And somewhere in there, as my hands ached from the work, I began to grieve
stitch stitch stitch stitch
Mourning was once an event. It still is now, in some sense: a wake, a funeral, the luncheon after. But then the idea is you move on, maybe revisit the death in a year or two. After that, it’s often never brought up again. Or, when it is, the intensity of the loss is “supposed” to have wavered. This was, however, not always the case. During the Victorian period, mourning occurred for months, if not years. When people died we wore them on our sleeves, around our necks, in our pockets. We converted the fine material, like hair, into new forms: brooches, lockets, rings, wristbands, bracelets, wreaths, earrings, cuff links, shadow box wall art. Every detail on these pieces represented a personal choice.
But what gave these objects their true meaning and power were the stories braided into them, knotted through the locks, pressed into shape. Their intended function was not on account of their design, but the memory, the story, they stood for. According to Deborah Lutz, author of “The Dead Still Among Us: Victorian Secular Relics, Hair Jewelry, and Death Culture,” death not only brings “the tragedy of turning people into things—of subject into object—but it might also start inanimate objects into life.”
Mourning jewelry embodied traces of a life and personhood disappeared. Provided proof of their once existence. By possessing a piece of the beloved, you had a physical link to them. These pieces revealed a desire to carry the soul of your loved one with you, as if living with their hair sewn into your necklace or pinned onto your coat was like walking with them again.
Our basement was lined with Grandpa’s things—with his memories. Not just those we shared but ones wholly his own, ones we may never come to know. Between the scattered notebook pages, Chinese menus with one or two scrawled mystery messages, Great-Grandpa Jack’s old police gun, there sat his clothes: Wrangler jeans, 2XL shirts with a 17.5-inch neck—the only ones he ever wore.
I knew Grandpa in light-wash jeans and button-down shirts. I knew him as a protruding stomach, the linger of cigarettes following him around. The white plastic chair he carried to baseball games, parks, on fishing trips, now tucked away in our garage, where he snuck to after exactly two hours to smoke. I knew him by pockets: wire-frame square glasses, a packet of cigarettes for the first half of the day, a rotating collection of styluses for his phone. I knew him by the tamp of a filter on his brown leather watch.
When Grandpa passed, I thought of what we could do with those boxes of strewn-together bits that made up his entire life. The idea of them growing dust beneath our feet, forgotten—that frightened me. With the sewing bug having struck, nothing sounded more comforting than spending minute after minute, hour after hour, running fabric through my hands, the motor roaring away silence.
“How many of Grandpa’s jeans do we have?” I asked Mom. “And how many would you be willing to part with? I want to do something with them, rather than, you know, just have them sit down here.”
“Of course; what do you have in mind?”
“I’m not really sure. Something I can wear. Carry him with me.”
She paused, tears forming in her eyes.
“That sounds wonderful.”
I heaved the bursting box of light-wash denim to my room. Ran my hands over the grass stains and fraying hems that told of being loved and worn, and together, Mom and I examined the artifacts—threads ran bare, frayed edges, knees with the weave ripped raw. Evidence of his life; proof he was.
When I started researching mourning jewelry for this essay, I hadn’t thought there would be many people still interested in it as a way to remember. The practice became unusual, according to Lutz, after the Victorian period: “No longer was it common practice to hold on to the remains of the dead.” So I was surprised when, after mentioning it on social media, a girl reached out saying she had been trying to get a ring made with her late dog’s fur for months. It took so long because she couldn’t find the right person to do it. There was one artist in California that she loved, but she worried the fur would get lost traveling across the country.
Mourning jewelry wasn’t on my mind when my grandfather died. A ring or a brooch or a pendant necklace wasn’t right for me, even as my aunt sent us images of bracelets she thought of purchasing.
“The pendant holds his ashes,” she said. But I knew I wanted to do something else.
The grief of losing someone you love is nonsensical. In that intangible mess and fog, I needed a physical act of remembering.
Singular images of my grandfather stand in place for many: the vision of him walking toward us at the baseball field, light-wash Wrangler jeans, blue button-down, holding his white plastic chair; my mother taking photos before every dance rehearsal when I was young, me in the most absurd costumes, Grandpa in light-wash Wrangler jeans and a blue button-down; in the summer, Grandpa bringing us plastic bags filled with his bounty of lettuces, wiping dirty hands on his light-wash Wrangler jeans and white button-down.
Evidence of his life; proof he was.
All clothing is pieces of fabric stitched together one knot at a time. And when my grandfather passed, the story of who he was became a quilt of our memories with him, sewn and basted and darned together. So I decided to make something like it.
