our schoolhouse, after an early snow stormEven I, teller of outlandish tales of an unconventional childhood, have the sense to know that some stories are better off not told. As much as I have been tempted to put it all down, The Placenta Story will never exist in print. Neither will The Story of The Night our House Burned Down (Also Known as The Most Unsuccessful Sleep-over Ever), or The Story About the Time the Policemen Came. Likewise for The Story About the Year That our Well Made us Sick, or What Really Happened to Triscuit The Kitten.
Until a few days ago I would have put The Mouse Story on that list too. But last Sunday something happened in Vermont that is a story in itself, and while it will likely begin a debate about wether or not children should be allowed to touch dead things (which I, for the record, am not condoning), its actually a story about understanding and acceptance and its worth telling even if it is a little frightening.
The Mouse Story
When my sister and I were very small, perhaps 5 or 6, we loved an old tomcat. His name was Teddy, and he was such a wet black color that even when you were very close to him it was difficult to make out the shape of his chin or where his legs began. Usually it was just his eyes that you could see, and they were used to convey little else than a mixture of wisdom and intense annoyance. He had already been living in the one room schoolhouse when we moved into it, so no one knew for sure how old he was. Now, when I imagine him living with a young, beautiful, broke single mother and two tiny little girls on top of a cold mountain, its easy to believe that when he began to hunt for us it was because he knew far better than we did how close we three toed the line of survival.
Teddy’s strategy for getting through a Vermont winter was similar to our mother’s: sleep through as much of it as possible. In the coldest months he would curl up for hours and hours under the pot belly wood-stove that was our sole source of heat, sometimes for so long that his whiskers would begin to twist up at the tips and his thick black fur crackled when you touched it. My sister and I would dry off in front of the stove after our bed-time baths, while he watched us suspiciously from underneath, peering out between the chrome clawed feet. We would wait until he wasn’t looking and yank him out by his thick tail, and run as fast as we could clutching him in our arms, trying to get him into our bed while he was still hot. Then we would stuff him under the covers and scramble around, holding the blankets down in every direction. The point was not to convince him to stay, it was just to keep him under there long enough to warm things up. He would eventually tear his way free, throwing disgusted glances over his shoulder as he marched back to his stove. We would wake up hours later, with the stove gone out and the house filled with that dusty cold blue morning light, to find him stretched out with stiff legs against our backs, pushing us slowly off our mattress, stealing back his heat.
The first mouse that Teddy brought us was very fat. I found him early one morning next to my sister, who was still asleep, and pulled him by his tail onto the palm of my hand. He hadn’t been dead for very long, maybe just minutes. His belly was a perfect creamy white and his fur was soft and clean. I guessed that this was probably an inside mouse, not the burly field variety. His eyes were closed, but just barely, and when I spread apart his tiny claws I could see that he had hands that were like mine, pink and with lines in all the same places. It was far easier to believe that he was sleeping than to understand that he was dead, so I made a small bed for him with toilet paper and a mate-less wool sock and arranged him on his side with one arm over the covers, the way I imagined that people who lived in houses that were never cold would sleep.
When my sister woke up I showed her what I had done, but when I tried to pull the blankets back to point to the perfect white fur on our mouse’s belly I found that he had grown stiff, his one crooked arm now firmly holding his sock blanket tightly in place. This was not our first lesson in rigamortis, because we had seen plenty of not-so-freshly killed small animals in our lifetimes, but it was the overhead light-bulb moment that began a season or three of dressing and staging sometimes elaborate dioramas peopled by small mammals, all of them dressed and arranged just before their limbs began to stiffen. Action figures had just been invented, but were out of our reach geographically and economically. We knew about them, though, and were more than a little inspired by the commercials for them that had begun to appear during Saturday morning cartoons. I remember knitting a bright red scarf from a skein of embroidery thread on two toothpicks for a Blue Jay that Teddy had swiped off a snowy limb. Romeo and Juliet was a constant theme, as were many of the greek myths. There was a thin young chipmunk bride dressed in antique lace, her groom a fat old blind mole wearing nothing but a top hat. We liked that he looked as though he had gone to his own wedding having forgotten his pants, being blind and all.
