Thursday, June 18, 2020

On Finding Memories and Meaning in Unexpected Places


Last week thereabouts was my Dad's birthday, and were he not forever 75, he would've been 77.

It's interesting how these days sneak up on you, and just as interesting which ones you're able to ride with grace and self-compassion, and which ones kick you in the face, punt you into the air and drop you unceremoniously back at Square One. Grief literature are manifold and varied, but all agree that the first year is brutal (and the second year pretty much the same, only with fewer casseroles and sympathy cards). In the early months, I immersed myself in the fellowships of loss: online forums, support groups and coffee dates and books (Joan Didion's A Year of Magical Thinking was a particularly good read for validation in crazydom). It was deeply helpful to be with others in similar funks but after a while, I felt like I was suffering from death-fatigue and had to take breaks to be normal. Or act normal; I could never really tell which.

But along came the birthdays and anniversaries and public tribute days - those ironic firsts in the Time After. Milestones, the literature called them. Emotional minefields, it further cautioned. Dad's birthday and Father's Day a week later came and went like non-events, possibly because I was still in a stupor from the jetlag and the administrative matters one often has to sort through after a death. My birthday in the summer was surprisingly hard. I later wondered if it was because it was the one event in my life defined by having parents but which, unlike Father's or Mother's Day, was still uniquely and personally mine. Regardless, it blindsided me. I remember being non-functional that day, but not much else. My parents' wedding anniversary in December was sobering, of course, but it was the holiday season, the snow outside was pretty, we were prepping for a trip to Singapore to spend the holidays with my side of the family for the first time in 15 years, and we were busy, busy, busy.

Then, as Christmas drew closer, I fell apart, just as the grief books had so smugly predicted I would. We were losing Auntie Laura, and this trip to Singapore would be when we said our goodbyes. It would also be the first time the kids were in Singapore since Grandpa died and I anticipated revisiting the loss through their eyes, trying to make sense of Grandma's house - and the entirety of their Singapore experience - without him in it. And there were also family in Minnesota we'd wanted to be with, whose lives had not been upended this past year and who were looking forward to celebrating the season and all its traditions with bright, untainted happiness. The enormity of it all - the traveling, the waiting, the planning, the very obligation to anchor in the present while reckoning with past losses and impending farewells - hit me.

So I did the one thing I knew to do (apart from eating obscene amounts of chocolate and running on the treadmill like hunted prey, I mean). I made stuff that reminded me of Dad.

To be fair, almost all the stuff I make have associations to one person or another in my family of origin. I wrote in this post years ago that making keeps me connected to the place and the people who have a profound influence on who I am but whom I very rarely see. It is true that very few of us (who aren't still children, I mean) are living with our families of origin, but unless you have also moved across countries and continents and had to rebuild your identity and communal purpose in a different culture, you are still, to a large extent, home. Sewing, for instance, ties me to both my parents as well as my entire extended family. Each time I draft and sew a garment, I channel Mum, Auntie Laura, grandma and all the other sewing people who passed those skills down through the generations before me. Each time I make a bag, a case, a pouch, I am my father's daughter, designing a thing to meet a specific need, employing principles of geometry and engineering and physics and translating them between media: fabric, cardboard, wood. Making closed the miles between us, made me feel relieved that I hadn't forgotten what it meant to be me, and were the building blocks of new memories to be shared time and again via photos and FaceTime and phone calls home.

Last Christmas, however, was not a time like any other.

Projects like those - things I'd so giddily invented, photographed and blogged about - were often birthed out of a certain level of joy and engagement with the world around me, two aspects of the creative process that are so typically depleted by the grief experience. It was the strangest thing to be in the midst of the quintissential season of decorating and traditions and handmade everythings and wanting to want to make something, but having no emotional energy whatsoever. Then I remembered our little wooden Christmas trees, which the girls and I painted long ago, and suddenly I couldn't think of anything I'd wanted to do more.

So I did.

Even though Advent was the busiest time of the year and painting wooden blanks was the slowest art form in the known galaxy, what with the meticulous layering of the different colors over each other and speckling all the fiddly little details, let alone the drying between coats.

Grief, though, follows its own timeline. And right when my world felt most frenetic, the universe decided that I needed to claim that time - hours I thought I didn't have - and simply paint. I thought of Dad during, and remembered that he was a wonder with wood and a talented painter who made incredible things with just his hands and a few unfancy tools. I thought of Christmas and its symbolic hope for families who were intact and families who weren't. It made me slow down. It made me focus. It made me thankful for the years between those first Christmas trees and these new ones. It made me ascribe meaningfulness to an activity beyond simply feeling indulgent amidst frenzy and overscheduling. 

Interestingly, meaning is a big thing in grief literature. It's been called many names and assigned different roles but the consensus is that it's a goal well worth any effort, whenever and however it's ultimately attained.  Initially, I'd misunderstood that it was imperative to find meaning for the loss itself - why it happened, for instance, or how it might be turned around to benefit others decades down the road. More recently, I'm learning that it has much more to do with the person one has lost, and specifically the relationship one has had with them. 

