Quilts for My Grandchildren
A Patchwork Essay on Writing
Quilts tell stories if you know how to listen.
Some quilters are artists. Others are mechanics. I was a mechanic. I would build a quilt square by square, measure, cut and sew neat ¼” seams, but when it was assembled and quilted and the final binding stitch sewn I was always disappointed with the result. Initially, I was disappointed. The fabric, which held such promise at the start, once assembled, looked awkward. The patches, which I had designed so thoughtfully, appeared unbalanced when sewn together into one quilt top. But with time I learned to love it again. I remembered where I was when I chose each piece of fabric. I remembered each town, each store, and who was with me on the trip. And I especially enjoyed the memory of where I lived when I created it. Quilt artists can stand back admire the whole of their creation. Mechanics like your grandmother have to learn to love the bits, the individual pieces that were the heart of my messy quilts. My quilts may not have the artistry, but they always held a story.
I had hoped that we could make a quilt together. I dreamed of doing this over time. Each year when your parents brought you to visit Grandpa and me I would teach you to sew, and together we would build a block. One block each year. Just you and me. We would have done other things together, too. I would have taught you to sail, golf, play tennis. I would have driven you up the Sea to Sky highway to Whistler so that you could snowboard. And I would have read to you whenever you asked from stacks of the most wonderful books. But the quilting, that was something special we should have done together. That was how I planned to tell you about my life.
Designing Our Quilt: The Six Patch
I had planned to sew a Nine Patch quilt with you. Nine patches make a good sized quilt. It would have a lattice of color between each patch and a wide, bold border around the whole. When you got older and had a home of your own you would always have that quilt we made together, the one with all with all the stories we had stitched into it. Together. One patch each year. And you would remember me in that quilt.
But we can’t do that, so I must find another way of becoming part of your memory.
I want you to know me. Not from the stories your parents will tell you. They only know me like you know them. And that is not very much at all.
I want you to really know me.
And I want you to know that I love you, even though we have never met.
So I will quilt words together instead. This word quilt will have only six patches, six squares, and each patch will tell a story. A story about me. For you. I cannot tell you everything, but I will pick out bits and pieces that were important and it will give you enough so that you can hang it on a wall and see part of the picture of me. But what I really hope is that you will take it down from time to time and wrap yourself in it when you need to remember that someone loved you with all her heart, without condition. Before you were even born.
Five of the patches will hold books. I didn’t write these books but I read them and loved them all a little bit. If you read them and layer them on top of each other letting bits of each slip through like a palimpsest you will have the texture of who I was. The sixth patch is different. Wait and see.
To go a viking
Sagas of the Icelanders, authors unknown
This is a proud patch. A strong patch. This is a patch with attitude. There is nothing gentle or sweet here. I wasn’t a sweet child. I was a Viking. And that it is why this patch has such importance in our quilt. When you read this, and when you piece together this quilt in your mind, place this patch with priority. Make it blue. Blue like my father’s eyes (1922-1998), blue like laverkite, Norwegian ‘blue stone’ once it is polished and set into silver, pewter. Make it blue like the waters of Arendahl and the Oslo fjords. Make it blue like the cold Norwegian sky on a winter day.
The Sagas of Iceland are the stories and imagination of the Icelandic people, and the first Icelanders were Norwegian nobles who became angry with their king, and fled the country. When these Norwegian expatriates arrived in Iceland, a small north Atlantic island, 870 years after the birth of Christ, they had no written language beyond the crude use of runes. But then, within only 300 years, they developed their own language and produced what Milan Kundera describes as, “the first grand, enormous body of prose composed in a European national language.”
Read these Sagas for their raw entertainment. But understand where they came from. Understand their Nordic pride and how Sagas were the underpinnings of Icelandic society because they created images and reputations.
The Sagas began in 13th century Iceland. They are the written interpretations of 10th and 11th century life in Iceland. We don’t know who wrote them but they are full of information about the history, economy and social order of the time. The Sagas are Icelandic but they are read and studied throughout Scandinavia. When Grandpa and I went to Mexico in 2007 we met a Danish-Swedish couple who said that they were required to read the Sagas in high school, in their respective countries, in Icelandic.
Sagas tell generational stories, almost every one relating to family interaction. They tell their stories in an interesting way. There is never any explanation or intervention from a narrator. This gives the Sagas a brutal sense of honesty and reliability. “A saga-author does not know what his characters are thinking, and he is not allowed to guess at their disposition or mood. But he hears their words, and these make manifest their thoughts and opinions.”[i] There is a similarity in this to prose written with a first person narrator. That sort of positioning allows readers to hear the narrator but never know for certain what the other characters are thinking, or feeling. Everything is filtered through the narrator’s observations.
