I’m jumping in and joining the bandwagon of people I know sharing their stories online. This is called “Hope” and has the distinct feelin of something which wishes to become a novel in the future. So we shall see. In the meantime, please let me know what you think!
Also, my soundtrack for the days when this was coming together included a lot of repeats of American Honey by Lady Antebellum. In case you’re looking for a soundtrack.
Sometimes Alice thinks the only thing keeping her sane is her knitting, then immediately wonders if that is itself a sign of insanity. It doesn’t matter, however, when she’s had a rough day and comes home, exhausted and ready to scream or cry or hit something, maybe all three at once. She picks up the needles and yarn, and after a while things begin to make sense again. There’s something about the motion, the smooth slide and soft click of the needle, and the slight catch of the yarn sliding through her fingers. She doesn’t have to think when she does this; her hands know the motion well enough on their own. Eventually, she stops thinking at all. Not about the clients calling and yelling about problems she didn’t cause and isn’t empowered to fix, about the landlord who won’t fix the leaky pipes keeping her up at night, the colleagues who think that female plus young plus assistant automatically adds up to stupid.
She turns out hats and scarves and socks by the dozen this way, in every color of the rainbow. She even goes out and buys a new winter coat in charcoal gray so she can wear them all without clashing. She eventually moves on to sweaters, sweet delicate cardigans with lacy edging and soft, cozy pullovers just a tad to large, perfect for curling up on a couch on rainy day.
Eventually she begins to measure her stress level by the stacks of knitwear spilling out of her closet. It doesn’t look good.
When she was younger, her parents had shipped her off to spend summers with her grandparents in Iowa. She’d liked it well enough, enjoyed running through the fields of corn that towered above her head, feeding the goats that nibbled at the hem of her shirt. The chickens scared her–they pecked at her shoes and she swore the rooster waited for her, to chase her angrily away from his flock. But her favorite part–the thing she looked forward to the most–was the first rainy day of the summer. Outside, the rain would pour down in sheets, thunder crashing overhead, and her grandfather would retreat to the porch, pipe firmly clenched in his teeth, where he’d watch the rain and fret over the state of his crops. Trapped indoors, bored and restless, Alice would pester her grandmother until she finished the breakfast dishes and pulled the hope chest out of the guest room closet.
It smelled of cedar, and the Pears soap that Oma tucked in between the linens. Cracking open the lid, Alice would watch eagerly has her grandmother pulled out piece after piece of history. The quilts made by her great-great grandmother, the christening gown used for generations. There were crisp white pillowcase edged in lace, stacks of delicate handkerchiefs, and beautiful tablecloths embroidered with designs in so many colors. Even, carefully wrapped in tissue, a wobbling cross stitch bird made by Alice’s mother at the age of 8. (The first and last time she ever touched a needle and thread, if the stories she tells are accurate.) Each piece has a story and Alice could sit and listen to them for hours.
There’s more than just textiles, of course. A silver baby spoon used for generations of babies, and a cup to go with it. A small wooden train car carved by her great-grandfather, painstakingly sanded by hand to prevent splinters. A china candy dish carried over by one relative on the boat from Europe wrapped in layers of petticoats and dresses to survive the journey and proudly displayed for years.
Ever girl in the family, Oma tells her, has made a hope chest for herself. The chest, carefully made by her father, is filled with the things she makes as she’s learning the art of needlework that the family has always been known for. Quilts and linens, decorated table linens and stacks of handkerchiefs that move from the wide, uneven stitches of a young girl to the even and steady hand of a young woman. Every girl, that is, except her mother and Alice herself. This part is unspoken, but it never needs to be said.
When she’s thirteen, Oma unfolds one of the pillowcases and shakes something out from the corner. Alice has never noticed that anything was inside before, and although she’s curious about the other secrets the chest may be hiding, her attention is captivated by the silver locket Oma is holding out to her.
“This was mine when I was your age.”
The chain is light in her hand, the locket free of tarnish or any other sign of age. A rose is cut into the face, and it reminds Alice of Beauty and the Beast, one petal slowly drifting off. “It’s so beautiful.”
“I used to write wishes inside, and carry them until they came true.” Oma smiles, a memory lighting across her face. “I want you to have it.”
When she fastens it around her neck, Alice swears she will never take it off, and she doesn’t. Not for years, not until college, when she gets tired of people making snide remarks about her old lady jewelery, when her favorite professor remarks that no one is going to take her seriously if she dresses more like a litle girl than a professional.
It’s the last summer she goes to Iowa.
When she gets home one day, Alice is surprised to see two large boxes blocking the entrace to her apartment. Blocking the whole stairwell, really, causing the neighbors upstairs to shoot her dirty looks as the squeeze past, strains of “inconsiderate girls who don’t know nothing about manners” drifting down the stairwell in their wake. She manages to wedge herself behind them so that she can get the door open, then pulling and tugging, maneuvers them into the hallway.