Among the many things that are challenging in bereavement is the idea that we will never again make new memories after saying goodbye. There is some truth in that. We will never have new experiences together, or even conversations, and thus no new records of those interactions to become new memories. All our shared adventures will, from that point onward, be in the past - old, static and unevolving. Which of course is a odiously depressing situation mitigated only by the rare discovery of a hitherto unseen photograph or videoclip, an unread letter, an unheard story. These become treasures like no other because they are as close as we could ever get to seeing anew the face of our loved one, hearing their voice, or - even for just a moment, being once again with them.  

Here's a story about that - part rabbit trail, part treasure hunt, and - although I didn't know it at the time - a quest for meaning. When I was in Singapore in January for Auntie Laura's funeral, I remembered a book that used to be in my parents' home. It was a book on Chinese paper-cutting which Dad had checked out of the library when I was a child and because he never returned it, sat in our bookcase for years thereafter. The weeks after Dad's death had been full of urgent administrative responsibilities and soaking in Auntie Laura's company with fervent intention but in the quiet after her passing, I found that I was ready to begin collecting memories. Dad had been an artist - how perfect to have one of his paintings hanging in my home, I reasoned. Unfortunately, we'd never owned any  - because Dad was never particularly sentimental about his own work, all his art had long ago been either given away or thrown out with no hope of recovery. Except, perhaps, for one - a mural he'd painted on a school wall when I was a child. That book of papercuts was significant because I thought I remembered a piece in it that Dad had referenced for that project.

Mum and I tore the house upside down looking for that book. Surely we still had it, I reasoned; if the man had defied multiple renewal notices from the library in order to hoard it for decades, he could not possibly have decided to finally return it. Where would have been the fun in that? 

We did not find it. Mum eventually decided he must have given it away, as he had so many other things he'd owned. It was disappointing, but not the end of the world - we were able to reminisce a little, which was comforting, given the circumstances. I flew back to Minnesota after and told the husband about the mural and the sad, lost book.

"Try e-bay," he suggested. 

I was dubious. It's true that E-bay is a source of endless wonder (in more ways than one) but this was an obscure book whose author and title I didn't even remember. We googled it anyway.

And found it - by some insane, ludicrous miracle, some blessedly wonderful person in the United States owned a copy.  


We bought it (of course).

Even though I wasn't sure the artwork was even from this book. I'd been a child, then, and the memory was decades-old, vague and possibly embellished by blind hope in the throes of grief. It could've been my imagination, in other words. It could've been anything. It could've been nothing. 

When the book arrived in the mail, I didn't immediately rip the packaging open; had the memory been in error, this book - and all it didn't contain - would be yet another loss to mourn.

(Or I could live out the rest of my life with an untaken risk and never know.)

No brainer. 

I ripped open the packaging.

And there it was. 


What strange relief to know I hadn't misremembered the story after all: Dad had just received a posting to start a brand new elementary school with a group of his teacher-colleagues. He was the new art coordinator and one of his assignments was to make the school beautiful and give it a personality within the community. This piece of monochrome art became a vivid mural on one of the school walls. On weekends and over the school vacations, he painted it, mostly alone but sometimes another teacher friend would stop by to help. Occasionally, he'd take my brother and me with him and we would to paint it, too. 

A picture of the finished mural would've been a nice keepsake, something to frame and hang on a wall to remember Dad by, but we didn't even own a camera till years later. And taking a photo now with the fancypants cameras I do own is impossible because the mural itself no longer exists. That school building had long been demolished to make way for another bigger and more modern one. The brand new elementary school of which my Dad was part of the pioneer staff merged its population with another some years back, which then become part of an even bigger elementary school in a different part of the country. I wrote to the principal of that new school but I didn't hear back. Not surprising - it's extremely unlikely that she'd retain photographic records of a school wall whose history was two generations removed from her own. All trails, it seemed, were stone cold. 

But perhaps not on the internet. After all, one could hope, nothing ever disappears from the internet, right? 

Initial searches of "mural" and "picture" and the name of the school yielded zilch in Google's extensive database of images. But a photo of a group of students in the school uniform led to a link in someone's writeup of schools long extinct, which referenced a library archive, which unearthed this:

photo credit: National Library Board, Singapore
It was the electronic version of a print magazine which doubled as the program of the opening ceremony of that brand new elementary school.

The cover of which - and the school crest - my Dad had designed. My brother and I laughed about it after as we swopped stories. He remembered Dad confessing later that he hadn't actually been crazy about the school motto, despite having it printed on report books and T-shirts and water bottles. I remembered the paint and pens and transfer sheets he'd used to ink and set the lettering and artwork, so laborious and fiddly a process to imagine now that we have computers and fonts and page editors. I'd forgotten all that - and seeing my Dad's work on that cover was like being transported home - the home of the past when we were little, with all our lives ahead of us. 

Fascinating - and gratifying to see - though the cover was, I plowed through the rest of the magazine, looking for something more. There was a bio of Dad on one of the pages, accompanied by an unrecognizable photograph. There was a group shot of the entire staff - I managed to find Dad in the front row, in very dated clothes and in desperate need of a makeover. And then, toward the end, when there weren't nearly enough pages left to contain anything of value, my heart stilled.

