Saturday, May 26, 2007

Grammy's Pickle Dish

My mother-in-law has a crocheted bedspread on display in one of her guest bedrooms. It has a story we enjoy telling. A few years ago she was digging through the cedar chest in that room for something she wanted to show me. I don’t think she ever found what it was she was looking for, because she was distracted by something else. In the bottom, wrapped in tissue paper, was a thread crochet project her mother had started about fifty years ago. She died from breast cancer before she was able to finish it. Along with the crochet project was the original spool of crochet thread, still in pristine condition. My mother-in-law is a super talented quilted and knitter, but she admitted crocheting was not her forte. She gave me the crochet project and thread saying I should finish it, maybe for my daughter’s bedroom.

I considered myself a novice crocheter then. After much protesting, I accepted the project. Never one to turn down a challenge, I set immediately to work. I took one of the hexagon motifs, and through trial and error, I figured out the pattern. But I didn’t know what the intended project was supposed to look like in the end. Was it supposed to be a bedspread? A table cloth? I did some research and found that popcorn patterns were popular in the 1950s for both table cloths and bedspreads. But I still didn’t know how the pieces were to be sewn together. I wrote experts, but no one had a pattern that came close. On and off for months, I crocheted the pieces and hoped eventually I’d find the answer. The writing process can work the same way.

I’ve always said that my grand-mother-in-law’s spirit must have been guiding me. I can’t think of any reason I managed to finish the project. I did run into problems that held up its completion. First, I ran out of the original thread. For weeks I tried to find a match. I even had some special ordered, but it wasn’t close. Discouraged, I almost abandoned the project. My sister-in-law said she thought it would be neat to mix the old thread with new, even though the colors weren’t an exact match. Eventually, she did convince me to finish it. I pieced the sections together, framing the old thread with the new. Fittingly, when you held up the bedspread, all the pieces formed a kaleidoscope pattern. I finished it with a lacy border that I made up as I went along, and to this day, I haven’t been able to duplicate. Instead of giving the bedspread to my daughter, I returned it to its rightful owner. I gave it to my mother-in-law as a belated fiftieth wedding anniversary gift.

Think about your family heirlooms, pieces of furniture, or even that dreaded yellow pickle dish that seems to make an appearance at every family reunion. Who owned it originally? How was it obtained? To whom was it passed down? Everything has a story.

Try clustering (or freewriting) for fifteen minutes. Write “heirloom” in the nucleus. Before starting, take a deep breath. Close your eyes and think about the dishes, kitchen utensils, furniture, tapestries, jewelry, or clothes that have significance either to you or to someone in your family. It doesn’t necessarily have to have material value, nor does it have to be very old. It doesn’t even have to be beautiful. When you feel ready, start clustering.

If you write fiction, create heirlooms for your characters. The back story of the heirlooms can reveal more about your character and her motivations. In my novel, Living in the City, Grammy’s pickle dish keeps reappearing. In the beginning of the novel, Cari (the protagonist) tries to throw it out as she is weeding out all the junk before she packs up to move. Her mother has given it more sentimental value than Cari has, so she digs it out of the trash. Later, when Cari doesn’t put out the chipped yellow dish during Christmas dinner, her mother questions its whereabouts. I didn’t intentionally start out that way. The pickle dish kept wanting to make an appearance.

When you create heirlooms for your characters, use items from your own life or make it up. For ideas, ask family members for the story behind an object. Watch an episode of “Antiques Road Show.” Browse E-Bay. Or use pure imagination.

For more writing exercises, please visit my sister site: CS Writing Workshop

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