Almost four hundred years after your ancestors settled Iceland, it became part of Norway again (1264AD). But during those four centuries of independence, Icelanders had to organize themselves. “There was a ruling class, but the law was not an instrument with the force of a state to ensure its privileged position against other classes. The chieftains did this individually by the force of their coalitions and their followings. While the law specified more or less tidy rules for inheritance, sale, and other transfers of property, there were no state institutions to give it practical meaning. Law had only the currency of the force of arms backing any particular interpretation. It could only be used for the framing of rhetoric of justification for acts of force.” [ii]
Here is a lesson of politics to sew into your patch. If you have a stratified society, a place where some people are seen as more important than others, and where some people have more power than others, and if that stratification is not supported by a government or state, it is not stable. It will break up. It will collapse. Remember that when you look at our palimpsest of patched histories. And remember that “the two most important facts about the medieval Icelandic social order are that it was stratified and there was no state.”[iii]
Iceland did have laws. One of the first written works in Icelandic was the lawbook. Most of the Sagas and even Sigrid Undsett’s book, Gunnar’s Daughter (you should read that too – she was one of the first women to win the Nobel Prize), contain references to Icelandic laws. Sagas write about annual trips to the AlÞing, held each year at Þingvellir. People came from all over the country to assemble and have their disputes settled there.
But the AlÞing was not a government. There was no institutional support for any decisions made at these assemblies. The consequence was that it was left to individuals to enforce the rulings made there. Enforcement often occurred through intimidation and was almost entirely dependant on reputation.
“People’s claims to resources depended on their ability to defend them from others rather than on law or state institutions. Reputation was important. Reputations were made and broken by the stories people told. Stories, sagas, were a central part of the system itself…”[iv]
When I was a girl I was very proud of being part Norwegian. I talked about it all the time. But people were quick to let me know that there was much to be ashamed about as well. They made jokes about Vikings. Jokes about violence and rape and pillage; things associated with going a viking and being a Viking. But that was how an Icelandic householder (a chieftain) maintained his reputation. Without that he had no power to protect his family, his land, and the people who lived and worked for him.
The story of this Patch should be told by a narrator who is stubborn and head strong; someone with a Viking temperament. She is a fighter who protects herself by trying to build an image. An image she believes rightly or wrongly will protect her from pain by giving her status and reputation. And remember that reputations truly are made and broken by the stories people tell.
‘Last night I dreamt I went to Manderlay again’ [v]
Rebecca, by Daphne DuMaurier, 1938
This Patch is mostly green. Green like the grass. Green like new leaves and the seaweed wrapped around Rebecca’s hair when they lift her from the bottom of the sea in the waters beside Manderlay; the legendary house that is the marriage of Milton and Menabilly set on a green Cornish coast. It is woodlands and manor homes and cottages by the sea. It is clotted cream and pasties, foxes, hounds and pinks. It is a story told by a woman who has no name.
That is why I would like for us to make this patch together and for you to read this book. It is both a place and story from my past. Rebecca tells the story of a young woman who meets an English nobleman while she is in service as a companion to a rich, gauche American. They marry quickly and she returns with him to his country estate in Cornwall: Manderley. She is intimidated by this house, her new elegant life and her dramatic change in status. But most of all she is intimidated by the one who came before her: Rebecca, first wife of Max De Winter, who died in a boating accident less than a year earlier. The second Mrs. De Winter finds it very difficult to adjust. She narrates the story, but she never tells us her first name. It is not because she is coy. She doesn’t tell us her name because she doesn’t think she is important enough for it to matter. She is no Viking.
“The question of how we name and identify – and the ironies and inexactitudes inherent in that process – is, of course, of central importance in Rebecca. Both female characters – one dead, one alive – derive their surname, as they do their status, from their husband. The first wife, Rebecca, is vivid and vengeful and, though dead, indestructible: her name lives on in the book’s title. The second wife, the drab shadowy creature who narrates this story, remains nameless. We learn that she has a ‘lovely and unusual’ name, and that it was her father who gave it to her. The only other identity she has, was also bestowed by a man – she is a wife, she is Mrs. De Winter.”[vi]
I liked that about this book. I liked never knowing the character’s name. And I am not the only one. “It fascinated other writers – Agatha Christie corresponded with du Maurier on the subject – and throughout her life, du Maurier was plagued with letters seeking an explanation.”[vii] Her answer might surprise you. She told people that it “became a challenge in technique to write the whole story without naming her.”[viii] I can sympathize with that explanation. It would be mine as well.
Du Maurier is not the only one to write a book this way. JM Coetze’s does this also in Disgrace and it is a brilliant book (I would hope you might read that too, someday – like Undsett, he also won the Nobel Prize). His very pedigree suggests that his book should be the model for anyone attempting to mimic this device. The unnamed narrator in Disgrace allows Coetze’s character to grow larger than the story and become a metaphor for gender and race issues in South Africa. Rebecca has no such aspirations. Neither do I.