There was the mural. It wasn't finished. 

photo credit: National Library Board, Singapore
But - oh, wonder of wonders - there was my Dad, painting it

photo credit: National Library Board, Singapore

I cannot adequately describe that moment of seeing it. There were immediate questions: was this taken after my brother and I had joined in, and if so, which parts of the mural could we take artistic credit for? When in the day had we painted it? Did we stop for lunch? Did we take breaks to run around the courtyard and explore the building? How many times were we there? Was it Dad's idea to include us or did we wear him down with begging? Did he hold his breath each time we touched our paint brushes to the wall, bracing himself for a blot wrongly placed, a stroke imperfectly executed?

There was an avalanche of emotion, too. A deep, profound sadness for those questions which would forever be without answers, because only Dad would've known them. But also thrill and delight: I'd found the mural and behold - if it was real, all the other early memories I had of Dad were likely accurate, too, and would be mine for keeps. 

Days later, I shared this story on Facebook. An old friend responded  - I hadn't known it before, but he'd been a student of that elementary school, and he had a funny story to tell about my Dad. On a whim, I asked if he remembered that mural.

Of course, he said, everyone who was a student at the school probably did. And everyone posed for the camera in front of it. It was the backdrop for class photos, sports team photos, music club photos and the like.

Perchace, I asked, did he still have any of those photos?

Why yes, he did. And he sent them to me.

Here is my Dad's mural, finished. 

photo credit: Pete Choi


photo credit: Pete Choi


I noticed two things.

One, it wasn't the same picture from the book. Almost, but not quite. As he'd been asked to do, Dad had reimagined it for the school and its multicultural neighborhood. Where the original art depicted Chinese fisherwomen, 


in Dad's mural, they are of different races. 



Two, the photo doesn't show the full mural. According to my friend, Dad added a fisherman walking ahead of the group of women - the end of the stick he's carrying on his shoulder is visible on the right of the photo below. What did he look like? Why was he added? What was his race? Was that, like the decision to represent the community among the women, similarly significant?  

And what does it mean that I have more questions than ever before?

photo credit: Pete Choi


I believe that this is meaningfulness. Not in the composition of a piece of art but in the enduring impact it has even after its maker is gone. Not in the finding of the perfect sentimental artifact but in the exhilaration of the search. Not in the quality of the closure but in the value of the process - because even a memory has a beginning, a middle and an end and is therefore itself a story worth telling.

And ultimately not even in the memory itself but the person about whom the memory is, whose life has been a map of those playful twists and unexpected turns, and whose company, for as long as it was on loan to me, was one of fullness and joy.



Monday, June 8, 2020

Lavender Chai and Gouache Kits: An Update




Some fun updates today!

First, Emily has added a new mini painting kit to her Etsy store, called Sunflowers!





She, Kate and some of their friends have been painting beautiful things with it. I love seeing each girl's creativity turning the same colors into four very different pictures.

(L-R, top row: Emily, Kate; bottom row: Mary, Riley)


Second, while on the subject of variation, Emily has been revisiting her kits and making some new art with them. When she first launched her kits, she'd only had time to paint a single sample for each. Since then, she's been playing around with a couple of the kits - same colors, different outcomes -  to inspire you to run with your ideas and see where they'll take you.

Here is her Sunset kit, with the original landscape art and a new painting of our cat Milo in a field of wheat.

This is her Galaxy kit, with the original astro sample and new unicorn art.


Third, inspiration line art. If you'd thought, "how nice it'd be if there were a guided picture of sorts to follow along with as I paint," you're not alone. It's always nice to have a starting point! In response to requests for line sketches to accompany the kits, Emily made black-and-white drawings of her sample paintings that you can download to have next to you as you paint. Or, if you'd bought kits as gifts, to print and send to their recipients. 



Finally, and most exciting: Emily now has a blog, where she writes about painting, the materials and media she uses, other aspects of her process, and other fun things she likes to do that are hard to share on instagram. You can find links to her Etsy shop there, as well as those aforementioned printable PDFs. Fresh off the press is a lovely tutorial on painting outdoors and on the road with helpful tips on working with paint and some links to the supplies she uses. 

You can also find that line art printable on her blog, under the Freebies tab:


I hope you'll stop by and say hello!


Friday, June 5, 2020

Introducing an online drafting course

Thank you, everyone, for your thoughtful comments to my last post. Forgive me for being slow in responding - my heart is full of things that make it hard to write these days. We've been experiencing new levels of craziness here in MN with the rioting and general unease in our neighborhoods. Which is happening at the same time that the kids are finishing virtual school and dealing with the strange mix of emotions that come with it. Earlier this week we picked up the contents of their school lockers, which their teachers had emptied out and consolidated in grocery sacks on their behalf. There was much exclaiming as the kids unpacked them at home - they were like time capsules, full of mementos of a school year that had gotten lost on its way to the finish line. Our middle school principal is retiring this year, and informed us while we were at home during the lockdown. Like so many graduating seniors, he's saying goodbye quietly and without fanfare. It will be strange to return to school in the fall and not see him there - but stranger still to not have a memory of a send-off to celebrate and thank him for decades of patient and smiling service to the school, the kids and the education system. 

