A long time ago, when I was a much younger woman, I lived in Ypsilanti, Michigan, for a year. During that year, I worked on my MFA in writing and held an assortment of temporary positions to support my schooling habit. One of those positions was as a receptionist at the University of Michigan in a lab known as the “Center for Ultrafast Optical Science.”
When I first began the job, I answered the phone making sure I didn’t skip a single word. “Hello, Center for Ultrafast Optical Science. How may I help you?” I would say to anyone who called.
But eventually, I tired of saying all of those words as much as the callers tired of hearing them, and I began to say what everyone else who answered the phone said: “Ultrafast.”
I am reminded of that today because when I checked Twitter this morning, I saw that the name “Gérard Mourou” was trending. He had been the director of the lab when I worked there, and I wondered what he had done that had been deemed “Twitter worthy.” It turned out that it wasn’t just what he had done, but what he and one of his graduate students had done in 1985, and it was why the name “Donna Strickland” was also trending. Together the two of them had invented something called “chirped pulse amplification” and this morning, they, along with Arthur Ashkin who worked on something else entirely, shared the 2018 Nobel Prize for physics.
What makes the story even more striking is that it was the now Dr. Strickland’s first published scientific paper, which serves as a reminder that when you set out to do something, you don’t always know what the consequences will be.
And that, to a much smaller degree, is where I find myself with my 2018 North Carolina State Fair crochet project. While being more “ultraslow” than “ultrafast,” the project that took me 1,156 days to complete rather than the 72 I had originally allowed, has led me places I didn’t know I was going to go.
Armed with a letter that my grandmother had written shortly before her death in 1948 that outlined the things that were to go to my father, and other artifacts of her life that I had been given along the way, I set out to learn the story of my grandmother’s life by replicating those artifacts in crochet.
I had learned through my searches in the archives of the Edwardsville Intelligencer that my grandmother, Nora Buchta, was an accomplished pianist and played at various functions including a concert on October 25, 1922, at a nearby school house where a chicken supper was being served. I memorialized her musical talent with this crochet piano keyboard:
After I got all of those ends woven in, I got the bright idea to fill in the panel with one-round granny squares, and while I find the resulting panel quite lovely:
it felt as if it took forever to complete, but eventually the keyboard panel was finished, and I moved onto what was destined to be the top center panel the goal of which was to replicate this clock (a wedding gift to my grandparents) in crochet:
I was pleased with my effort:
but was then confronted with the problem of what to appliqué the clock to. Then one afternoon, I casually set the clock on top of the keyboard panel, and noticed that it looked (to my eye) pretty good, and in short order I was working on yet another panel of one of the most labor intensive crochet solutions possible: 196 one-round granny squares, and while I am delighted with the result:
this decision contributed greatly to why I didn’t finish the project in 2015, but it didn’t explain how I managed to not finish it either 2016 or 2017.
While I worked on the piece for a short time after the 2015 deadline had passed, it was eventually time to move onto other projects, and I put the pieces in a plastic bin for safekeeping.
Then, in August of 2016, when I opened the bin, I hit on what seemed like a great idea. I would replicate a crazy quilt for the center panel.
As I worked through August and September of 2016, the crochet crazy quilt idea seemed crazier and crazier. Crocheting seemingly random pieces that fit together and were flat was not easy. I developed techniques on the fly and unable to both crochet and write at the same time, I would frequently find myself not exactly certain how I had gotten a particular result.
Then, as I began to join the pieces it became clear to me that that the embroidery on the seams of crazy quilts isn’t there just to be decorative, it also hides a multitude of joining sins, and my crochet crazy quilt had a lot of sins that I ended up covering in feather stitches, extended French knots, herringbone stitches, and crochet rickrack.
But all of that takes time, and in 2016 as in 2015, I ran out of time before I ran out of things that needed to be done.
I thought sure that 2017 would be the year I finished the piece, but as luck would have it, Olek was doing a piece in Wake County, and its construction and installation coincided with my traditional state fair season. Like many Wake County and North Carolina crocheters, I caught Olek fever and while I worked on my state fair piece, I also crocheted nine 2′ x 2′ panels for the Olek project, and I again missed the deadline.
I had, however, made substantive progress on my narrative crochet project. I had finished all of the eight outer panels. They were bordered and joined, so really, all I had to do this year was finish the center panel, and sometime late in the afternoon on Sunday, I did exactly that:
A lot has happened since I started work on this project on that August day in 2015, not the least of which is that I moved from a house where I had multiple places where I could take flat photos of large scale projects to an apartment that doesn’t have quite the same options, but while I was unable to find a suitable place to take a comprehensive overview photos, I was able to get this photo of the overall piece:
along with this detail:
As I worked each stitch of this project, I was mindful of the fact that the life I have gotten to live has much broader horizons than either of my grandmothers did. As I noted in an earlier blog post:
…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.
I am grateful to both of my grandmothers for all that they did so that I could live the life I have, and if they were alive today, I know they would both be thrilled to learn that Dr. Donna Strickland, a former girl with dreams, had grown into a woman who had been able to achieve them.