June-July 21, 2021
Part 1: Helen
I think it was 1998 when I first met Helen Wilson, my father’s artist friend, but I have thought of her often since then. I was in Oregon in a soggy spring, getting ready to travel on a cross country road trip, and Dad wanted me to “go meet a client.” In those days my father was B.G. Hicks, Engineering Geologist, license plate GEOREGON on his forest green Toyota truck. He had retired from the Forest Service and was consulting with folks about Geologist things: wells, drainage, roads. Helen lived out on the old Highway under the Siskiyou Summit (the same road we took the Bus down on our recent visit), and she had, as I remember, drainage issues. I was familiar with being taken to jobsites with dad. In fact, when I was cleaning out the basement at 190 Vista Street I found thousands and thousands of pictures from these geological engineering jobs, most of which looked like, well, dirt, or dirt and rocks with a ruler, or dirt, rocks, a ruler and maybe some muddy water. I remember I was happy to being going out with dad that day, driving the roads out toward Emigrant Lake.
Spring in Oregon is one long muddy slog, the rain falling endlessly, it seems. Ken Kesey, a man who truly understood Oregon’s weather, had this to say about the rain: “ […]an old gray aunt who came to visit every winter and stayed till spring.” And even though it was spring when we went to Helen’s house, it was March, which is really often more like winter, or at least, that is how it was then before everything changed. I didn’t know what to expect from this Helen Wilson person—another old girlfriend? Another aging hippie? A rich lady? But then we arrived at her little farmhouse, and there she was. Helen had white hair and a house full of things, but she was an enchanted witch, to me. She was like the woman in the cottage in my dreams, full of secrets and stories. She showed us a giant glass table with dried grasses under it and told me it celebrated her marriage or a lover—I’ve forgotten which—and then she took me to see her studio. In the years since, I have often thought of Helen’s studio. My memory may be embellishing this, but I never forget the place. One side was huge walls of glass that looked out into the valleys and mountains, and canvases were everywhere showing those same mountains and hills in paint, whimsical colors, as though Wayne Thiebaud painted mountains and not cupcakes. But painting was not Helen’s actual medium, for Helen was a fabric artist.
She had all these custom drawers built into the walls of her studio and under the long counter under the windows, and every one of those drawers was full of fabric. There was antique lace, which Helen showed me in her “Wedding Dress” tapestry, and every color you can think of: redorangeyellowgreenbluepurplepinkwhiteblackbrowntanrustmustard—the Crayola box in fabric, and it was muslin and cotton and velvet and silk and brocade and wool, printed and solid, large pieces, small pieces, yarn, ribbon, trim…Later when I began to sew puppets and dolls I dreamed of having a space like Helen’s, and to this day it remains my dream.
But on that long ago spring day, Helen made us tea and took my hand. She showed me her card, a gold Gingko leaf embossed, and told me that it was her symbol because it stood for longevity and endurance. Really, it was a bit like meeting Maude from Harold and Maude, my teenage heroine, and I remember her pressing my hand and telling me fiercely: “You must live your life, really live, in order to make art!”
Part 2: The Ancestors
I know dad kept working with Helen on her property and stayed close when she moved to town, and then stayed in touch during one of those slow declines involving cats and old age and assisted living. She gave him a beautiful Volcano tapestry that he loved dearly. I first encountered this piece one summer in Oregon when he asked me to bind the edges, but I could see it was beyond my sewing skills, so I suggested he find a quilter. I remember holding it and looking at how it was made—many, many stitches, very carefully done, exquisite. There was also a painting by Helen in my old room at Vista Street, hills in lavender and green, a very Oregon spring piece, and I would often think back to that visit when I saw it.
**Side note: July 27, 2021: I woke up to the rain falling here in Ashland, the slow summer rain, and all the smells of wet pavement and Oregon rain, as though I had conjured it with this post**
However, the way the world is, with all the business and so-called important things to do, Helen drifted out of my consciousness. I knew at some point she was no longer walking with us on this planet, but I was happy my father had her volcano tapestry to remind him. And then, the cataclysm came. The fire that tore through Ashland and Talent and Phoenix all along Bear Creek in September of 2020 and took my parent’s home, and with it, Helen’s tapestry. The night of the fire I saw it on Twitter of all places, wondering why “Medford” was trending, and then I clicked, and clicked, and saw the maps, and called and worried, and finally knew: everything in their home was gone. I tried to imagine what that would be like, but I couldn’t. This summer when we came to see dad with the Bus and Paula showed me the route of the fire, I started to think about what I could do to give them something back, but it was the trip, and I was sick, and there was the Bus, but as we drove towards home an idea came to me: I know how to sew, and I am artistic, and so I decided I could make a new volcano tapestry for my folks.