And then there's the news these days. So visceral. So frustratingly, mind-bogglingly painful to watch. So heart-rending to contemplate that with all the loss inherent in the natural order of life, we would add to that by our own actions and words. Bereavement, displacement, isolation, security, justice, a hijacked spring and uncertain summer - some days my spirit is heavy for all the grief around me. Other days I am hopeful that this, too, shall pass and when it does, may I not have wasted the lessons. May they have made me slower to judge and speak. May they have convinced me that I really don't know as much as I thought I did.

I know that at least for a while, Dad and Auntie Laura are going to be on my mind front and center, and from time to time, I might process that here on the blog. It probably won't be as raw, mainly because I'm not the same person now that I was when I wrote those two tributes. I am forever and profoundly changed, but some days I actually do feel a little like old zany LiEr and just being able to acknowledge that is hugely uplifting for me. 

That said, let's keep moving forward!

I'm very excited to introduce a new online drafting course authored by my good friend Daljeet! You guys know her by her nickname Jen - yes, that Jen who co-wrote my drafting series Sew From Scratch here on ikatbag in 2010:


Some context here might be helpful. Long-time readers of this blog will know that we cover an eclectic selection of stuff on ikatbag. I'll go as far as to say that most of that stuff is sewing-related and the sewn projects are split between garments, bags and some toys. Some of you might also remember that I don't work with commercial patterns and instead draft my own whenever I need to make something to wear. You can read more about it here. Sew From Scratch was a series of foundational drafting tutorials for children's slopers and garments which I wrote to share my garment-making method. I was fortunate to collaborate with Daljeet on a few of those posts. She and I grew up with a similar sewing philosophy but while I was informally mentored by Mum, Aunt Laura and (posthumously) my grandmother who taught them,  Daljeet pursued garment-making independently and eventually made a profession of it. I have fond memories of Sew from Scratch, not only because it reunited us virtually (she in Malaysia and I in the US) but also for how I was able to focus and dissect my thoughts alongside someone with such rich and varied experience. 

When Sew From Scratch ended, people wrote to ask if I'd do another drafting series for women which included bust darts and all the other front-bodice stuff missing from children's drafts. I sat on it (of course) - and then years, later, I kinda sorta did


It was probably not at all what you guys were expecting, and I'd bet most of you don't even remember it apart from a couple of the more popular posts on sleeves and darts. It wasn't methodical or even systematic; I meandered all over the place talking about whatever I fancied on any particular day, and became quite rabid toward the end about transforming one kind of sloper to another. Even if you were already possessed of some drafting experience, you likely reacted along the lines of, "Um." (I wouldn't be surprised if true beginners simply just clawed their eyes out.)

I have good news for you! Brand-new and just-launched on the online platforms Udemy and Teachable, behold: Daljeet's drafting course 

Drafting Basics 1

How to Draft a Basic Bodice Block (Sloper)


Which, happily, is both methodical and systematic. And satisfyingly linear - Daljeet literally takes you from the very beginning (here are the tools, this is how and what you measure) to a working sloper - or basic block - for a woman's upper body based on your own measurements.

Let's unpack!

WHAT
Here is the course overview, which tells you what you can expect to take away from the course:

  • How to draft a basic bodice pattern from your own measurements (with step-by-step instructions).
  • All the basic (must-have) & optional (good-to-have) tools for pattern drafting.
  • How to determine & calculate Front & Back body dimensions for drafting (and why).
  • How to create & rotate/pivot darts (and why).

Here is the course preview video, taken from the Udemy site (link in later paragraph). There is a similar one on the Teachable site.



WHO
Next, target users - the people for whom this course was designed: 

  • Home seamstresses
  • Fashion design students
  • Sewing enthusiasts
  • Professionals in the fashion or dressmaking industry

Those among us who've received drafting instruction from the typical sources (books and other courses, for instance) will likely find the course overview very familiar. After all, this is how we begin to draft, and all decent drafting resources must include techniques for accurately measuring of a real human body and meaningfully translating those measurements onto paper so that they faithfully represent the contours of that same human body. Beyond that, however, drafting resources can vary in their origin, focus and target users. For instance, some are written by and for the fashion industry and focus on the commercial production of clothing for arbitrary dimensions in graded sizes. Others are primarily inspirational - because their goal is application, they begin with pre-existent templates and focus on adapting them into garment patterns in varying styles, discussing drafting principles on the side as they deconstruct fit. Most common are the resources that fall somewhere in-between and feel like they'd be perfect textbooks for a drafting course - substantial enough to guide a persistent and adventurous seamstress enough of the way toward making her (or his) first muslin but not quite intuitive enough without a human teacher to connect some of the dots.  

Daljeet wrote this course for the home seamstress who wants to draft from real body dimensions. She's been sewing about as long as I have, with the bulk of her work in commercial garment-making. As a custom tailor, she's also sewn for customers with a variety of body shapes and sizes. She's designed her own ready-to-wear fashion lines and produced samples for those of other designers. She's taught and mentored students one-on-one as a drafting and sewing instructor. The drafting method she'd developed and now shares in her course is the result of more than a decade of that professional experience, not to mention the years of research and experimentation before sewing became her career. 