“Du Maurier’s choice not to name the narrator, the second Mrs. De Winter, is an interesting one… [It] proved to be a highly effective way of making the character appear to be a lesser person than Rebecca – she is not even significant enough to be named, while her predecessor is important enough to have the whole book named after her. As Mrs. Danvers says at one point, “She’s the real Mrs. De Winter, not you – It’s you who are the shadow and the ghost”.”[ix]
Our quilt is like Rebecca. We don’t need a metaphor. I wouldn’t know where to put it or how to use it in the design. And it would make it difficult to choose the other fabrics. What intrigues me instead is the notion that the narrator becomes “obsessed with Rebecca, [her husband’s] first wife. Patching together a portrait of Rebecca in her mind, she creates a chimera – and an icon of womanhood. Rebecca, she comes to believe, was everything she herself is not: she was a perfect hostess, a perfect sexual partner, a perfect chatelaine and a perfect wife. This image she later understands in false, but before she can grasp the truth about Rebecca’s life, she first has to be told the truth about her death.”[x]
It is much the same with our project. If this Patch was the story’s central character it would need to include its own chimera; a fantasy, a delusion that the protagonist has woven around herself for protection. She imagines her status tightly linked to her image and she has decided that she is a creature composed of parts of her family. She has selected the best and boldest bits and stitched them together in her own mind. She knows they are not all present. Not yet. But she has faith that they will appear in her, because she can see them in her older sister. It is a marvelous monster she has created, until the stitches begin to unravel. When it lies in pieces on the floor and she can recognize her own reflection, perhaps she will discover her name.
Stereograms and Secrets
Behind the Scenes at the Museum, Kate Atkinson, Doubleday, 1995
This is a tricky patch. Color is nowhere near as important as pattern or design. Think of an auto-stereogram. Do you know what they are? There used to be one in my office on the wall above my desk. It may still be there; Grandpa is very sentimental. You could pop in and look at it next time you visit him. I loved staring at it, making the secret picture slide out into 3D. This patch is like that. And so is the book by Kate Atkinson. Both have secrets hidden out in plane sight, integrated into the design.
Oh, mine is a much smaller secret than the one Ruby Lennox discovers in Behind the Scenes. But it was big enough for me. The interesting thing about my secret is how long it took your old grandmother to discover it. If it weren’t for a silly coincidence I may have never found it at all.
The success of this Patch will be determined by the design and by how well the secret is positioned. I have thought long and hard about how to do this. Should it have layers, or appliqués? Maybe a pinwheel-design, where things radiate outwards with the secret at its centre? I considered a fabric door that opens, with the secret stitched inside. Even now, at this too, too late stage, I am not sure. I leave it to you to assemble it in your mind as you read. But the secret itself will have echoes and reflections of its essence sewn throughout the rest of the quilt so that when your eye finally discovers my secret inside the patch, it will seem like the most natural thing in the world. Inevitable. It had to be there. Without it, the quilt would not make sense.
Behind the Scenes at the Museum, is like that. And much more. It is a chubby little Tristram Shandy of a novel about a girl called Ruby Lennox who lives a complicated and confusing life until the day she discovers her family secret. The tricky part is that this should never have been a secret. It is something which everybody knows about: Ruby’s sisters, her mother, her father, all the other family members, neighbours, shopkeepers, even the postman. Only Ruby herself does not know. The whole picture has been there all along but she has forgotten how to adjust her eyes so that she could bring into focus the picture that is hidden inside the picture. Knowing the secret changes everything because once Ruby discovers it, she must look at herself and her family differently.
This happens in our Patch too. Our young Viking will be forced to recognize that the other people have known the family secret all along. And she will realize that they have been looking at her, evaluating her, through that lens. Not the one she has so carefully constructed through the years. Her efforts have all been wasted. She has never truly had the control she thought she had.
I like the way Behind the Scenes is written, the structure. I’ve always thought it was unique. Each chapter represents a year of Ruby Lennox’s life. Some years are missing. That is important. That is a good lesson for you too. What you leave out of a design, a plot, a conversation, is very important. You can say a lot by saying nothing.
Kate Atkinson talked about the structure of this book. She said it was “Almost impossible to do (it has a very complex structure). It’s the story of Ruby Lennox from birth to the age of 40, her family, and the secrets hidden in the family’s story. It also contains flashbacks to other members of the family — in the past — and so builds up a story/family tree that spans four generations. It’s about history, time, loss, coincidence, self-knowledge. (It’s also about cupboards — but no one seems to notice that!)”[xi]
The chapters are present tense, first person narration. The first person narrator is cheeky. The novel begins with Ruby narrating the moment of her own conception. “I exist!” Instant evidence that Ruby is privy to things she could never know and that she is a narrator you cannot always trust. But you know what to believe in the novel because of the footnotes. They are so lovely. Each chapter has a footnote. Some are long, some are short. The footnotes are third person past tense and contain the back-story to the novel. They drop us into the stories of Ruby’s great grandmother and move forward in time until Ruby’s mother arrives.
It is as though the book is a stereogram and the footnotes are the 3 D glasses, free with every edition, that will forefront what you are supposed to see from the hundreds of bits of color that are meant to stay in the background. Maybe that is what we should do. Sew a pocket into the quilt and inside it we could leave a pair of 3D glasses! How cheeky. We could pretend the glasses will give all the answers and we can avoid the viva voce.
