In 2015 when I began work on the second in a series of afghans, the purpose of which was to commemorate the lives of my grandmothers, I had no idea that the second project would take me more than three years to finish, but here I am getting ready for the 2018 North Carolina State Fair and working on the same project I began in August of 2015.
My grandmothers never met — my paternal grandmother, Nora Buchta Stahlhut, died of metastastic cancer in June of 1948. Just two years earlier my maternal grandmother, Violet Benjamin was widowed for a third and final time when my grandfather, Mr. Benjamin as I have learned to think of him, died — and while they never met, my grandmothers were bound together by this sad and terrible truth: both of their fathers deliberately thwarted their efforts to get an education.
In the case of my Grandmother Violet, or Nana as I called her, she was punished for her work ethic. Her older, less industrious sister was allowed to go to school where she learned to read and write while my grandmother, at the age of twelve, stayed and worked at her father’s boarding house emptying chamberpots and helping tend to the boarders.
Nana’s much younger sister, Ida, was a quick study and learned from my Nana’s misfortune; when their father attempted to keep Ida home from school to work, she turned him into a Los Angeles County truant officer, and my great grandfather was forced by the law to do the right thing.
The case of my grandmother Nora was different, but the results were similarly cruel. She had been allowed to go to school, but only until the eighth grade. As was the custom of the time and place where she grew up, she was fluent in both German and English, German being the language spoken at home and the church she attended. As was also the custom, when her father forbade her from attending high school, she had no recourse. She lived in her father’s home, doing his bidding until she married my grandfather. Her dream of going to school until the ninth grade which would have made her eligible to study nursing, was prevented by her father.
It is hard for me to imagine this world both my grandmothers inhabited. One where their fathers saw them as a means to their own ends. Men who were willing to enrich themselves at the expense of their daughters’ education, and while it may have been socially acceptable at the time, it was not something they did to their sons.
This makes it difficult for me to respect or love these men without whom I would not exist. Men who deliberately misused their daughters to line their own pockets and further their own dreams.
And I suppose this is what lies at the crux of my narrative afghans that are meant to honor the lives of my grandmothers. I want to give their lives meaning, meaning that their fathers denied.
Because I knew my maternal grandmother, the piece honoring her life was more straight forward. The afghan honoring my paternal grandmother, however, has been more difficult to design and create. Instead of being about her and my experiences with her, it is instead about the documents and objects that remain of a life cut short and dreams denied. How, I am always asking myself, do I honor this woman I never met, but without whom I would not exist?
Over the course of the past three summers, that is a question I have explored, and as I begin my fourth summer of working on this piece, I don’t know that I will get any answers, but I will have at least documented her life.
Today, determined to get this piece finished, I decided that the first order of business was to take a complete inventory of what needed to be done.
I got out the eight outer panels for inspection. Now that I don’t live in a house with a loft or fenced front porch with a rail I can stand on, photographing a large piece is more of a challenge. When all was said and done, this was the best I was able to do with the equipment I did (and did not) have:
I looked it over and found that all the necessary seams are joined, the border is crocheted and the many ends are woven in and trimmed.
I was ready to move forward, so I got out the center panel. It is not nearly as tidy, but I am closer to done than I remembered:
That is until I looked at it up close. While there are some areas of the center panel that are tricked out to my satisfaction:
there are others that are, to my mind, a tad anemic. This, I realize, is why the piece didn’t get finished last year — nothing about this feels complete to me until it is over the top, with everything decorated to within an inch of its life, so while something like this might look done to someone else:
to me, it is just a start, and so it is here where I will pick up my crochet hook and my yarn needles and continue moving forward, one stitch at a time.