This course teaches foundational materials, meaning that it stands alone and does not require prior drafting knowledge. If you can draw lines, use a ruler and measuring tape, and have spatial and visual sense, you can learn to draft. That said, you will most benefit if you already have a very basic understanding of how a pattern generally becomes a garment. Many people who have sewn any kind of garment will already have this knowledge. They will, for instance, be aware that garments may have darts, and of how to sew one closed. And they will know what a neckline or armscye looks like on paper and be unsurprised that sleeves are connected to armholes and necklines belong to collars (if any). If you are familiar with the idea of garment-making from a pattern, even if you haven't yet successfully made a garment, you should do just fine. 


HOW
The format is slideshow (rather than live-video), is about 30 mins long and organized into 11 modules.

Section 1: Welcome

Section 2: Introduction

  • Resources you need to draft (equipment, etc.)


Section 3: All About Measurements
  • Tips for measuring

  • Where to measure

  • Adding ease

  • Taking measurements


Section 4: Drafting
  • Calculations for drafting (using the free interactive worksheet)

  • Drafting the front bodice

  • Drafting the back bodice


Section 5: Refining the Blocks
  • Refining the blocks - dart rotation, centering the waist dart, truing all darts

  • Next steps


Each module is an instructional clip ranging from 1 to 8 minutes and packed with succinct information, and by "succinct", I mean you won't be wasting time watching someone ramble on about how drafting will forever change your life; we've all watched our fill of YouTube videos whose first 10 minutes of preamble we've fast-forwarded to get to the actual 2 minutes of useful material right at the end. Apart from the first two modules introducing the necessary drafting equipment (which many drafting people probably already own), you won't even think of skipping over stuff. In fact, you're going to be regularly hitting the pause button as you follow along and construct your own draft. Nothing is superfluous; everything is well-paced and clearly presented. Rather than tells, Daljeet demonstrates how she obtains each measurement and how that measurement is computed into a workable variable and turned into a line on the draft. 


There's no frustrating guesswork or arbitrary plotting - it's geometry and mathematics but she does the work, not you. The process is so much fun to watch in her videoclips - all the numerical values coming together as lines and then seams in the eventual bodice block. 


If you're less interested in the why (or you just want to get to the plotting already), she provides an interactive worksheet that takes care of the computation for you. All that's required is to download the worksheet and enter the raw measurements taken off the body - the algorithms will manipulate the data so that you can accurately and easily plot them on your draft. 

In addition to the interactive measurement worksheet, there are PDF notes accompanying the individual modules to download, print out and scribble your own learning points on as you watch the clips. There is also an option to make notes digitally within the course platform, see notes made by other students and ask Daljeet questions. 


HOW TO ENROLL

You can find Daljeet's course here on Udemy:


and also here on Teachable.


The course retails at USD$50 but is available to the first 100 participants at the special price of $24.99.

You'll find all the course info on both Udemy and Teachable The websites themselves are a little fiddly to navigate - you won't find the course easily by browsing or even searching by instructor's name. The best way to access the course is to use the links above, which Daljeet has also listed on her blog


LOOKING FORWARD

While Drafting Basics 1 is a stand-alone course, there are several others in progress to help you apply what you've learned from it. Daljeet is currently working on more advanced courses on drafting a sheath dress block, a skirt block, sleeves and facings - you can check Daljeet's blog The Measuring Tape for updates.

If you have any questions for Daljeet, you can write them in a comment to this post (below) or hop over to her blog to reach her directly. 

Happy drafting!



Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Skillful hands, two siblings and other stories


My aunt Laura died in January. She was eighty-five, brilliant, unfairly gifted and scary-excellent at whatsoever she undertook. She grew up during the war, married and raised three sons, part of which as a single mom. She loved music - sang it, played it, taught it, arranged it, conducted it and for a time oversaw the setting up and management of music curricula and programs in the schools of Singapore. When she wasn't busy with music, she was sewing, baking, painting - it was always one thing or another, she delighted in anything creative, and she was very good at it. Like award-winning good, in that gut-intimidating and awe-inspiring way that one so often appreciates in perfectionists.

Auntie Laura was diagnosed with chronic leukemia in her last year, and she fought it with the same resolve and matter-of-factness with which she’d handled much of the other hardships life had thrown at her. During those twelve-ish months, she went about business as usual while accommodating the nastiness and inconveniences of her new normal: chemo, fund-raiser galas, blood transfusions, family gatherings, blood tests, church choir, hospitalizations, her sister-in-law's funeral, chemo, my Dad's funeral, transfusions, flying to Australia to attend her granddaughters’ graduations, more blood tests, Christmas, more chemo, then no chemo, just the pain shots and the quiet final waiting days as she slipped in and out of lucidity. 

One year. 

