Heirlooms Gone, but not Forgotten
We keep some things so close, that even though we do not own them, they are never far away. The things that are indelible. The things that in a millisecond transport you back to the beginnings of our time, upon this earth. Their texture, fragrance, as close to you now as they were then, a lifetime ago.
Such was my father’s black and ivory wool sports coat. It had a very long life, that coat. I suppose he bought it as a young man in Redding, California when he worked as a salesman for JC Penny selling men’s suits. It sometimes seemed a bit incongruous for my father the electrical engineer to have sold men’s suits, but it really wasn’t. His mother, Carrie and his paternal grandmother “Lulu” were both accomplished seamstresses and tailors.
The thing about something familiar, is you know it so well, you never even look at it. It’s just there, as it always was, until it isn’t. Our parents are that way, we just expect them always to be there, then one day they aren’t. It’s then the questions come. Thousands of them, you never got ’round to asking.
“When you come back, bring questions.”
These were my Dad’s last words to me. When I came back, he was no longer answering. It didn’t matter. We had our time and I have my questions. And you must be wondering what the hell that has to do with my dad’s coat. As I write this I am not exactly sure…but I am pretty sure the answers will come to me…
Sometimes the answers take a long time to find us. A few years ago, I was reading the itinerary for a 4 day tour of Scotland and looking up the various places we might visit and I thought my heart stopped. It took me a moment to catch my breath…there it was, something so familiar, but unknown. Shouldn’t I have known? What stopped me was the trademark label for Harris Tweed, produced and woven on the Isle of Harris in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. That label adorned the inside of my Dad’s sports coat. And perhaps that cinched the deal, that was the tour I needed to take.
But it wasn’t until I was there at Tarbet on the Isle of harris, running my fingers over the bolts of Harris Tweed and inhaling the fragrance of the wool that the answers came flooding in. The answers were to questions I had not thought to ask. They were answers that perhaps my Dad had not known either. The answers, like the tweeds, so beguiling, their colors so simple yet incredibly complex, echoing the landscape. Inexplicable, haunting, timeless.
My father had Scottish ancestry, but I have no knowledge that any of them came from the Hebrides. Maybe they did, maybe they didn’t, yet of all the places I have been, these isles of Lewis and Harris, call to me. Whether it is of a familiar fabric woven there, or of ancient ancestors answering questions I did not know I had, I just know it in some way it is my story. Perhaps when I am gone and my progeny want answers they will find them in Tarbet, Callanish, Gerannan, Bostadha, Carloway, and Luskentyre. Or perhaps in the warp and weft of Harris Tweed. Or in the patterns of the Navajo rugs that my father collected and that I have passed on to them. It doesn’t matter. There are answers waiting when you are ready. They are woven into our lives in ways that will surprise you, so profoundly, that we know the answers in our bones when we arrive at them.
Natural colors, the dyes derived from mother earth. Standing in a weaver’s black house at Gearrannan you know something…but you don’t quite know what it is you know. That yearning, that connection…My father liked to weave a tale, but he also must have loved the feel of the wool in his fingers as he was a needlepointer. I don’t believe that was by accident.
Nor do I think my reaction to hearing my first wauking song was by chance. My great grandmother Mary “Lulu” Paden was much closer to the traditions. I selected the title for her diary: A Soprano’s Aria, knowing she loved music. Even by family members who did not like her much, they describe her voice as angelic. Her father “Louie” was the music teacher, in the cornfields of Purple Cane, Nebraska. He played the fiddle, as I suppose his father, and his father before him. Sitting in a restaurant in Fort William with my friend Denise, Scotland and I am hearing Gaelic music so moving I ask the artist and scribble down the name. Capercallie. I find later that Karen Matheson’s voice described as angelic. I can listen to her forever. Each of her albums has at least one or two wauking songs.
As a family historian you pull at threads and you try to weave an origin story back to life. You start out with one object and realize it was much more than you thought.
The impetus for this story came from my 2nd cousin once removed, Glenn Paden. And thank you to our guide on this journey, Donald Nicholson, to my dear friend Denise who was with me and to my Dad whose story this surely is.
Kelly Wheaton © 2022 All Rights reserved.