In fact, the first day we were really home, I made Robert go to the fabric store, and there I purchased some black cotton, some muslin for the back, and assorted colors. I hauled out my scrap fabric suitcase from my puppet making days, and I began to piece. Digging through my scrap fabric suitcase, smelling the must of old linen and seeing the patterns from so long ago, I thought, “This is the ancestor box.” I thought of Laura Ingalls Wilder and I thought of the button jar my mother had, an old Skippy peanut butter jar from filled with buttons I loved to sort as a child, and I thought of my grandmother’s trunk, filled with odds and ends of lace, beaver cuffs from a forgotten coat, crocheted buttons, and horn buttons and antique dolls scary in ancient muslin and frozen faces, the mirror that traveled through the Civil War. It is a privilege to have such things, I know. So many people have lost their memories and their mementos, whether through fire like my parents, or just loss, or because of slavery or forced marches or genocide. I had been reading Braiding Sweetgrass, so the thoughts of ancestors were with me, then.
I was scared and excited to begin, and I said a prayer in a non-religious way for Helen to guide me, but then it seemed like the fabric knew where it wanted to go, and as I worked I started to feel the magic of the fabric and sewing again. Quilts, tapestry, weavings: all women’s work, but what messages are sent in each stitch or hitch? What lovesong in crochet or knit one purl one? At one point I decided the pins weren’t working and wanted to use fabric glue, but that felt weird, somehow. I was worrying it wasn’t traditional enough, and I was also thinking, “I can just tell Paula I can’t do this and let it go,” and then I heard Helen’s voice: “Granddaughter Jenny, use the glue. Progress is there for a reason.”
My years of watercolors served me well, for I knew the shape of mountains and hills, and I came to feel even more like a Geologist’s Daughter as I imagined a zig-zag stich as a fault, and then sewed a crazy quilt of faults, upthrusts and tectonics, just like my father taught me so long ago, and there they were, the stitches telling the story. I was patting the warm flank of my sewing machine, trusty steed, as we sewed the fault lines together, together, imagining a piece of gray velvet as basalt.
A mountain is not built in a day, and it came to seem like geologic time was actually happening with the tapestry. I mis-placed pieces and I seam ripped and I hand-sewed and machine sewed and still I was not done. The threads tangled, I sewed into a hidden safety pin, and still, I was not done. The date of my departure approached, and I sewed, and still, I was not done. I imagined that the little town of teepees in the original was a native settlement, and then I decided to sew part of the Bus’s original curtains into the sun/moon, and then I had to tear that out and begin again, and still, I was not done. I thought of my father, the mountains, Oregon, Helen, and I made tents or trees from the Bus curtains, cut up an old napkin from the 70’s we had used in the Bus as greenery, and then tried to get everything square and straight with no table, and still, I was not done. At 12:00 a.m. the night before I had to leave, I sewed the last seam (crooked), packed my seam ripper, and headed North.
All the time I was cutting and sewing and ripping and resewing, I thought of all the stitches and the work as a way to tell my father I love him, and still, I was not done. I have finally realized that there is nothing I can make or do that can show that, and still, I am not done, and that is OK. Loving a person is a work of life, an on-going event, and if you are very, very lucky, it will never be done.
The tapestry I made will hang on the wall, and I will know all of the secret flaws, know where it is crooked or not plumb, know where the stitches that were picked out and re-sewn lie, and none of that matters at all, not at all. This trip will end just like the last one ended, but this trip will also go on, and the tapestry will hang on the wall.
I am thankful for my father and for Helen and for all the people who have taught me, helped me, walked beside me, and for those who walk with me still, and thankful for those who are no longer here, or whose paths have diverged. But most of all, I am thankful for that I live on a planet with dogs (and turtles, don’t forget turtles, and tortoises, and rabbits, and bears, and…OK, just creatures, and plants! And my cactus who is being repotted, and the trees, and the grasses, and the fungi, and the invertebrates…this could go on forever, and I guess that is the point) and I miss my Puppymonster very much. And still, I am not done.