Curious Dogs, Wallflowers, and Voices
I left a collection of children’s books, movies and music for you. There are two large Rubbermaid storage boxes full of good things. Grandpa promised to keep them all. Just ask him and he will show you where they are. There are some wonderful books in there. I have read them all, at least once. I know that you will be able to find something that you will like. I have many favourites but I know two books that would be just the thing for our fourth Patch: The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Stephen Chbosky, Pocket Books, Simon & Schuster, 1999; and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Mark Hudson, Vintage, 2004.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a coming-of-age novel narrated by a 15-year-old boy named Charlie. The entire novel is made of a series of letters that Charlie writes to an unknown friend (FYI, this is an epistolary novel. Remember that. You’ll need to know it for school someday. I have written that in the front leaf of the book in case you forget). The book begins when Charlie enters High School. You will see when you read it, how very troubled Charlie is, and you would be forgiven for thinking that his initial angst is because his best friend from Junior High has recently committed suicide. But there is more to Charlie’s angst than that. Charlie is shy, and quiet and extremely bright. And he is socially backward. He cannot process the cues and signals that other students his age are dealing with.
This book was never meant to be for children but it is a favorite among many high school teens. “Due to its popularity, however, the book has become a target for anti-obscenity moralists who believe that literature leads to licentiousness. Two school districts have banned Perks, and many more have challenged the novel for its depictions of adolescent sexuality and drug use. In November 2004, a group of Wisconsin parents challenged Perks after a teacher assigned the book (even though the school required parental permission in the first place).”[xii] I hope this silliness doesn’t creep across the border. But if your school doesn’t let you read it you can always borrow my copy. Your parents won’t mind. My children don’t believe in censorship.
The other book I want to include in this Patch is The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. The Curious Incident is also narrated by a 15 year old boy, Christopher. Christopher has Asperger syndrome. That is a form of autism which makes this narrator very good at maths but very poor at other skills. Perhaps the strangest thing about this book is that I never felt that Christopher’s behaviour was all that strange. I think there lots of people have edges to their personalities that approach Christopher’s eccentricities. Perhaps that explains why so many readers are able to empathize with him.
My List of Similar Things & Why it was Easy for Me to Empathize with Christopher
1. Christopher likes lists and facts. He processes information by putting things into lists. He has a fear of strangers and new places.
I made lists. I taught my own children to make lists so they could be organized. Teachers teach students to do that too. And sadly, everyone seems to work hard to make children afraid of strangers.
2. Christopher is unable to recognise and comprehend facial expressions besides ‘happy’ and ‘sad’. He also has difficulty understanding metaphors.
I could not recognize facial expressions either. I thought my father, your great grandpa, was smiling until my big sister nudged me and told me to be quiet. Our father wasn’t smiling at all; he was gritting his teeth together because he was so angry. I could never tell. But unlike Christopher, I do understand metaphors and I like those very much.
3. Christopher hates the colours yellow and brown, but loves red. This extends to adding red food dye to brown- or yellow-coloured food.
My younger sister, your great aunt, absolutely had to have green food coloring mixed into her ice cream before she would eat it. And I loved the colours green and yellow. Orange made me nervous. Red made me excited. White was always the best.
4. Christopher’s favourite dream is one in which everyone except people similar to him dies.
Doesn’t everyone who feels pushed around have that dream, awake or asleep, sometime in their lives?
5. Christopher is over-sensitive to information and stimuli. He curls up and groans to protect himself against overwhelming noise or information.
I used to hide in the corner of the closet when I was upset, curled up into a ball. I thought that was normal until I met your Grandpa (he strongly disagreed and suggested that there were better ways to deal with over-stimulation).
That is why I chose these books. There are a lot of similarities between Charlie, the narrator in Perks, and Christopher, the narrator in The Curious Incident. And there are a lot of similarities between both of those narrators and me. Some similarities are in the characters themselves (see List above) but most are in the voice. You will need to be able to recognize and understand this for this Patch to work.
Both books I’ve chosen are about 15 year old boys (which might seem odd to you because our quilt is the story of a nine year old girl). Both books are told by the boys themselves in a first person voice and oddly, both boys sounded much, much younger to me than their fifteen years. And to my ear, Charlie sounds a bit thick. A bit slow. A bit stupid. But we know he is the opposite of stupid. He does brilliantly at school.
But that is the funny thing about voice in children’s books. You can read a hundred books about 15 year old boys and in each one the voice will be different. Some people will think one is spot on! Authentic! Exactly right for a 15 year old boy! Or girl! Another reader will think it is too young, or too old. Both publishers of these two books thought Charlie’s and Christopher’s voices were authentic. And so do many of the high school students who read his books. So what does this tell us?
It told me that we each hear the age of a child’s voice according to our own memories of childhood. Christopher sounds too young but we allow that discrepancy because of his autism. Yet Charlie sounds very young too and somewhat like Christopher. Is he autistic? No. So if our patch is going to have a nine year old voice it can never sound like a nine year old to everyone’s ears. It’s our nine year old. Mine and yours. We have to be very careful to retain that ownership. And we have to be particularly careful to be faithful to our own memories. If they wag their fingers at you, just smile and nod.
I have a game for you.
It’s another list.
First read both books, then read the list.
Try and figure out which narrator said which line.
Remember that Charlie is an exceptionally bright15 year old high school student who is likely to score 1600 on his SATs.
And remember that Christopher is a 15 year old autistic savant.
To check your answers, you must look at the Endnotes.