I’d lost my Dad in that year. And, in a way, my Mom, too - the part of her that was whole and fearless because of him. The day I got the phone call with news of my Dad, I'd thought it was Auntie Laura. After all, despite the doctors' optimism, her prognosis - and its impending outcome - was no secret, and I’d been anticipating it, even trying to make peace with it. What I hadn't expected was losing Dad before her. Nobody had. Everyone was forced to shift gears, even Auntie Laura herself. There she was in her wheelchair, playing hymns on the rental keyboards while my uncle led the singing. We were all stunned stupid, yes, but how surreal it must have been for her to be sending off her younger brother, to be standing before suddenly-bereft relatives and recounting memories of him, of themHow, as children post-war, she’d babysat my Dad, hefting him in her arms as she’d tried - and failed - to play tag with the neighbors. How, when her first marriage ended, Dad became a second father to her sons, teaching them the joys of boyhood: making wooden boomerangs and cherry guns, swimming in the ocean, hiking in the woods, sitting in contented silence by ponds and storm drains as they waited for fish to bite. How, years later, they'd furbished her first home, Dad and her sons working together on the cabinets and split-level floor while she painted artwork on the walls. I remember sitting wide-eyed at my Dad's memorial service and drinking it all in. Before, there’d only been allusions to those stories, fragments of fables at best, carelessly tossed out whenever the two of them were in the same room, ribbing each other in that slightly crotchety way of elderly siblings. I think I’d only truly understood the bond between them after my Dad died. In hindsight I see it now, of course: this is what family does, how family loves.

It’s hard to think of Auntie Laura's death as separate from Dad’s. Not temporally (obviously I'm fully aware of when either occurred and the specific emotional and social repercussions after) but in the way of compartmentalization. My brain knows to uniquely grieve each loss and honor the memory of each person, but my heart senses only the aggregate volume of what I no longer have, and there are no shades to that. I suppose losing them within months of each other was a big part of it. Also, their colorful personalities - both leaders and movers, equally matched in a close-knit family in which we were all someone to everyone else. But - and perhaps most pertinent of all - I relied on them both to keep Singapore feeling like home. Initially, they were simply kaki-nang - my own people - the constants to which I returned in order to remember who I still was while miles away from who I'd once been. Later, I'd leaned on Dad's grounded presence to keep me buoyant during Auntie Laura's illness, and I'd drawn strength from Auntie Laura's immortal resilience to move us all forward in the wake of Dad's death. 

Logistically, too. With the memory of flying home for my Dad's funeral still achingly fresh, I found myself on a plane returning to Singapore for Auntie Laura's. While in transit in Amsterdam, I'd opened my laptop and prepared to write what would eventually become that blog post about finding words to process Dad's death. It'd felt daunting, but necessary, and to motivate myself, I'd reasoned, "Quit procrastinating - you're already one death behind, for pity's sake." It was all at once pathetic and hilarious and I'd laughed, right there in the middle of all those people in Schipol, at how ludicrous it all was, how it felt like Groundhog Day: the Bereavement Edition, a looping rerun in which we were forever scrambling to keep up while miserably backsliding into a psychological wasteland. 

When I'd finally emerged from the fog, however, I'd had the sense that I'd been stretched thin across the grief spectrum. I knew what it was like to lose someone utterly unexpectedly, to be reeling from the shock of it and be months adrift before feeling even a semblance of true, pure emotion. I also knew what it was like to lose someone incrementally, to staunchly deny, to fervently hope, to supplicate, to wait, to watch. In the beginning was guilt at being unable to mourn each loss for itself, for subconsciously comparing them and weighing the merits (or unbenefits) thereof. After all, if the stories in my grief support group were any indication, there were practically infinite ways to lose a loved one, with each more horrific and traumatic than the next. I listened to them all: the strain of protracted caregiving, the pain of being blindsided, the relief that the suffering was over, the gratitude that there hadn't even been time to suffer. Ask me which I prefer, I'd reflected morosely at the end, and I'll tell you that there are no winners.  And there was more: I remember feeling levels of bonkerdom that were as frightful as they were comical, and seasons of rabid hope that plummeted instantaneously into crises of identity and faith. I swore I was a bad daughter and an even worse niece, toggling between dead relatives, missing one more than the other on any given day, then both at once, then neither at all. Eventually, I declared myself unsound; what other rational explanation was there, really? I know better now, though: this, too, is normal, this compounding of multiple losses. Long before this global pandemic and its existential angst joined the party, I think I might already have been hanging onto sanity's flimsiest threads.

That said, while losing Aunt Laura was brutal, it was also unexpectedly healing. There was much to be thankful for. Had it happened even a couple of months later, for one, we'd have had to contend with social distancing and other restrictions. As it was, we were blessed to have had time to be with her as her body shut down, to meet her various needs as they arose. And we were able to enjoy her company and be edified (and inspired) by her dignity; she was wonderfully upbeat and sharp throughout, save for those last few days when the pain medication brought her comfort at the expense of her reality. She continued to sew throughout her illness, turning out Menagerie animals and other projects during the long hours of chemo and between hospital visits. When those visits stretched into indefinite stays, her sewing machine was moved in with her. Her hospital room became her new creative space and she picked up and continued her WIPs without missing a beat. Doctors and nurses stopped by to browse and buy, and her finished projects found their way to local charities and fundraisers. Every now and then, I’d get an email from her: look what I finished today! How do you attach the ears? Can you make me a pattern? Guess how much this-and-that raised at the auction?

With her troop of kangaroos and other friends; credit: Kum Kit Chan (Uncle!)

