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I Am Penelope

by Emily Wallace 2 years ago in grief

A weaver's view of a family funeral

Carrying each strand of thread from one end of the table to the other, I begin warping the loom, wrapping each loop onto the wooden peg. My studio, quiet today, feels less bright somehow—colors of various yarns muted and joyless. Maybe the overcast sky is to blame.

Today I am Penelope, weaving a burial shroud. Unlike her, however, I lack the luxury of unraveling my work to prolong the outcome.

Grandmother’s death, while anticipated, came too soon—only fifteen months after Granddad passed. Her heart gave out in the end. Both she and Granddad lived eighty-four years—a long life—but not long enough for me. Dawn carried my grandmother to the Elysian Fields, final resting place of the heroic and virtuous.

The soft strands of wool glide through my fingers until all of the vertical slots on the heddle are filled.

My scissors vibrate slightly in my hand as they cut the threads at the far end of the table. These scissors aren’t like my Grandmother’s thick metal ones I used as a child, always in the drawer to the left of the kitchen sink. Mine are plastic handled and the metal is thin, usually only lasting a year or so before being replaced.

I wind the loose strands onto the warp beam, struggling to maintain the tension needed for a balanced warp. My back hurts under the strain, but pain cannot be separated from the process, and weaving cannot be achieved without tension.

Aunt Paula, Grandmother’s youngest daughter, is not attending the funeral. My mother seems surprised, but I’m not. She hadn’t bothered coming to her father’s funeral either. She plans to arrive the day after the funeral—conveniently—to collect her belongings from her parent’s home. (Her belongings won’t be the only ones she takes). Dad won’t confirm my suspicions, but I know money has been requested. Where was she when Grandmother mourned for Granddad? Where was she when Grandmother stared listlessly up the road, waiting for him to come home? Aunt Paula lives in Texas…hiding from God-knows-what. We were the ones left behind to watch grief devour my precious Grandmother.

Sleying the reed, I pull each loose strand of thread through the vertical slits on the beater —the device that packs each row of thread into place. The repetitive motion fatigues my arms—another part of the process.

Tying the loose ends onto the apron rod, I double-check the tension before weaving a header with scrap yarn to close the spaces between each thread grouping.

The loom dressed, I listen to Billy Holiday on my iPhone to ward off the ringing in my ears—the side effect of too much silence. Grandmother often complained of ringing ears and I wonder if it’s hereditary.

Weaving the weft feels like walking downhill, taking half the time it takes to dress the loom. Wrapping thread onto a stick shuttle, I lift the heddle into the “up shed” position before sliding the shuttle through the opened space. Switching the heddle into the “down shed” position, I beat the thread into place with the reed.

This plain weave pattern requires little effort, allowing my attention to stray without any detriment to the fabric being created under my hands. Up, down, repeat…until the end of days—or in this case, until the warp runs out.

The funeral proves just as effortless, and at some point I’m floating through the proceedings—hugging immediate family members, shaking the hands of strangers who knew Grandmother. Names run together and the pastor’s sermon fades in and out of my hearing.

I can still feel my grandmother’s soft hands on mine—hands that knew the manual labor of farming but were never calloused by it. The last prayer brings us to the final parting where dirt and decaying flowers cover the earth mound marking my grandmother’s existence alongside her husband of fifty-plus years.

I cut the newly woven fabric from the loom after deciding the length is sufficient. No longer Penelope, but one of the Fates, I unroll and cut my work from the loom.

Fulling will follow—part of the post-weaving process—but for now, I’ll sit for a while, at least long enough for the fabric to soak in scalding hot water.

Fibers must swell and cling together before the fabric is stable enough for use. Its life on the loom is brief, and it now moves on to its next form—whether scarf, pillow covering, or clothing.


Emily Wallace

Mother, writer, musician and textile artisan from Alabama

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