The strongest memories I hold of my Great-aunt Helen revolve around fibers and textiles, the 'soft goods' she used for years to weave her life to mine. She died on a Thursday night, weeks short of her eighty-seventh birthday. It was not dramatic; no real illness was identified until far too late. But it was not a surprise either. It was as if she decided it was time to go, and so she faded out of her life like well-worn fabric, leaving behind many threads that now are part of me.
While I was growing up in 1950s Brooklyn, Aunt Helen lived a few blocks away. One Saturday afternoon, when I was five or so, she and Uncle Frank dropped by, bringing two white Ebinger's Bakery boxes. We sat at the kitchen table, the grown-ups talking and waiting for the coffee to perk. The boxes, stacked and tied together, intrigued me. Knees sticking to the striped vinyl chair, I knelt and fiddled with the string, following its path around the boxes. A pair of adult hands reached over, untied the string, and gave it to me. Luscious aromas escaped the open boxes, mingling with the far fainter odor of cardboard. Still, the string held my attention as I wondered how the bakery ladies I had watched at the Avenue M store whipped the string around the boxes as quickly as they did, getting it perfect every time.
I knew Aunt Helen worked in a bakery long before I was born, so in the middle of all the grown-up-talk hubbub, I asked if she could do the string magic I had seen so many times. Smiling, she took the string, wrapped it around my left hand and stretched it up high. She slid one of the boxes closer, and swiftly demonstrated the art of tying up a box just so, guiding the string with her left hand and wrapping with her right. After that, I knew there wasn't anything Aunt Helen couldn't do.
When I was eight I decided I wanted long springy 'banana curls' like my friend, Eileen. So, I found myself one Saturday afternoon at Aunt Helen's house, about to get the full treatment. She started with the shampoo of my life, using water so hot my scalp still tingles at the thought. She soaped, scrubbed and rinsed twice, talking all the time about her friend around the block or the TV repairman, and making silly chitchat to her parakeet, Petey, the 'pretty boy' who watched from his cage in the corner. The wash finished, Aunt Helen wrapped a heavy towel around my still-steaming head, and we moved to the living room. She sat in a big chair and I sat on the floor, my back resting against her knees. She laughed and talked as her strong hands wove and knotted white cotton strips into my hair. Periodically, she puffed cigarette smoke over my head, the only silences in her constant stream of conversation. I handed her the fabric when she asked for it, and between times, while she tugged and twirled, I picked at the fuzz of her broadloom rug on either side of my legs. Later that afternoon, she unwrapped the cloth bits from my hair, and I had curls as springy as I had hoped.
Aunt Helen enjoyed sewing. She never saw a window that didn't need drapes or a girl who didn't need a new dress. I was ten and dreading the first anniversary of my mother's death when Aunt Helen announced a trip to a fabric shop in Manhattan. As the subway car descended from its bright, outdoor track into a dark underground tunnel, lights flashing and wheels squealing, Aunt Helen told me that I could pick out two fabrics -- materials, she called them -- from which she would make dresses. I wasn't really a dress kind of kid, but if Aunt Helen made them, they would be okay with me. She opened her purse and pulled out a pattern for a shirtwaist dress with a wide belt, showing me the style she would make.
The place was enormous, more warehouse than shop, jammed with bolts of cloth of every color and type. Aunt Helen was all business. She consulted a list and together we found all the needed items. She bargained a bit, not satisfied with the stiffness of the buckram. There was a lot of talk about it with the man who owned the place. I didn't even know what buckram was, but I was impressed: she not only knew, but could tell good buckram from bad. When we finished with the list, it was time for me to choose my fabrics. I selected smooth, mustardy cotton with an abstract pattern of scratchy black lines, and coarse-weave lavender broadcloth. Aunt Helen fingered the bolts, and then tilted them toward the light, reading the fine print on the end of each cardboard core. She approved. We chose thread, buttons, zippers, and the rest of the notions. I loved those dresses, especially the lavender one, which I wore until the buttons nearly popped, the belted waist perched inches above my own, and the hemline no longer neared the vicinity of my knees.
In the middle of my tenth summer, on one of those endless days when no friends were around, I walked to Aunt Helen's house and found her ironing in her finished basement. The steamy smell of starched cloth permeated the room. I sat down and watched her, listening to the latest news of her friends, relatives and neighbors. She was in her element, and the image of her in black Capris, white sleeveless shirt and Keds, laughing, talking and patting the warm ironed cloth is the one I would paint if I could.
When I last saw Aunt Helen, she was in bed, stroking one of her stuffed animals, a gift from some relative. We all knew she liked the feel of cloth and fiber and that it was a vital and sustaining part of her life. I talked to her a while but she didn't have much to say. Her pale, thin-skinned right hand, the one that swept the string around the box, grasped the corner of the white hospital sheet. It was something to hold onto, and I suppose it felt right. As I bent to kiss her goodbye, our hands touched, and for one more moment we connected through the white cotton threads, the kind that had woven us together over the course of a lifetime.
BIO: Lydia Fazio Theys is an astronomer by training, a technical writer by necessity, and a creative writer by night. Born in Brooklyn, New York, she now lives in Connecticut with her husband and their two children. Two cats, one fat and the other crotchety, a completely neurotic Italian Greyhound, and whatever else wanders in through the cat door round out the mix. She recently has begun submitting work for publication, and her pieces can be found in slush piles around the country.