I can never overstate my wonder at watching her Menagerie collection grow. Aunt Laura was a highly accomplished seamstress, the kind who drafted from scratch and taught other people to draft from scratch, who was fast yet precise, who could spot a bad fit from a mile away (and might say so to those within earshot), whose eye for detail and excellence in workmanship were unparalleled. She was the artist who'd impressed her quilting instructor with the backside of her quilts because the allowances were so assiduously finished, the knots so meticulously tied and neatly tucked away, to the point that the perfect alignment of print and intersecting seams on the right side were almost a non-issue by comparison. She was also the teacher under whose tutelage I learned to play the piano (when I didn’t actually have a piano), to smock, to love and value a good seam, a great fit, an innovative design. To behold her, years later, sewing stuffed animals from my pattern - a project almost accidental in its inception so many winters ago - I had no words for it. I was thrilled, of course, but somewhere in the delight was something bittersweet: another facet of loss, perhaps. Not for the quality of Auntie Laura's work - the woman was still ferociously unpicking seams that she considered subpar - but of the seamstress she'd been, the one with the energy and drive to make breathtaking bridal gowns and award-winning quilts, who stepped up to make my entire maternity wardrobe when I was expecting Emily and too encumbered by my job to even shop, let alone sew.

This, to an extent, is familiar to us all, even those of us who haven't yet lost a loved one. Psychologists call it anticipatory grief. I remember feeling this even as a child, although I didn't know its name at the time. Sometimes it hit while watching Mum or Dad sacrifice something so my brother and I could have a particular toy or a fun weekend out. Other times it was an obscure realization that while Mum or Dad were unspeakably precious to me, I would someday grow up, leave home and never again access that moment beyond a memory. I felt it the first time I moved to Minnesota as a student, and again as a wife and mother, marveling at the implications of those changing roles and own parents' evolving participation in them. And I’ve felt it whenever I reacquainted with my extended family in Singapore and calibrated the missing months in the lines of their faces and the changes in their gaits. This past year, I recognized those stirrings again, more ominous because of the looming loss at which they hinted: Auntie Laura was ill, had not been home for weeks, did not have much time.

She was turning out Menagerie critters left and right, though, she’d reported with satisfaction. She’d been eyeing the elephant on my blog and wanted to make it; could I send her the pattern? 

Yes, I’d emailed back. Let me make a second muslin to refine the seam alignments and correct something funky about the toenails and ears, and then I'll mail the templates over. 

OK, she'd replied. Can't wait. Also, can you design a koala for me? And I really like the owl. Can you re-send the file for that chicken that lays eggs? And thanks for the mini birds. I’m going to tweak their heads because they’re a bit fat. Do you want to see? 

Typically, patterns - or even templates - don’t leave my sewing room until I’ve ascertained that they’re fit for other people to use. This is part principle, and part idiosyncratic: I often make early drafts on random scraps of paper with notations and cut-and-paste sections hinting at revisions that only I understand. Two to three additional muslins go into refining those templates before the results are consistent enough for other seamstresses to replicate in their own sewing rooms. After which I’d still have to document the sequence and streamline the instructions. It's a time-intensive process and invariably longer than I anticipate. 

Time, though, I didn’t have the luxury of. So I prioritized Auntie Laura that year and put everything else - even the blog itself - on the backburner. I sent her the templates and instructions, imperfect and vague and skimpy, and trusted that her skill and powers of improvisation would take her the rest of the way. I designed the koala she'd asked for, and mailed the prototype to her home so she'd have a 3D model to facilitate her work. I rephotographed the owl so she could have about a thousand different angles from which to remotely scrutinize it. We emailed back and forth about the birds' heads, the koala’s ears, the elephant’s trunk, the frills on the owl’s chest. And she proudly sent me photos of the results, including the magnificent white peacock she made for the charity auction, the one which drew in thousands of dollars. For months we bantered and collaborated and talked sewing, blood tests, the thrill of the sale, the kindness of helpers, nurses and friends. Then the emails dwindled. Eventually stopped. She couldn’t type, my uncle reported. But she's still OK. She’s still sewing. 


Until she wasn't. And then we knew we were truly in the homestretch. Via email, Whatsapp, phone calls, in not so many words, we all recognized the onset because Auntie Laura had finally stopped sewing.

I took this photo of her hands when we were last in her hospital room. 


The sewing machine, having jammed, was in the shop, she'd explained, so she was hand-stitching a fox, and there were pig parts somewhere about that needed her attention. I watched her work, as I'd watched her on so many other occasions in the past. Such strong, skilled hands. They played amazing music. They made amazing things. They taught uncountable people invaluable lessons. They worked tirelessly, toward praiseworthy results. They directed and demonstrated and corrected. They shared and gave and blessed. I stayed with her as long as I could, relishing the normalcy of that encounter: the paper templates and fabric scraps, her running commentary as she threaded her needle (still without glasses, she'd smugly reminded me) and cast forward onto the animals still on her to-do list. And then, it was time to go.


I didn’t get to say goodbye to Dad - not even Mum did, in spite of being right next to him when he left us - so I was determined to make up for it with Auntie Laura. Oh, how lofty my expectations! How thorough my preparation! Books on the Needs Of The Dying and What To And Not To Say. A video recording of my mostly error-free rendition of a Bach minuet that had special meaning to us. Deep and Vulnerable Conversations, invented and mentally rehearsed in the shower, to be staged at her bedside - I would unpack her profound influence on me and she would deliver some astounding, impactful truth, a veritable beacon of hope upon which I’d live the remainder of my henceforth transcendent life. 

