I have a thing for biographies. I just can’t get enough. Books, movies, television specials, historical documentaries…anything that unrolls the story of a person’s life, like a long rug in an even longer hallway. There is something so inspiring about a life’s twists and turns, victories and failures, lessons learned and legacies bestowed, no matter how great or how small those phases may have been, and no matter how insignificant or significant a person may feel their life’s journey is or was. To me, every story has significance. And the beauty is that every person has a story to tell…it’s a common foothold for the human race.
It reminds me of occasions where my husband and I have met other couples for the first time, either at a dinner party or event. Inevitably – after introductions, handshakes and first sentences – someone will ask, “And how did you two meet?” I love that moment, but not necessarily for the chance to share my own story. Instead to watch how a person’s eyes dance when they unroll a little bit of their story and retrace footsteps. It’s a vulnerable position to be the storyteller, but as I’ve learned about vulnerability over the years, can be a great comfort to others. It illuminates what is good and true and real.
One of my most cherished memories as a teenager was the month my paternal grandmother came to live with our family. She had taken a bad spill and needed full-time care, so my father moved her into our house (and my room) until she recovered. While my sister and I were none-to-pleased about having to bunk together, Grandma Ada was extremely entertaining. And I mean with a capital “E”…she was nothing short of gregarious, even in her fragile state. My sister and I still chuckle at the time she opened up the newspaper to an ad containing a photo of a scantily clad policeman. (I never did find out why there was such an ad in the newspaper…and come to think of it, I never checked to see what kind of newspaper it really was either…hmm.) She promptly yelled out, “He can arrest me any day!” All three of us burst out laughing on the spot. Did I mention she was gregarious? One Sunday, my father had the brilliant idea to sit Grandma Ada down on the living room couch and have her share her life’s story. He set up a tape recorder and we circled around her, listening intently. And her eyes danced the entire time. She unfolded her life bit-by-bit, like a furoshiki cloth. When she felt she had said all she needed to say, we were left with the most precious gift: her story in her words, unfettered by time or circumstance. Perhaps it then I first marveled at a life’s story. It certainly made me appreciate her and all she had experienced. As it turns out, Grandma never did fully recover from her spill and she died shortly thereafter. That time spent with her is now all the more precious, as is the documentation of her life.
When I first started designing totes for my little wearables business, Ma Chère Finery, I happened upon a letter to a pair of sisters from December 31, 1901 in a quaint antiques store in the Pearl District of Downtown Portland. Four meticulously handwritten pages were bundled with an accompanying tattered envelope, addressed to Annie and Blanche in Poland, Maine. I must have stood in the shop marveling at this letter for half-an-hour. I then purchased it and took it home to treasure. It served as a window to the lives of Annie and Blanche, as well as their friend Laura, the writer. In the letter, Laura apologized for not writing sooner to acknowledge the lovely photographs the girls had sent her at Christmastime. She proceeded to tell them about her fond memories of them in school and how she hoped to visit them soon, closing with, “I remain – as ever – your sincere friend.” I pondered for some time what to do with this beautiful letter. Should I frame it? (And I still might.) But then it hit me: what if I were to create a tote design around images of the letter and envelope? Eureka! Then others could share in the little story of Annie and Blanche as they went about their daily lives. I scanned the letter and envelope and printed the images onto fabric. Together, along with a photograph of four women dated 1901 that I imagine would have been something similar to those referred to by Laura in her letter, I appliquéd them onto reproduction grain sack fabric and fashioned it all into a tote.
It was the very first item I sold on Etsy, to a lovely woman in Dublin, Ireland. And now each time I recreate the design for a new customer, I think about the significance of Annie and Blanche and the life they lived.
That particular tote also sparked commissioned projects, to commemorate the lives of loved ones. My favorite was a request from my maternal grandmother to create a tote for her sister-in-law, my Great Aunt Eve, on the occasion of her 80th Birthday. It was a surprise, too…even better! After some sleuthing, Grandma emerged from Eve’s house with a fistful of fabulous photos. Two were particularly meaningful and therefore used in the design of tote. The first was a photo of Eve’s father as a chauffer in 1918 driving to pick up a new bride and groom in Portland, Oregon, and the second was of Eve alongside her mother and two brothers one lovely afternoon. Grandma also asked that I include a “touch of Italy” somewhere in the design. Eve’s parents had emigrated from a small town in Southern Italy and were very proud of their Italian heritage. I created a little ribbon medallion festooned with a crest from the Province of Cosenza and three vintage glass buttons from the 1920s. I greatly wish I could have attended the birthday celebration where Great Aunt Eve opened her surprise gift. Mom and Grandma tell me it was quite a bash! According to my mom, once Eve pulled the bag from its wrapping and had a moment to examine it, she began recalling the memories that surrounded the tote's featured photos to the loved ones around her…exactly the response I had hoped for!