The Game – Who said What?
1. “I just remembered what made me think of all this; I’m going to write it down because maybe if I do I won’t have to think about it. And I won’t get upset.”[xiii]
2. “Father said that he didn’t know what kind of a heart attack she had and this wasn’t the moment to be asking questions like that.”[xiv]
3. “I love Twinkies, and the reason I am saying that is because we are all supposed to think of a reason to live.”[xv]
4. “One boy has it particularly hard. I won’t tell you his name. But I will tell you about him. He has very nice brown hair, and he wears it long with a pony tail. I think he will regret this when he looks back on his life.”[xvi]
5. “I stayed awake until 3:47. That was the last time I looked at my watch before I fell asleep. It has a luminous face and lights up if you press a button so I could read it in the dark.”[xvii]
How well did you score? I think it would be difficult to score well. It is hard to hear these voices out of context and decipher which character said which line. It would even harder out of context, to tell the age and situation of either child. English author, Alan Garner said “that as children we accept our own circumstances as normality, having no concept of things being other than they are found to be.”[xviii] That means Charlie, Christopher, and our little character each feel that they are normal even when they are not in the grand scheme of things. Children’s’ author Susan Cooper writes, “Without knowing quite what they’re doing, [a great many children] put themselves inside a protective vehicle that will help get them through life without being damaged.” [xix]
The voice of this Patch should be its very own. It should include our young Viking’s odd thought processes, but they should never suggest that she has the same medical condition as Christopher in The Curious Incident. She is just a bit different, and that difference keeps her apart from her peers until she learns to adjust. She is bright, but not exceptionally bright. She has talents, but she is no savant. And in all things social, she falls far behind her peers. Perhaps if she were able to see things in a broader perspective, perceive social cues in the same way as her new classmate Kelly Campbell, then our protagonist may have already deciphered the family secret. You will see what I mean when you read Perks. Charlie is a gifted student who is socially retarded. That is harsh for me to say it like that. But it is quite true. He is as bad as our little heroine. When you read how Charlie reacts and responds to situations you will cringe. I did. I think this book is quite brilliant. I hope you like it too.
PS. You should also read, Freak the Mighty, by Rodman Philbrick, Scholastic, 1993
PPS. If you are going to read my old Harry Potter books please use the ones in the box and not the ones in breakfront bookcase; those are all First Edition Special Editions.
…Tell me, good Brutus, can you see your face?
No, Cassius; for the eye sees not itself/ But by reflection, by some other things.
William Shakespear’s Julius Caesar, ActI SceneII) where Brutus and Cassius debate/discuss perceptions. (This scene is included at the end in the Appendix so you won’t have to read the entire play. Until you are ready. Probably when you are 9 or 10.)
There is a big storeroom at the back of Grandpa’s garage. I loved that room. They couldn’t blast all of the rock away and so the bedrock rises from the floor refusing to be ignored. I am gone but that rock must still be there. Grandpa will have put my quilting things inside that room. Look for a Tupperware box with a purple lid. Inside are many small mirrors in all sorts of shapes and sizes. When I was a girl in high school I had a blue Indian cotton shirt with bell sleeves and small oval mirrors sewn across the yoke. That’s what I had planned to do with this patch. Create a wall of mirrors inside a 10×10” square using mirrors of different shapes: ovals, circles, rectangles and squares. And I thought it would be attractive to use all of the left over plastic mirrors, place them randomly around the quilt top once we had pieced it together. Carry the reflection symbol, the mirrors, the image-makers, throughout our entire quilt top.
Reflections and perceptions; that is what I remember most about Julius Caesar. We read it in Grade Five and then performed the play. I was Marc Antony. My big sister bought a box of purple RIT fabric dye and colored a bed sheet for me to wear as a toga for my costume. She bought gold ribbon and sewed it along the edges to make it look stately. I was very proud. When I put on my toga for the dress rehearsal I was certain it was going to be a wonderful day. And when it was time to give my funeral oration to Caesar I half expected a standing ovation from my classmates.
You see, Marc Antony is the hero. In his speech he completely and totally turns the affections of the plebeians. They had been cheering Brutus and Cassius for murdering Caesar, but Marc Antony wanted the plebeians to realize how wrong this murder was. And since he has promised not to criticize or condemn Brutus and Cassius in his oration, his delivery must be subtle. I must be subtle if I’m to be Marc Antony.
I was supposed to stand on that stage in my purple and gold toga and give Marc Antony’s speech, carefully delivering the word honorable so that the audience would understand my sarcasm. For I must turn their hearts!
I tried. I thought I gave a great speech. But my teacher said, “Oh for crying out loud. That’s not right. That’s not even close. Stop shouting your lines. You are not at all convincing. You just sound angry.”
And everyone laughed at me.
That is just a story but holds a pretty irony, I think.
‘And it is very much lamented, Brutus,
That you have no such mirrors as will turn
Your hidden worthiness into your eye,
That you might see your shadow.’