The reality, however, was as matter-of-fact as she herself had always been. There were no actual goodbyes, no falsely-positive See You Again Soons, no life-altering words of wisdom. I remember holding her, warm and light-boned and ever so frail. I remember the smell of her hair, newly washed and neatly clipped back (so as to be out of the way of her work). I remember thanking her for . . . well, everything, I think. I remember her not saying much back. And somehow, it was oddly right. Wholly authentic. I wonder now if it wasn't because we’d already spent our lives being the important things we’d wanted to say to each other. Regardless, in some serendipitous way, it gave me peace about letting Dad go without the Hallmark send-off of which I’d initially felt so cheated. Perhaps goodbyes were overrated. Perhaps the good Lord knew us better than we knew ourselves. Perhaps the entirety of our relationships are the hello and farewell and all the important words in between. What a lesson. What a gift to be left with. I like to think that Auntie Laura helped me with that without even knowing it. 
It was the strangest thing, leaving the hospital, seeing her still earnestly stitching away, knowing I wouldn’t see her again on this side of heaven. It felt cruelly premature, for all the present reality of that moment. And not for the first time, I wished I didn’t live halfway across the cosmos, navigating grief by the rules of time zones and geographical miles. Yet I am thankful. For being able to say goodbye at all - regardless of how it eventually played out, is still a gift I don’t receive lightly. I forget now what other work projects I'd shelved in favor of readying those templates for Auntie Laura but I remember being aware that that entire year, those email conversations, our shared interest in sewing, even Menagerie itself, were all gifts. My heart, bruised as it was, had somehow found space to be thankful.

That is not to say I'm immune to the prickly jabs of grief. At least for a while, I expect to feel wretched every time I hear a hymn. Not only because of Auntie Laura's vast knowledge of them but for the memory of a rogue alto in her Easter cantata choir (she'd cajoled; I'd said OK fine, and surprised myself by loving every minute of it). I haven't been able to enter a JoAnn store without remembering that I no longer get to send yards of fabric home to her for her latest fundraising project. When I was sewing masks for first responders last month, Auntie Laura was constantly in my thoughts - were this a different year, a time when she'd been well, she'd have mobilized her small army of sewing helpers in Singapore to mass-produce masks for all and sundry. And I'm well aware that every now and then, I'm going to be ambushed by a memory of her and Dad sitting around our dining table together, chopsticks a-waving as they opine current affairs and each other's deplorable behavior and music tastes. 

Laura in her early years.

It's funny: I'd wanted this post to be warm fuzzy sunshine in the way of typical tributes and celebrations-of-life. Especially after the rawness of Dad's post and my conviction that Auntie Laura's illness had given me time to process her death in a way that mirrored everyone else’s experiences. And I’d had grand plans to recount all her accomplishments (of which there were many) and virtues (likewise) and downplay her flaws (ditto). 

Obligatory brag photo: 
one of many cakes Laura made for exhibitions and competitions. 
This one, as remembered by one of her sons, 
is entirely cake with no supporting inner structures.

Instead, it turned into this: yet another essay on the elusive nuances of grief. But maybe that isn't an altogether terrible thing. I see now that my loss isn’t a measure of her amazingness and the piecemeal accolades she’d amassed throughout her life. Rather, it’s about my Aunt, the person of weeks and months and years, and our shared decades of that everydayness. And it's also and ever about family and how, when one has been raised by the proverbial village, it's completely rational (and OK!) for each loss to feel profound and communal, private and universal in equal measure. 


Laura, with LiEr, circa 1970s
Finally, it was an opportunity to revisit Menagerie through the eyes (and hands) of someone who derived purpose and happiness from a project that came out nowhere and of whose market value I'd always been slightly skeptical (how many people have space in their homes for that many stuffed animals?). When I fire up the sewing machine again and return to the critters of Season Two, it's going to be extremely bittersweet. Hurrah for the fun Auntie Laura had with it! Bah for the reminder that we will no longer have conversations about it. 



Grief is a strange thing. For something so paralyzing, there is so much about it that involves doing. Particularly in these crazy times, it's been defined by all the ways we are unable to carry it out: rituals of closure and in-person processing and support, to name a few. Certainly in the beginning, grief is that, and perhaps it is sweet providence that the adrenaline and cortisol drive us so forcefully to tie up the loose ends in those raw early weeks. But when the slump comes, when the weeks turn into months and years and we slowly realize that this loss isn't temporary, is indeed our new normal henceforth, doing is not sustainable. Grief for keeps becomes - quite necessarily and organically - less about doing and more about being

This quote on Facebook says it well: "Be the things you love most about the person you lost." 

One year after losing him, I've found myself already leaning into that transition with my Dad. And now, too, I must, with Auntie Laura. They are a pair, those two. So different yet so alike. And so much good in each of them, not only to remember as theirs but also to inherit as mine. Crazy passion. Infectious creativity. Quiet generosity. Skillful hands. And a bar set high.