Texts and Textiles: Childhood Memories and What They Mean

I wrapped books and bedspreads around me to feel warmer, safer, and reassured.

Posted Jan 02, 2018

There were a lot of things I wished we had in our  house when I was growing up-- a color TV., an air conditioner, a bathtub that wouldn’t leak into the kitchen ceiling--but there were two things we always had in abundance: bedspreads and books.

My father supplied the bedspreads. It was his business, along with his brothers, to make fancy bedspreads and curtains. Usually the orders were for bulk shipments: fifty to this hotel, ten to that uptown store. My father and his brothers worked in a 26th Street loft (this was before “loft” meant “condominium apartment” in Manhattan), a dark and unfinished space filled with huge rolls of expensive fabrics, polyester fiberfill,  sewing machines, and dust. I suppose it wasn’t actually dust but rather more like fluff or lint on a world-class scale--billions of infinitely small bits of cloth, millions of threads broken down to their very particles of color.

All I know is that it was a relief to get outside The Place (as it was known to us) and back to the comparatively clean air of Eighth Avenue.

I’d go there sometimes when he’d work on a Saturday and content myself with sewing together scraps of silk and velvet to make doll dresses or little pillows for the cat. He made me an extremely purple bedspread for my sixteenth birthday and I was in heaven; I’d been asking him for this particular item for quite a while. I had painted my room fuchsia; I had dozens of peacock feathers in green-glass jars; my bookcase was black; had posters tacked to the wall.

The purple bedspread seemed to me to be the ideal finishing touch. It wasn’t exactly a room conceived by Martha Stewart. It was more like a room conceived by Janis Joplin, if Janis had received decorating advice from Mae West and Liberace. I loved it.

My mother supplied the books. Hardbacks, paperbacks, library books, and bound collections filled shelves in the basement and were scattered everywhere. My bookcase was crammed with volumes from school and from thrift shops. A little store called The Paperback Shack was my mother’s regular hangout. Where other Long Island mothers would go to Bonwit Teller or Best and Co., my mother would go to this bookstore in a neighboring town and browse for an hour. She would read the NY Times Book Review section the way some of my uncles read racing forms. She was looking for winners, for long shots that might prove perfect.

My mother would special-order books from England long before most people even considered buying from abroad. She had complete collections by those authors she most admired--bound editions on good paper. Owning these items was important to my mother--who had maybe six dresses hanging in her closet, and three pairs of shoes--when not much else in terms of ownership mattered.

My mother, like my father, had left school after the eighth grade, to go to work. Her native language was the patois of Quebec; she taught herself English by reading and going to the movies. And the English she taught herself was the English of D.H. Lawrence, John Milton, Ernest Hemingway, and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Mine was the only mother on the block to have three copies of PARADISE LOST, so that she could lend them out if anyone wanted to borrow them (this rarely happened). Mine was the only Mom on Long Island to tape onto the fridge quotations from Walt Whitman (“Sail forth...Steer for deep waters only...We shall risk the ship, ourselves, and all”) as well as some from Ezra Pound (“Take thought: I have weathered the storm. I have beaten my exile”).

Other Moms had sayings like “Bless This Mess!” gracing their kitchens, and mine had “They also serve who only stand and wait” from Milton’s sonnet “On His Blindness.” God forgive me, but I used to be embarrassed by my mother’s literary leanings. I wanted a regular Long Island Mom, with bouffant hair and tight jeans and white go-go boots. My mother fashioned herself after FILM NOIR actresses, wore only dresses (never slacks), black stockings, high heels, and Ray-Bans. She would  fit perfectly into any Starbucks today, but she missed her time. I like to think she would have ordered my books.

Texts and textiles, those are woven together in my memories of childhood.  I wrapped both around me and felt warmer, and safer, and reassured.