It is not just hidden worthiness that needs seeing. But unworthiness as well. Self-assessment. The ability to see what other see. This fifth Patch from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (Act I Scene II) reminds me of our little protagonist: proud and defiant. She confuses self-assessment and image. In Julius Caesar, Cassius wonders about image too. He questions what is it that is so special about Caesar? Why is he is the emperor, and not Cassius? Cassius sees Caesar as an equal and if the two are indeed equal, why should Cassius not be the Emperor? Our little character plays Marc Antony, but she is really more akin to Cassius
I was born free as Caesar; so were you:
We both have fed as well, and we can both
Endure the winter’s cold as well as he:
Our hero tries to paint the image she would like people to see. She shows the image to the world expecting them to accept what she has made; a self-portrait painted without ever looking into a mirror. When they reject it, and her, she goes a viking; a full on campaign to build a reputation. She doesn’t allow herself to feel self-pity. Instead she keeps her home life and her school life separate, rarely allowing an intersect.
Unexpected things happen when you make a quilt. No matter how well we plan, it might not turn out the way we expect. Remember when I told you I was a mechanic – not an artist? It is very true and this is how I cope. I leave one patch unplanned. I cannot somehow see how the whole will look, no matter how much planning I do. Even when I use the computer and block things out in advance, it never quite comes out as fine as the image in my head. If I leave one square free, unplanned, it lets me make adjustments to color and design. It helps me build a square that might fine-tune the color and design and leave the quilt more attractive as a whole. Sometimes it is bits and pieces of the other squares, coming together in one. Sometimes things are just too busy and I need a plain square of one sort of fabric to introduce some calm, a place for the eye to rest. Sometimes that doesn’t work either and I’ll place an appliqué on top.
This is how I deal with surprises. I plan for them.
Between the Latticework: The story of this quilt
Picture our quilt. It has a lattice framework that holds six squares. There is one row of three squares on top, and a second row of three squares, directly and symmetrically below. The lattice holds the patches, connects them, runs throughout the whole. It is the plot, the story of this quilt. Yet if you squint it seems as the though the quilt is divided into two halves.
That might be a good way to think of this story. One half begins in 1966 when our Viking is nine years old. It’s the start of a new school year and she is going to a new school, not because her family has moved or because she’s starting middle school. A city-wide test was given to grade four students the previous year and the school board selected the ones with the highest results to attend a special class for gifted children. Our Viking is one of those children.
She is part of what seems like a typical 60’s family living in a pleasant neighbourhood in small town Ontario. She is the middle child. Her father works in the local car factory and her mother is a housewife. She has two sisters. She idolizes the older sister and ignores the young one. As with many Canadian families, her parents are immigrants. However, unlike many immigrant families her parents have left their past lives firmly behind them; only English is spoken in the home and relatives from the old country never visit.
There are small secrets and lies in her family which she is privy to. Her mother has a particular talent for spinning tales and for deception. She will, for example, buy a blouse and hang it the cupboard for at least two months so that when she finally wears it and someone asks, ‘Is that new?’ it will not technically be a lie when she says, ‘This? No I’ve had it for months.’ This section will end in 1967 in Montreal on the grounds of Expo.
The other half, the bottom half of the quilt, begins in 1972. Our Viking will have softened somewhat and become more aware of her surroundings; more socially acceptable. The bottom half should be more graceful than the top to reflect that (Patches will require a careful arrangement to show this). Our Viking will discover the family secret. And the tales her mother spins when that secret is revealed are more disturbing than the secret itself.
Borders and Backgrounds: The Skin that Holds the Sausage
The narrator is the borders and bindings of the quilt. Her voice is the skin that holds the sausage in its place. Our narrator must be written in 1st person, present tense. Of this I am certain. I have played with her before, kept her more distant in third person omniscient, but it never seemed to work.
There is more than one reason for that. This child is different than most. Because she is an odd child, a character who does not act within normal behavior patterns in a novel, that behaviour must be addressed somehow with a reason or an explanation. While this could be handled by a 3rd person narrator, I think it is easier for a reader to believe if they aligned with the character; if they are inside her head. It will also be easier for a reader to believe the unfolding of the secret if they are closely aligned with the narrator. Without an insight to her single-mindedness and tunnel vision, a reader is certain to question how our Viking was unable to recognize a fact that sat so plainly in her field of vision.
The novel begins when the narrator is nine. However, the family secret occurred before she was born, resurfacing in 1959 when she was only two. The narrator has no personal memory of the 1959 event. Photographs exist, but she cannot interpret them.
So my problem becomes how to get that past information into a novel presented in first person present tense.
Blood is Thicker Than Water
The concept of inherited abilities (and dysfunctions) is another thread that plays through the narrative and through the mind of the main character because she wants so much to be like her older sister. As she fights to control her environment and manipulate how people view her, she feels it is all legitimate because she believes she really does have a bright future. Not based on who she is, but based on her sister’s and her father’s abilities and appearances. She sees them both as perfect. Her mother is not perfect but she believes (wants to believe) that, since her baby pictures look so much like her father’s baby pictures, her inherited qualities must mostly come from his side of the family. She concedes she got her mother’s musical failures, but will admit to nothing else.