I cut squares out of the denim. These jeans were treasured, are treasure. I had only a few. Some were frayed at the edges, with entire corners ripped raw. Cutting into them felt wrong deep down, though I knew he would love it. I pored over each centimeter. The squares were four inches by four inches, give or take depending on how tired I got with measuring. First, I cut up the leg seams and threw out the thick strip where the pieces were factory sewn together. I continued up to the crotch and then sideways. Only then, with the front and back untethered, could I begin to make the squares.
The denim fabric was tough, and I sometimes used both hands to cut through the material. But it also tore apart so easily once that first incision was made, the weaved threads breaking loose and making a mess on my floor, like pulling on one memory only to find a thousand more just like it. A coat seemed right. Something to wrap around my body when the weather got cold. A garment that could be made with such a rigid textile. I found a pattern online, printed it out, and set up my station: the squares piled in lopsided mounds, sewing needles in a transferware bowl.
As I cut through the fabric, I saw images of him, of us. Lutz wrote that many viewed the loss of mourning jewelry as a loss of storytelling. Shying away from death means we miss that moment in which “the meaning of life is completed and illuminated in its ending.” With my hands cramped around the silver scissors, I yanked up into the memory of him walking toward me. Cut ankle to waistline and saw the sheen of his green parka under the fall leaves. I marked four inches down on the freed strip and looked at him from behind the nursing home window in my graduation cap and gown. I turned the row into squares; I was dressed in red sequins looking out over the sea of parents to my grandfather beaming over at me from the recital audience. Every time, he was wearing these jeans.
The threads shed around the cut edge, and I tried to be gentle, to think about each memory weaved through the fabric: He’s sneaking our dogs treats. We are walking through the science museum; he is picking me up from school for lunch. He takes me to rehearsal and practice; he takes me to the library. Reads to me; drinks the pretend tea I brew from rainwater and flower petals. When I play kitchen for hours in the pool one summer he marvels at me, thinks I am the most incredible child he’s ever met.
The black switch transitioned from off to on, and the machine’s motor roared through the air with a mechanical chewing noise. To begin a row, I lined up one side of a square with another, fed it through the machine with a quarter-inch inseam. There was no iron, or I at least didn’t have the patience for one, so I simply ran my pointer finger over the crease until it lay mildly flat. Then I repeated. Built upon each square until one long, slim row grew in front of me.
Again, I copied the movements: line up, sew, cut the thread, begin again. The machine’s teeth moved each square along under the needle to an even meter, the crunch of metal pushing through jean, meeting the bobbin underneath, grabbing the thread to make a knot, and returning. Waves moving and crashing into each other, tide pulling under. I let my eyes unfocus until everything grew hazy and distant. I spent each night behind the beast. Feeding. Cutting. Ripping. Bleeding.
When I had enough rows, I sewed them together. The process was backbreaking: huddled over thick fabric that made my hands sore, going through spindle of blue thread after spindle of blue thread. Mindless. Numbing. Dull. Much the same way as the squares, I lined up each long side together and fed it through. Growing horizontally, the pieces created a checkerboard of washes, a kaleidoscope of worn proof. I ran out of jeans and devoured my own, interlocking pieces of our tapestries. An amassed textile appeared where there once had only been pieces.
Sewing the jacket together was the easiest part. Just three shapes that I stitched up in one night. The following day I cut out batting and a white fleece liner. I spent the next week quilting the jacket, my shoulders hunched into the machine, head ducked to watch the needle bob up and down across what’s called a valley: the dip between two pieces sewn together. I did this around every square across the front and back, connecting the outer pieces to the wool inside. The liner is a mess, all bumpy stitch mountains and jagged lines. But it’s perfect, and it fits me well—both hugging and hovering over my body; it shows the work. And Grandpa would have loved it, messy craftsmanship and all.
The Grandpa-coat made its way with me to my first semester of graduate school even though it was too warm to wear. Tucked into bed that first night, I cuddled the stiff denim into my chest like a stuffed animal. Christiane Holm writes in “Sentimental Cuts: Eighteenth-Century Mourning Jewelry with Hair” that “mourning jewels are exhibited secrets.” That no one but the wearer knows the true nature of their ornaments. I think of that now when I wear the coat and people compliment me on it. They have no idea I sewed it by hand; they have no idea I carry my grandfather on my back. Their kind words are a chance to tell his story. To refuse to shy away.
Jessica L. Pavia is a Pushcart Prize–nominated creative nonfiction writer based in Rochester, NY. You can find her work on Roxane Gay's The Audacity, the Columbia Journal, and as a columnist for Write or Die Magazine. She has an MFA in Writing from Sarah Lawrence College.