, an entire box of them. My aunt found them and sent them to me, along with a whole mess of leftover yarn, skeins and skeins purchased in various fits of inspiration and then left unused. Physical manifestations of a chronic optimism, that there would be time and motivation to make something out of it all. So I am picking up that dangling thread and making the most delightful, chaotic eyesore of a sweater, my very own coat of many colors, marled stripes of every single hue in that pile. The colors are calling my name again. I won’t need a sweater for a few months—we are once again in devil’s butthole season here—but I can’t make myself stop. As I keep adding new shades to it, I am reminded powerfully of the vibrant flower aisle in Michaels. I think Mimi would approve.

“Mimi’s little hippie,” she always called me.

“Knitwit,” I now whisper to myself, and to her, as I wrap my vanilla shawl a little tighter around my shoulders and pick up the needles again.