And why should there be an unnamed narrator? It is not a sub-textual reference to Sanskrit and the ancient concept of ‘names holding power’. No, nothing that intense. There is the earlier explanation, akin to du Maurier’s, where having started down this path I wanted to see if I could accomplish it technically. But there is more as well. I feel that giving my Viking a name makes it too easy for the reader. It allows the reader to rest on her name and stop looking, listening and questioning. She would be just Alice, or Carrie, or Janice. As the character is struggling to find out who she is, I would like the reader to hang in there with her, and not become distant or detached.
At least that’s the theory.
In the same way, my narrator learns to measure herself against others. She sees herself mirrored, reflected. She fights to create image while being unable to accept her own. I started writing her without a name because as a Viking she was always looking outward and moving fast, faster. She allowed herself no time to pause and reflect
“ when we name ourselves we can participate in the objectification of ourselves that can happen when we receive an image of ourselves from outside of ourselves, and can also happen when we look in the mirror. It’s easier to see ourselves in the third person with a name. A lot depends, I think, on what we do with information from others, or from what we see in the mirror. But the image of seeing the shadow in the mirror, the idea that the mirror reflects an image sometimes more accurate than what we can hide by not looking deeply is fascinating, especially in an era when image is everything, and so highly constructed, manipulated. The important thing, I guess, is not to get too bogged down in theory or having to rationalize too early in the writing process.”
Roberta Rees (in an email communication about my unnamed narrator)
Easy for her to say.
I was 20 pages into the book when I first realized our Viking had no name. Then I could not give her one. Technically, I could do it. It would be easy to inject a name within 1st Person; I could simply have another character refer to her by name. It was emotionally that I could not name her. Each time I wrote her name I got nudged out of the voice I was using. I felt I was employing a device, and not writing this character.
Why am I really reluctant to name her?
I cannot name her because she is me and I don’t want to name me as narrator and character.
Nine year old me cannot tell this story alone. She needs an interpreter. The reason is probably obvious; my mind has a mind of its own. If I allowed her, the me at nine, to tell this story unattended this tale would begin with a confused series of random events, brightly coloured vignettes populated by hot pink dresses, sea-blue plaid kilts, chemical-red hair, soft pink satin shoes and an orange dress with black pearly buttons; colours because I was continually assaulted or comforted by colours. And shapes. I see shapes and patterns and numbers everywhere.
I know that I’m only nine. And nine-year-old girls skip double-dutch, and sing, draw in chalk on the pavement, tell secrets, and not concentrate on anything for very long because they are too busy working at the business of being nine. But I’m not like other nine year old girls. I can concentrate intensely for dramatic lengths of time. But then I’m gone. Difficult to reach. ‘Where are you?’ will be a refrain I hear for most of my childhood. And later the exhortation will become, ‘If I could spend just five minutes inside that head…’
You see, my thoughts fork dramatically left and right, up and down, spin so fast that even small noises make me want to hide in a closet with a pillow over my ears. My mind, which seems quite ordinary to me in 1966, will begin to frighten me as I age because I can never seem to control it for any length of time without a supreme effort. I will learn certain strategies along the way. Television helps. And books. Lots of books. And repetition (I still need to repeat things over and over, out loud). For a time, I’ll dance ballet with a ferocious intensity and I will be so physically tired that my brain plays second fiddle to my body and lets me relax. But that only lasts a few years.
It will be weeks, months after I have started grade five in my new, far away school, before I first recognize that I am different from the other girls in my class. It will take much longer before I see any difference between boys and girls. And it will be years before I begin to pay attention to the world around me. In these things, the things involving the social side of growing up, I will have retarded development. But no one will notice and no one will care as long as I am a star at school.
This novel is a memoir, but that is not a fact I want known. Not ever. I recognize that along the way a few people will need to know in order to keep me on course. People whom I trust to help make sure this work stands on its own as a novel, totally independent of the memoir genre. And so I trust you with this knowledge.
This was not the novel I would have chosen to write. But time is precious so I have to write this one first. Then, if there is time, I’ll write another.
Julius Caesar, Act 1 Scene2.
Be not deceived: if I have veil’d my look,
I turn the trouble of my countenance
Merely upon myself. Vexed I am
Of late with passions of some difference,
Conceptions only proper to myself,
Which give some soil perhaps to my behaviors;
But let not therefore my good friends be grieved–
Among which number, Cassius, be you one–
Nor construe any further my neglect,
Than that poor Brutus, with himself at war,
Forgets the shows of love to other men.
Then, Brutus, I have much mistook your passion;
By means whereof this breast of mine hath buried
Thoughts of great value, worthy cogitations.
Tell me, good Brutus, can you see your face?
No, Cassius; for the eye sees not itself,
But by reflection, by some other things.
And it is very much lamented, Brutus,
That you have no such mirrors as will turn
Your hidden worthiness into your eye,
That you might see your shadow. I have heard,
Where many of the best respect in Rome,
Except immortal Caesar, speaking of Brutus
And groaning underneath this age’s yoke,
Have wish’d that noble Brutus had his eyes.
Into what dangers would you lead me, Cassius,
That you would have me seek into myself
For that which is not in me?
Therefore, good Brutus, be prepared to hear:
And since you know you cannot see yourself
So well as by reflection, I, your glass,
Will modestly discover to yourself
That of yourself which you yet know not of.
