At the bottom of my laundry basket there has been, for three years now, a layer of white damask table linens. I have shown remarkable persistence in not dealing with them. It came about like this:
Christmas of 2011 generated the first stratum. I should have washed and ironed the tablecloth and napkins right after that joyful event, but I was in the middle of writing my second novel, Fiesta of Smoke, and so, all through the spring and summer of 2012, I put it off. Then, on July 27, 2012, my husband David had a massive stroke and heart attack. We spent a month in hospitals and rehab clinics, with me sleeping in a chair beside his bed, doing the final editing of Fiesta of Smoke while he was in an adjoining room relearning how to walk. Linens were the furthest thing from my mind. For Christmas that year I dug out a fresh set of linens, and we sat down with family and friends to celebrate not only the season but the simple fact of being alive and of returning health.
That brings us to Thanksgiving and Christmas of 2013, when I knew—really, I really really did know—that I should deal with the accreted strata at the bottom of the basket. However, at that point I was writing furiously to meet the deadline for my third novel, Well In Time. So out came another tablecloth and more napkins from the apparently inexhaustible stash I had inherited from my mother.
2014 went by so fast that I can’t say if I felt any guilt toward the neglected items at the bottom of the basket or not. Half of the year was consumed in the final tweaking of Well In Time, and another third with a health crisis of my own. When Christmas arrived, David and I decided to forego our traditional feasting extravaganza in favor of a quiet day together. I set our table for two with colorful linen kitchen towels, and that was that.
Yesterday, to my own amazement—and if linens were sentient, it would no doubt have been to theirs, as well—I was suddenly taken with an urge to wash and iron these long-neglected articles that are so essential to my sense of a festive table. So voluminous had the pile become, I had to divide it into two loads. I washed the first and then put it in a low dryer for fifteen minutes. Then I carried the still semi-sodden mass into my studio, where I had, in the interim, set up my ironing board and iron.
Linen loves to be ironed while very damp. There is a way unique to linen that the fabric puckers and dips when wet, then lies down crisp and aligned under the iron’s hottest setting. I stood for an hour and a half yesterday witnessing this simple phenomenon with a kind of mindless pleasure.
Even more pleasing are the individual napkins themselves. Each square of antique damask is unique. I marvel over the woven, white-on-white designs. What made the designer think that clover leaves and a geometric meander pattern go together? One is centered with a wreath of holly, bordered in a Greek key design. Another is edged in roses encircling a field of fleur de lis, and my favorite has delicate traceries of flowers and ferns. A tablecloth big as a queen-sized bed sheet has laurel wreaths all around the outside, with a center completely and inexplicably covered in polkadots.
Even stains don’t bother me: here, a line of silvery dots denotes ghostly dribbles of gravies past; there, a dense, heavy napkin is rusty from a careless guest having used it to mop up his spilled merlot. Feasts past are still present, as integral as warp and weft.
What paths have these bits of fabric, so durable and yet so needy of human intervention, traveled to my table? Some are from Ireland or England or France, and some are of American manufacture. This I surmise from the designs, the quality of the fabric, and the delicacy of the sewing. They bring with them images of an entire world of vanished industry—retting ponds now paved over, spinning wheels, distaffs and hand looms stored in attics, and textile mills long shuttered.
I think of my mother, bending over her ironing board—a wooden one—dreaming over these same mysterious and useful things, as perhaps her mother did, too, and her mother’s mother.
These are moments when I feel linked with women of other places and eras, as if we are of one mind and heart. We love our homes and families and willingly endure hours at the loom, the embroidery hoop, the wash board and ironing board to gift those we love the stability of tradition. Tatting, lace, pulled work, embroidery, and handwork for which I don’t even know the name, delicate, intricate, adorns these linens. Embroidered initials—BL, SM, MH—attest to this urge on the part of nameless women to leave their mark, and to gift the world with the joy of beauty, from days before television or digital media stole our time and our creative urges.
Some of my pieces are mended, showing that these linens come from a time before a throw-way culture took hold. Making things last was a virtue, and knowing how to mend them, an art. One of my napkins, of the finest linen, thin as gossamer, possibly hand-loomed, tore while in the wash. I ironed it anyway, with the promise that I would mend it. With a new novel underway, that will probably never happen. My heirs will inherit it, neatly ironed and folded, but torn, and wonder why I didn’t throw it out or use it for a rag. It has a doubled hem, all around, attached to the body of the napkin by faggoting, and an embroidered and pulled-work crest. Would I throw out this dearly labored-over scrap? Never! But I might let it languish in the bottom of the laundry basket for years, like secret honey stored by bees, a treasure for the future.
Suzan Still is the author of Fiesta of Smoke, Commune of Women, and Well in Time.