Ways of Seeing: A Christmas present

Last year the Holiday Craft Series at Middlebury’s Ilsley Library offered a session on making balsam pillows. The newsletter described the program, “Expert seamstress Susan Highley will guide us in creating these simple sewn gifts.” I don’t know why, but I am drawn to the workshop.
When I get to the library, I notice a table with a basket of material, a container of buttons, some notions, an ironing board and iron, along with a sewing machine. About 15 kids and adults are cutting, sewing and filling pouches. This is what I see, but what I really notice is the smell of balsam.
I walk around the tables, sifting through material until I find some green cotton with stars and moons and snowflakes. I cut two five-inch pieces of cloth as the sheet of directions on the table directs. Standing beside me is Chris, the reference librarian, who used to play with my kids when they were all around 3 years old. He starts talking to me and I can’t ignore what’s happening inside any longer. He says, “So, Sas, have you ever made these before?”
“We used to live on making balsam pillows in the hippy days. Our whole income was from selling them.” I think, yes, we sold the little ones for $3 and if we sold half-a-dozen, we could eat well for a week or two. I speak very softly, but everyone hears. It’s a small town and everyone knows everyone. “I have made thousands of them. Ken would weave the material and I would sew them,” I say. I am surprised to hear the words come out of my mouth. I don’t usually talk about Ken since we have been divorced for decades.
“Oh,” says Chris, “You made them of woven material. Maybe I remember that. Does Ken still weave?”
“No, in fact, he has cancer now.” I don’t add that he has just sold his loom and he has sent me the amount he got from selling it. Also in the envelope was a letter telling me how touched he was that I trusted him with my life savings so he could buy that loom.
“Oh, I’m sorry.”
I busy myself with cutting the five-inch pieces but can hardly focus with the balsam smell bringing back memories of a house we built in the Northeast Kingdom, of the chickens, the rabbits, the garden and the birth of our son with just the two of us. When the town opened the road for us, balsam trees needed to be cut and trimmed. We would walk to the mailbox each day and smell that heavenly smell. The idea of “smell cushions” combined Ken’s weaving with what was freely available from our environment. Ken would come in the door with branches, then grind them with a hand meat grinder and dry them near our wood stove.  Every breath was balsam incense.
“Where did you sell them?” asks Chris, bringing me back.
“All over. New York — in the best stores. New Hampshire Crafts Stores. Frog Hollow.”
I am having trouble answering, thinking or making a decision about making a balsam pillow with the scent overpowering me. I find some tatting and hand sew it onto the material.
Chris comes by. “So you are adding the Milky Way.”
I nod.
I felt the challenge of making a life on eight acres a friend gave us. We took down a warehouse in Island Pond for lumber to build the house. We had no money. The mail was our connection with the outside world. No telephone. No electricity. Our VW bus had broken down after transporting a gas refrigerator from Connecticut. We had a brook for water. Balsam. I never imagined by putting weaving and balsam together, the product would become our means of survival.
The sewing machine needle moves up and down while Chris sews the seam on his pillow. I am slowly, slowly attaching the “Milky Way” as I sit beside the container with the needles.
And then I get it. I need to make another one. One for Ken to remind him of this time in his life. One to soften his rough road. I find two pewter buttons in the shape of hearts after I cut out material for a second pillow. I sew one button to each side of the material with moon, star and snowflakes, just like mine. I zip the seams on the sewing machine, as if the years are seamless. The librarians are cleaning up. Students have left.
As I walk to my car, I smile. I know that when Ken opens the “smell cushion,” he will remember. When he sees the hearts, he will know love never ends. I know for sure that this is the best present I am giving this year.
Sas Carey is the director of three documentaries about Mongolian nomads and author of “Reindeer Herders in My Heart.” She hopes to return to Mongolia in 2017 to begin filming a new documentary. She lives in Middlebury.

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