We managed to keep this a secret from our mother, usually. She would not have been horrified, because she wasn’t afraid of anything. She and teddy had that in common. She would walk straight out the door and into the middle of the night to get the cigarettes she had forgotten in the car or a piece of firewood for the stove, glaring back at the sets of shining eyes that always surrounded our little house. When we walked by alone, those eyse would seem to be looming, stalking. When she or Teddy was with us, they seemed to cower. Still, we kept our new playthings out of her path. But then came the social event of the season, too big to be overlooked. It was a debutante ball based on a page from Eloise that included feather caps, though I can’t remember who wore them. Preparation had gone on for days. It was heavily attended and went on into the wee hours, but ended in disaster, as some parties that go on too long are apt to do. The guests had begun to smell and thus were discovered and crashed by our angry uninvited mother, who threw every last one of them out the back door and into the winter. Teddy, who ate only the freshest of foods, looked on with disinterest.
Are you thoroughly shocked yet? Image how Teddy felt. Here he had worked so hard to provide a warm, fat meal for two scrawny little girls and all they wanted to do was dress it up.
Eventually we started to sew and knit for dolls, who could be counted on not to rot. Teddy died of extreme old age in late summer in the flower garden when we were nine. My mother knew that he was dead and not asleep because he was in the shade. He picked his spots much more carefully than that. We understood by then that people, if they are lucky, live a long, long time, but that most other things do not. We knew that it was OK to love something long after it had died. I’m not saying its OK to dress it up. I’m saying its OK to love it. In the world that we created for ourselves in that remote house surrounded by shining eyes and small societies we were vastly outnumbered and we knew it. Being afraid would not do, and we were naturally curious (and, at times, bored) enough to gain an understanding of what happened around us. If fear is the beginning of hate, then understanding is the beginning of love.
I think maybe this was also the beginning of my design career, if you can stand the idea of that. I made the mistake of making this claim ten years ago to a young student from SCAD who had called to interview me about how I started designing clothes. I had been put on a list of mentor designers used by textile students to fulfill a professional interview requirement. It was the first call I ever got, and also the last.
I hadn’t told that story many times since, and never in front of new friends or clients. Until, that is, last weekend during dinner at our August 15th/16th Weekend Sewing Workshop at Blueberry Hill. It was likely the combination of being in Vermont among what felt like like-minded new friends and perhaps a little too much wine during cocktail hour at the teepee, and once again wanting to find a new way to field that “how did you learn to sew” or “how did you get your start?” question. After I told it I looked around at a few shocked faces and had that sinking feeling that I would likely be remembered for that little mouse story more than anything else I would do or say over the weekend, because that’s how it works. I fell asleep that night wondering if I would ever learn to keep my mouth shut.
Sunday morning was our last and was full of rushing around, Denyse led a great little workshop and I was distracted by my own self imposed impossible deadline to sew a tie for Tony the Innkeeper. One guest, Jean, didn’t seem to be making a lot of progress on her project and would shoo me away whenever I got close to her workstation, but I didn’t think too much of it. We gathered for a group picture and then broke apart again, and then Jean came up to me and put something into my hands. It took me a minute to see what it was, but everyone else already knew. It was a mouse. A perfectly preserved, mummified by nature (it had been found along the road, and had been there for so long that its decomposition was complete and it no longer smelled), little gray mouse. She was dressed in - and this was really remarkable - a tiny Ice Cream Dress made from Liberty of London fabrics, and laid out on a fabric barge surrounded by flowers, and covered with a perfect little Denyse Schmidt inspired quilt. “Ophelia”, said Jean, “drifting down the river”. “Of course”, I said, “Of course she is”.
I go back to Vermont because that’s where I come from, so I make more sense there, at least to myself. I bring people there because I am determined to show them - to make them understand - how remarkable a place it is. I hadn’t expected to ever be the thing that was made to feel understood.
Blueberry Hill Inn is a lot like the old houses I grew up in in Vermont, and nearly as remote. It has musty books and creaky floors and wildflowers and a frog pond. It sits against the top of a mountain and is surrounded by lots of shining eyes at night. And there is something about the way that they keep their front door open all day so that when you are standing in the kitchen you can see straight down the front hall, and then, because the front yard drops away beneath a high stone stoop, and because the bright sunlight obscures the line between them, the hall fades right into a deep meadow that reaches all the way to the tops of the mountains beyond. The whole of the hillside feels like its just another room. Liesl and I were up late one night between workshops, talking with our husbands in the Inn’s sitting room. It had been raining very hard all evening. Suddenly, a rubbery little frog bounced frantically across the hearth. I picked him up and brought him to the front door, intending to shoo him into the wet grass. But at the last minute I realized that he may very well be an inside frog, so I left the door open and put him on the stoop, and walked away leaving him to decide where he had come from.