Teasing yarn out of fleece


Stuffed into a faux suede box that used to hold Guerlin perfume are some of the letters my mother wrote to me between 1978 and 1993. I put them in this box because it was the right size, it’s pretty and soft, and it seemed a fitting place to store these valuable-to-me-memories. Fitting because fragrance made her happy. So did the packaging. Pretty perfume bottles decorated her bureau, their shifting liquid colours shimmered in the mirror.

Attached to mom, scent lived and breathed. It lived in her closet, too, after she died. It lingers in my amygdala.

Her memory comes to me in the garden where together we lifted heavy headed peonies, showy divas with back-combed high hair and hairspray. It comes when I listen to bees steal the scent from nasturtium trumpets. It pinches me when I squeeze open snapdragons mouths and plunge my nose inside for a whiff of dragon’s breath. In the laundry room – powdered soap, starched sheets, a hot iron. In the kitchen – vanilla laced jam-dot cookies, hot oil deep frying cod. In the bathroom – lifting a powder puff tufted with a tiny pink ribbon, like a single cumulous cloud in a lake blue sky dropping Shalimar talcum after a bath. Clean bath towels, stiff from drying on a clothes line, terry loops lassoing sunshine, releasing it when scratched against my skin. These were the scents of our home.

The box of letters lives tucked behind my favourite books on writing – Steven King, Anne Lamott, Jack Hodgins, William Zinsser. Long after I gave up writing soggy, angst infused poetry at 16 or crafting stories based on vocabulary building lists in grade 6, long before a tick-bite infected me with a new writing pathogen, it was my mother who kept writing alive. With several thousand miles between us letters were our conversations and writing them was a regular habit.

Mother, who was a knitter, could spin pages out of nothing, like teasing yarn out of fleece. At the end, her life was a narrow routine, but somehow her tale of eating frozen strawberries from the freezer to make room for the coming summer crop made me feel she was close by and that we could go strawberry picking together to refill her supply. I could see her bending over the freezer, shoving brown paper parcels of pork chops aside, to get the single serving bags out to eat with breakfast, after lunch, and after dinner.

She lives in these letters. We were 21 and 62 when they started; 36 and 77 when they ended, the last one written from a cancer treatment centre on July 19, 1993 when she was halfway through radiation therapy. I read them all last night – every last word. The final letter was signed “I love you very much. I want to go home.”

31 thoughts on “Teasing yarn out of fleece

  1. Cynthia Jobin July 13, 2015 / 6:00 pm

    This brings me to tears, Sue. Letters and letter writing have been among the greatest treasures of my life. You’ve captured it here….so gently, so strong. Thank you.


    • redosue July 13, 2015 / 8:19 pm

      I miss those letter-writing days. I still write to friends but by e-mail. I think it’s the handwriting that makes my mom’s letters keepsakes. Somehow an e-mail message, no matter how heartfelt doesn’t have the same qualities. I didn’t mean to make you cry, Cynthia, but I sure had several “moments” the night I was reading these. I even had a dream about my mother that same night and woke up all verklempt.


      • Cynthia Jobin July 13, 2015 / 9:19 pm

        Love that word verklempt….I think you’re right about the hand-written, especially when it comes to family, or friends close enough to have remained in your archives. Even spookier are voice recordings, once a person has died. I remember once saving a message on voice mail for a long, long time.


  2. Bruce Goodman July 14, 2015 / 12:06 am

    I had a little weep. (No I didn’t – I’m a male). I thought this posting was beautiful. Strangely, my mother gave me a box once: it was every letter I had ever written to her – hundreds and hundreds over the years, every week for nearly 40 years. I have only the one written BY her to me. Thanks Sue for such loveliness… and I learned a new word: amygdala.


    • redosue July 14, 2015 / 12:09 pm

      I’ve been musing over the letters I wrote in response to hers. I wish I had those to make a complete story. Weren’t you a devoted son, Bruce to write every week!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Me Otherwise July 14, 2015 / 1:20 am

    WOW…. letters… that existed way back are always the most treasured memories…


    • redosue July 14, 2015 / 12:10 pm

      They sure are treasured. Reading them is almost like having her with me.

      Liked by 1 person

    • redosue July 14, 2015 / 12:11 pm

      As someone who is an unrepentant purger of “stuff”, it’s a miracle i have these letters!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Rosanna July 14, 2015 / 11:13 am

    I can feel your pain, Sue. This is so beautifully written, so poignant, bitter sweet.I want to applaud because it is so very well-written, a winner. But more than that, I just want to bow with you in honoring your mother, the life she lived and the legacy she left behind.


    • redosue July 14, 2015 / 12:12 pm

      Thanks, Rosanna. I still miss her.


      • Rosanna July 15, 2015 / 7:59 am

        Sue, I suppose the missing will never end.