Slicing through tape, she pulls away the cardboard, almost missing the small sheet of paper marked with her mother’s distinctively messy scrawl. “Mother died” she reads. “She left these to you.” There is no more than that and Alice figures that asking about a funeral would be useless. It’s probably over and done with, and it’s not like she has the vacation time to go even if it isn’t.
Tripping over the cardboard, Alice quickly recognizes the bottom chest as the hope chest from the guest bedroom. An itemized list is taped to the top, all the wonderful stories reduced to a lawyer’s valuation; 5 quilts, 10 pillowcases, 1 toy train…
The top chest is lighter, empty, and Alice is able to lift it and carry it into her living room. She’s never seen this one before. It’s smaller than the other, newer, and she inhales the scent of cedar with a smile. Flipping the lid open, she recognizes her grandfather’s mark in one corner. There isn’t much inside, but a small stack of carefully cut squares, and the memory hits Alice like a ton of bricks.
The summer she turned 7, Alice had begged Oma to teach her how to sew. They had covered knitting the summer before and after many tries, she had successfully learned to maneuver the needles. She’d worked all year on a scarf, carefully knitting a row each time she was in her room, and had given the finished item to her mother for Christmas. Gloria had smiled politely, then tossed the scarf in a drawer. But Alice hadn’t been deterred; maybe sewing was something she would be better at. So Oma had sat her down and carefully shown her how to stitch a hem, to measure out fabric and cut along the lines of a pattern. They had made doll clothes and had just begun planning a quilt top when the idea for a hope chest came up.
If every other girl in her family had such a chest, why then Alice wanted one too. So her grandfather disappeared into his workshop only to emerge later that summer with the chest, while Alice and her grandmother poured over the selection at the local fabric store. It was all fantastic, until Alice let the plans slip to her mother on one of her weekly phone calls.
Even across the room, Alice could hear her mother’s side of the conversation. No way, Gloria swore, no way would her parents go filling her daughter’s head with such antiquated ideas. Alice was going to have better than settling down and chaining herself to some loser for life. Alice was going to be able to make it on her own. And if that chest wasn’t gone by the time she picked Alice up for the fall, she was damn well going to burn it, just like she had her own.
By the next morning, there was no sign of the chest or the projects, and Alice spent the rest of the summer running around outside with the kids from neighboring farms, splashing in the creek or chasing each other down the road.
She never asks what happened to the chest.
A few days later, one of her friends is able to come over and help Alice move the larger chest into her bedroom. There’s just enough room to fit it at the foot of the bed and still open her dresser drawers, but it works. She’s already pressed the smaller chest into service as a makeshift coffee table, and she flops down on the couch after they’re done.
Kelly wrinkles her nose, setting her feet on the lid. “Don’t you think it’s kind of sexist?”
Alice shrugs. “Not really.”
“But it’s assuming you’ll get married. And that’s how you’ll leave your parents house.”
“Not necessarily. I mean, everyone needs blankets, right?”
“Yeah. But you don’t use them, do you?”
She’s got a point, and later that night Alice opens up her grandmother’s chest and begins sifting through the familiar objects. There are a few new things tucked away–a photograph of her grandparents on their wedding day, some of Oma’s favorite jewelery, a picture book that Alice had loved as child. But most of it is the same, all the things that have been tucked away for safekeeping for so many years.
They weren’t made to sit in a drawer, and so she spreads one of the quilts over her bed, stuffs her cheap Ikea pillow into one of the lace-edged pillowcases, and sets the picture on a shelf with the candy dish that came all the way over from Europe on a ship full of immigrants. She begins tucking the hankies into her purse, even though she gets a few strange looks at first. Rather than bother trying to explain, she tartly informs anyone who dares to ask that it’s far more eco-friendly than kleenex. At night, she sleeps under the heavy weight of the quilt and thinks about the women who made it, stitching the tiny stitches that march across the fabric in orderly lines, wondering if they would have been any better at her life than she is.
Although she’s been at the same company for almost seven years, Alice’s boss still does not know her name. He is convinced that she is called Amy, and there’s nothing she can do to set him straight. She’s tried, once or twice, and he blinked owlishly at her from behind his glasses before letting loose an exuberant chuckle and praising her mischievous sense of humor. Any attempts to convince him of her non-humerous intent only resulted in a lecture about the inappropriateness of carrying the joke too far and so she gave up. She even answers the phone as Amy now, much to her mother’s exasperation–“For God’s sake, Alice, why won’t you just stand UP for yourself for once?”–but really, it’s not so far off. It’s not like he’s calling her Gertrude or something.
