As Christmas approached, I was once again reminded of how our long-distance family has always been bound together with fabric. My mother's mother left Ireland at 13 and traveled alone to America to find work as a chambermaid, leaving behind a family in Ireland and Scotland that missed her desperately.
Too poor to visit, her mother and sisters held my young grandmother close with care packages of Irish linen sheets and dish towels striped in red. These gifts said with fabric what her family was unable to say in person, "We love you, we miss you, we wish we were with you."
Eventually, my grandmother married and had children and grandchildren of her own, but the packages never stopped. Soft Scottish tartans to be made into kilts and hand-knit wool tams with red pompoms, damask tablecloths and, yes, linen dish towels. Throughout our lives, every time we wrapped the soda bread in a dish towel or lined a picnic basket, we talked of this family we had never seen.
My father's mother, Mudder we called her, married a country minister and moved a dozen times in a dozen years. Homesick and with too little money to buy gifts, Mudder made all her Christmas and birthday presents, sending her family love with each stitch. She crocheted window-shade pulls and hemmed sheeting for bed sheets, monogrammed lawn handkerchiefs, and edged homemade nightgowns with lace.
When her sister Lillian visited, they spent hours together, their heads bent over intricate lace circles they were tatting for pillowcase slips. For weeks at a time, they visited, patching sheets, darning socks, mending old quilts, and crocheting afghans for the children to come, all the while teasing each other over who wore the tightest corset.
When I was a teenager, Mudder would always phone my mother a week or so before she was due to visit us. "Save me the hemming, Margaret. Save me the socks to darn. You know how I need to keep my hands busy."
My mother, who hated to mend, sewed like a dream and loved fabric. In an old cedar chest, she still kept all the evening dresses she had worn to Sunnybrook Ballroom to dance to the music of Harry James and Benny Goodman.
On rainy days, my sister and I would sit cross-legged on the floor beside her and stare as she pulled out gown after gown she had made: sea-green georgette, antique rose taffeta, and slippery silver silk.
Mom made all of our clothes, too. We were always trailing behind her in some fabric store, while she shopped for pink organdy for a piano recital, blue cotton for a summer dance, and dull brown duck for a jumper she could wear at her job, lifting TV picture tubes off an assembly line.
Years later, after I moved to Europe to work, I mailed Mom a Belgian lace tablecloth. The expensive gift I couldn't afford told her immediately how lonely I was. In a quick reply, she sent me a favorite blouse she had sewn new buttons on and an afghan Mudder made me years before.
As a young man, my brother joined the Air Force and spent his first time away from home stationed in Thailand. When a package arrived for Mom filled with yards and yards of Thai silk, she knew just what her young son was saying. "I love you, I miss you, I wish I were with you."
When my nephew's son James was born in Delaware, 3,000 miles from me, I sent him Hawaiian shirts no bigger than a minute and surfer-dude pants the size of my hand. California fabrics that described us, his long-distance, transplanted family. Fabrics that held him close and said beneath their trendy silliness, "We love you, we miss you, we wish we were with you."
When James is christened in his father's christening gown, I know just how he will look. Wide-eyed and alert, dressed in batiste, he will reach for his grandmother's smile, surrounded by the generations of women that have woven and stitched this family together.
They will crowd around his mother, Sandra, fingering the cloth in his dress and inspecting the stitches in the hem. They will step back and nudge one another, satisfied that the fabric is fine and the sewing will last another hundred years. Then, wiggling against his mother's chest, he'll laugh and open his arms to the future and the long line of family to come.
And so life finds us, stretched thin it sometimes seems, yet linked forever across continents and centuries, woven together into a family, in unending, unbreakable rows of single, priceless stitches.