And be not jealous on me, gentle Brutus:
Were I a common laugher, or did use
To stale with ordinary oaths my love
To every new protester; if you know
That I do fawn on men and hug them hard
And after scandal them, or if you know
That I profess myself in banqueting
To all the rout, then hold me dangerous.
Flourish, and shout
What means this shouting? I do fear, the people
Choose Caesar for their king.
Ay, do you fear it?
Then must I think you would not have it so.
I would not, Cassius; yet I love him well.
But wherefore do you hold me here so long?
What is it that you would impart to me?
If it be aught toward the general good,
Set honour in one eye and death i’ the other,
And I will look on both indifferently,
For let the gods so speed me as I love
The name of honour more than I fear death.
I know that virtue to be in you, Brutus,
As well as I do know your outward favour.
Well, honour is the subject of my story.
I cannot tell what you and other men
Think of this life; but, for my single self,
I had as lief not be as live to be
In awe of such a thing as I myself.
I was born free as Caesar; so were you:
We both have fed as well, and we can both
Endure the winter’s cold as well as he:
For once, upon a raw and gusty day,
The troubled Tiber chafing with her shores,
Caesar said to me ‘Darest thou, Cassius, now
Leap in with me into this angry flood,
And swim to yonder point?’ Upon the word,
Accoutred as I was, I plunged in
And bade him follow; so indeed he did.
The torrent roar’d, and we did buffet it
With lusty sinews, throwing it aside
And stemming it with hearts of controversy;
But ere we could arrive the point proposed,
Caesar cried ‘Help me, Cassius, or I sink!’
I, as Aeneas, our great ancestor,
Did from the flames of Troy upon his shoulder
The old Anchises bear, so from the waves of Tiber
Did I the tired Caesar. And this man
Is now become a god, and Cassius is
A wretched creature and must bend his body,
If Caesar carelessly but nod on him.
He had a fever when he was in Spain,
And when the fit was on him, I did mark
How he did shake: ’tis true, this god did shake;
His coward lips did from their colour fly,
And that same eye whose bend doth awe the world
Did lose his lustre: I did hear him groan:
Ay, and that tongue of his that bade the Romans
Mark him and write his speeches in their books,
Alas, it cried ‘Give me some drink, Titinius,’
As a sick girl. Ye gods, it doth amaze me
A man of such a feeble temper should
So get the start of the majestic world
And bear the palm alone.
Tell me, good Brutus, can you see your face?
No, Cassius; for the eye sees not itself,
But by reflection, by some other things.
And it is very much lamented, Brutus,
That you have no such mirrors as will turn
Your hidden worthiness into your eye,
That you might see your shadow.
[i] Kristiánsson, Jonas. Eddas and Sagas Iceland’s Medieval Literature, translated by Peter Foote, Reykjavik: Hið islenka bókmenntafélag, 1997
[ii] Durrenberger, Paul. The Dynamics of Medieval Iceland, Political Economy & Literature. E. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press. 1992. p.50
[iii] Durrenberger, Paul. The Dynamics of Medieval Iceland, Political Economy & Literature. E. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press. 1992. p.ix
[iv] Durrenberger, Paul. The Dynamics of Medieval Iceland, Political Economy & Literature. E. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press. 1992. p. x
[v] Du Maurier, Daphne. Rebecca. London: Virago Press, 2003 p.1
[vi] Beauman, Sally. Introduction. Rebecca. By Daphne Du Maurier. London: Virago Press. 2003. p.ix
[vii] Beauman, Sally. Introduction. Rebecca. By Daphne Du Maurier. London: Virago Press,. 2003. p.ix
[viii] “Review of Rebecca” http://www.dumaurier.org/reviews-rebecca.html
[x] Beauman, Sally. Introduction. Rebecca. By Daphne Du Maurier. London: Virago Press. 2003. pp.10-11
[xi] http://www.geocities.com/kateatkinson12/behind4.htm (page now defunct)
[xii] “An Interview with Stephen Chbosky, by Marty Beckeman”. http://www.wordriot.org/template.php?ID=552
[xiii] Chbosky, Stephen. Perks of Being a Wallflower. New York: Pocket Books, Simon & Schuster, 1999. p.96
[xiv] Hudson, Mark. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. London: Vintage, 2004 p.36
[xv] Chbosky, Stephen. Perks of Being a Wallflower. New York: Pocket Books, Simon & Schuster, 1999p.50
[xvi] Chbosky, Stephen. Perks of Being a Wallflower. New York: Pocket Books, Simon & Schuster, 1999. p.10
[xvii] Hudson, Mark. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. London: Vintage, 2004. p.158
[xviii] Cooper, Susan. “World’s Apart,” p.63. Harrison, Barbara and Gregory Maguire. Origins of Story: On Writing for Children. New York, New Yorl: Margaret K. McElderry Books, 1999
[xix] Cooper, Susan. “World’s Apart,” p.64. Harrison, Barbara and Gregory Maguire. Origins of Story: On Writing for Children. New York, New Yorl: Margaret K. McElderry Books, 1999