So when the new HR guy comes by saying he’s noticed an error with her paperwork, Alice is set with her usual explanation. Yes, her taxes say her name is Alice. Yes, it is correct. Yes, everyone calls her Amy. It’s fine, don’t worry about it.
Only this guy looks so troubled on her behalf that the story doesn’t feel as funny as she usually tries to make it. He even offers to talk to her boss, and although she vetoes the suggestion quickly, she finds herself hoping this one lasts more than the typical six month run.
After several disastrous blind dates set up by Kelly, Amy starts to seriously question the image her friends have of her. It’s not that the guys haven’t been perfectly nice, but she’s really not that into the shy, earnest, quiet guys. Or divorced men with kids. And it may be shallow, but she’s never been able to take a man in a sweater vest seriously. She finally brings it up with Kelly, who fumbles for words before gesturing at the apartment.
“You’re just so….domestic.”
“I mean…let’s face it. That’s not exactly a turn on, you know? These are the guys who like that sort of thing.” Kelly gestures at the basket of yarn in one corner, the carefully arranged shelves with mementos. “It’s one one thing if they don’t know at first, but maybe you should think about….you know. Lowering your standards.”
Funny thing is, Alice didn’t think they were ever that high in the first place.
She starts having lunch with the new HR guy after a few months–his name, as it turns out, is Brian, and it looks like he might actually stick around, which either means he’s crazy or he has the patience of saint. Either way, it’s nice to have an hour out her day where she doesn’t have to answer to Amy. She brings her lunch from home, but he doesn’t mind grabbing his food to go and eating in the break room with her. His girlfriend, he notes, doesn’t cook and doesn’t want him to either. It’s kind of ridiculous, really, but it makes Alice start to wonder if maybe Kelly wasn’t on to something.
She starts to take her advice, bit by bit. She wears her hair down, puts on shorter skirts and tighter jeans. Learns to force down sweet, girly, trendy drinks instead of the whiskey she would prefer. She wears more makeup, and tucks her craft projects neatly away in the closet. She smiles more freely and tries to push her shyness aside to flirt.
It works at first–she gets a bit more attention on the train, a few more glances at the bars Kelly drags her out to. But it’s still not enough. Or maybe not the right thing, Alice isn’t quite sure. It’s like, Kelly tells her after one too many drinks, she has some sort of aura of goodness that she radiates. It scares people away.
At the time, Alice finds this hysterically funny, since she’s the last person in the world that she would describe as scary. She begins to think it might be too far off base, however, after she hears one excuse after another. It’s not that people don’t like her, it seems, it’s that it’s just bad timing.
They’ve just gotten out of a relationship, and it’s not a good time.
They’ve just gotten into a relationship, and if they’d only met her a few weeks ago….
It’s not that she’s not a great girl, really, but they’re really focusing on their career right now.
They’d love to hang out, but right now, they’re just playing the field, looking for a good time.
Alice begins to hate time as if it were a thief skulking in the shadows.
When she gets home from yet another disappointing singles event, Alice throws her heels so hard at the wall it shakes, the china candy dish falling to the floor before she can stop it, shattering into pieces.
The crash sobers her up pretty quickly. If it weren’t so upsetting she’d find it a bit amusing that something that survived a trans-Atlantic journey by boat, a trip west in a covered wagon, and any number of tornadoes has been felled by Jimmy Choo knock offs. Instead, she bursts into tears, carefully collecting the pieces and wrapping them up in one of the unused blankets.
When she finally falls asleep, she dreams of Oma, of the stories behind the quilt, of all the women whose hands have left such tangible traces behind. In the dream, Oma shakes her head, leans forward to whisper in her ear, the same advice she told her so many times before.
She buys superglue to put the dish back together, and as she peers intently at the pieces she’s astonished to see that the bowl has broken along a nearly invisible fault line. She is not, it would seem, the first to take on such a repair effort. Amused, Alice wonders which of her relatives has sat in her place, carefully piecing shards of china back together. She imagines it was her grandmother–or, more likely, her mother. Breaking a family heirloom and repairing it in secret is exactly the kind of thing Gloria would do, not that Alice would dare to ask. But she kind of enjoys the idea that she’s sharing in her mother’s secret.
Once the dish is back on the shelf, Alice pulls her stash of yarn and fabric back out of the closet and begins to sift through them. She sorts through her stack of sweaters, pulling her favorites out to wear. She likes them, after all, and that’s what really matters. Lifting the lid of the chest in the living room, Alice begins to sort through the squares that Oma helped her cut so long ago. They’re a cheery shade of yellow, not really her taste anymore, but it should look fine if she pairs it with something a bit darker.
At least it’s a beginning.