Delicate Handwork


Miss Della and Miss Faye thread needles one after the other after the other evenings on Fourth Street. They embroider spiraling initials and rosettes on ladies hankies, marching monograms on men’s shirt cuffs. The shop is small and on the first floor of the gray saltbox by the train tracks. They thread their needles at night on the second floor, where Miss Della makes tiny casseroles for their dinner and Miss Faye, on good, days looks out the window watching the trains pass. On bad days, Faye works meticulously on a set of handkerchiefs that were never ordered and will never be picked up. LFS, over and over.

Tonight, Della’s bubbling casserole is a cheesy mix of spinach and eggs and bits of ham. She slices and peppers tomatoes on a plate and sets the table with mismatched napkins, embroidered peacocks and lilies-of-the-valley. Faye and Della never sew for themselves. Some customers forget their orders.

Della at the window rises slowly and makes her way to the table. Faye says grace as always over the simple dinner, and Della doesn’t. After dinner they thread their needles, and lay each on the cleared table in rows of silky prisms. Just before dawn, Faye will be the one to make coffee, dig through the azaleas for the morning paper, and sweep the stoop, even though she, and not Della, is the pretty one.

Once the needle pierces, linen is disrupted forever. There can be no mistakes. Both women have the patterns in their fingers and that’s the magic of their handiwork, the reason customers all come with bare cloth and pay. Linen remembers too much handling, a pencil mark, a misplaced stitch. Faye and Della devote hours of careful fearlessness, the loop and tension of a thousand split-second decisions, holding their collective breaths snipping cutwork arcs without error.

They are artisans of the everyday. Handkerchiefs, no matter how finely hemmed, are made for tears and sneezes and wringing at funerals. Tablecloths catch spilled breakfast and napkins daub lipsticked mouths. Cuffs scratch against mahogany desks and soak in buckets of bluing. Della and Faye try not to think of it this way as the needles slide under and over and under a pansy’s delicate curve, balsa hoops holding the warp and weft taut. The intricacy of the needle holds them captive in the moment and they have unrelenting tunnel vision. Time suspends, spinning like a number three needle on a twisted thread.

Someone broke Della’s heart and scattered it across linen for forty years. If LFS married another, or died, or even ran away on one of the trains she watches from the window, it doesn’t really matter. LFS said no, leaving Della balancing precariously on the head of a pin and sitting at the window.

Della never cries because Faye knows exactly when to make tea or small gossip or to ask for something just out of reach. Faye has always known how to hold a butterfly on her finger.
Tonight Faye will go to the mirror, begin the meticulous art of tortoise comb and finger-wave clips. And Della at the window will watch as she always does, Faye’s ablutions reflecting in the glass.

(Another piece I’m playing with.)

It’s all about the side dishes, y’all


As I write there are scads of folks out there working the turkey. There are a few ways to do it right, and a thousand ways to do it wrong. Some of those cooking techniques are downright dangerous, and I’m sure we’ll all read about them in tomorrow’s paper. I’m not giving cooking tips at this late stage except to say that if you haven’t yet started cooking the bird by now, everyone’s having chicken fingers for dinner.

The turkey’s not really the point anyway. I know Paula’s probably whiteknuckled over such a thing, but deep down we all know the side dishes are the real star. Unless you’re serving one of those turducken monstrosities, but I can’t even wrap my mind around what it takes to put one of those on the table.

The staples – at least down here in Arkansas – are pre-FoodTV Network. That means canned green beans oozing in cream of mushroom soup, with a generous topping of canned, fried onion rings. It means sweet potatoes with brown sugar and tiny marshmallows. It means cornbread dressing with bits of boiled egg and whatever came in that white bag inside the turkey’s butt. It means butter beans and lumpy creamed potatoes. It means butter, butter, and more butter.

Now, you can bring something in addition to these staples, and should. A guest, whether invited or univited, should have some sort of covered dish in their hands when they show up. I know people in other places bring a bottle of wine, but that’s inadvisable around here. In a dry county full of Baptists it pays to know your crowd ahead of time.

You don’t want to be discussed.

And then there’s the jello salad. I think it defines the holiday and southerners in general. You only see a jello salad at covered-dish church socials, after funerals, and at Thanksgiving. No one looks forward to eating these things, yet everyone does. Every Woman of a Certain Age should have at least one good recipe for a festive jello salad, and if she’s a maiden aunt, two.

Dessert is a topic for another day. Besides, you’ve got cooking to do. So do I.