  5. dawnkinster July 14, 2015 / 12:57 pm

    I started to read this on my phone yesterday, in between other things. But I stopped and marked it to save because I thought it deserved a more careful read on a bigger screen. I’m glad I did. Even though it made me cry too.

    For years my mom and I wrote weekly…she lived thousands of miles away too. I learned the letter writing skill from her, she wrote to her own mother once a week, postcards, because they were cheaper, tiny writing to get a week’s worth of news about her four kids into the small space.

    When I was grown up living in my own house I wrote to her every Saturday morning, early, with the dog on my feet, and then the dog and I would walk together out to the mailbox to mail the letter to ‘grandma.’ She wrote back each week too, but I have so few of her letters. After she died unexpectedly at 75 I was cleaning out her desk and I found all my letters to her tied together with a piece of string. I cried and then I brought them home with me.

    In four days it will be 11 years and I miss her still. I don’t think we will ever stop missing our moms. I think that’s OK, it’s a testimony to how much we loved them, and they loved us.

    Liked by 1 person

    • redosue July 15, 2015 / 7:16 pm

      What a beautiful comment, Dawn. Don’t you wish you had the full set of letters – hers AND yours? I can vaguely remember what was going on in my life by my mother’s references but it would be wonderful to see the back and forth. And I agree – missing them is okay. They meant a lot to us and that’s as it should be.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Shelley Page July 14, 2015 / 7:28 pm

    Sue, what a wonderful remembrance, the odors tied up with yarn, living in your amygdala. The writing made me think of Diane Ackerman’s Natural History of the Senses . Have you read it?


    • redosue July 14, 2015 / 8:19 pm

      I haven’t read Diane Ackerman but I’m interested in how memories are triggered by scent. Her book sounds like something I’d read. Thanks, Shelley.


  7. Nancy Lowell July 15, 2015 / 6:30 pm

    Sue, what a lovely and evocative piece. My father, not my mother was the letter writer, but somewhere I’ve lost his letters. How wonderful you still have yours.


    • redosue July 15, 2015 / 7:13 pm

      HI Nancy, As I mentioned to someone in this thread, it’s a miracle that I kept these letters because we live in a tiny house and I regularly purge to keep ahead of the wave of “stuff” that accumulates. I re-read them every few years and I have to say, as I age, my compassion for my mother grows. It sucks to get old.


  8. Asha July 16, 2015 / 12:43 am

    Both poignant and beautifully described, this piece was a joy to read. You have such a lovely lilting style.


    • redosue July 16, 2015 / 4:53 pm

      Oh my! I like the idea of having a lilting style. It makes me sound Irish, which is a very fine thing. Thanks so much, Asha!

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Cyn K July 16, 2015 / 10:49 am

    This makes me wish I had saved all the letters from my grandmother.
    I don’t know why I stopped writing letters to others. I can’t blame it on the phone or internet because it seems I’ve simply lost touch altogether. I regret I don’t have letters to hold and smell and treasure as you do.


    • redosue July 16, 2015 / 4:55 pm

      Last year I attempted to pick up the habit, in part to reconnect with old friends I hadn’t heard from. It felt really great to put pen to paper and leak out thoughts slowly rather than the usual speed at which I type. Unfortunately, or fortunately I suppose, everyone e-mailed me back. People are just out of the habit of snail mail I guess.


  10. Megan Ferrell July 16, 2015 / 11:36 am

    I love the scent memories you conjure here, and how true-to-life and true-to-loss they feel. I think we can all relate to something like that with someone we’ve lost–with my dad, it’s been music and sounds that elicit that response.

    That box of letters is such a treasure, and you did a beautiful job showing us why.


    • redosue July 16, 2015 / 4:56 pm

      Yes, music is a memory jog, too. I think we all have songs that instantly transport us to somewhere from long ago. I went through the box and put them all in chronological order (my inner librarian comes out!) and will re-read them again to see what nuggets emerge. Thanks so much for your kind comments, Megan.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Ellen Morris Prewitt July 21, 2015 / 7:40 pm

    Scent takes me quickest back in time, even ones I didn’t realize I associated with a time until I smell it and think, ahhh! Such beautiful sentiments beautifully (“terry loops lassoing sunshine”–just so wonderful) written.


    • redosue July 21, 2015 / 8:39 pm

      Oh, me too, Ellen. I think that’s why scent creeps into so much of my ramblings here. Some scents – like the smell of the ocean – can stop me in my tracks.


  12. jbbluesman September 21, 2016 / 2:00 pm

    My apologies for the late comment Sue I was looking for your separation anxiety piece and couldn’t find it so I went searching and instead came across this beautiful piece I don’t know how I didn’t read it before. Smell, and music are definitely memory triggers for me (as you are aware of). This piece made me sad but it was really beautiful Sue.


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