Woven From The Heart

Nana's legacy to all of us is one of passion for history and the forgotten arts, and the measure of pure joy it can bring.

December 28, 2010

It has been said that grandmothers are special people, and mine was no exception. I am a granddaughter of Dorothy Tibbott Keener, who was well known in Ebensburg, PA for her spinning and weaving, as well as for her love of history and antiques. Whether it was the Cambria County Fair, a classroom, or one of Ebensburg’s many community celebrations, Dorothy Keener could be found demonstrating her craft. Surrounded by a display of everything from her homemade lye soap, and handspun wool yarn, to the rag rugs, woven on her four-harness loom, my grandmother kindled a flame of interest in the old-timey crafts for passersby, and for those of us who loved her. My grandmother’s unabashed obsession with the forgotten arts was undeniable, and her wealth of knowledge and insatiable curiosity defined her as a never ending source of historical fact and folklore. Dorothy Keener’s legacy to all of us is one of passion for history and the forgotten arts, and the measure of pure joy it can bring.

Dorothy Keener and I are kindred spirits. She didn’t have to utter a word…somehow I knew what was important to her…I guess it was because the same things are important to me. I never realized that she often appeared disheveled and lived on a meager fixed income. To me she was lovely and I knew she was rich in ways that mattered. It was the way she held something precious in her hands, gently turning it around and over, head tilted back a bit so that she could examine it through her bifocals, that said, “This one’s a dandy!” Nana’s life was full of dandys.

Western Pennsylvania Decembers often found her in the evergreen grove behind her house, all bundled up and plodding through the deep sparkly snow, axe in hand, a canine friend and loyal protector standing guard between Nana and prospective buyers of Christmas trees, who were without a doubt unaware of the angel standing before them…her long white hair always tied back with a tattered ribbon, or a strip of rag from her rag bag. She was never hurried. With each sale one would think she was choosing the National Christmas Tree…it had to be perfect. And perfect it was, at least to me. We didn’t mind the bitterly cold temperature, or the biting wind. We were royalty when the lush snow-laden swags bowed before us as we passed by…a memory revived annually by the scent of pine during the holidays. The scent of the pines, the chill in the air, and the warmth from her heart will stay with me forever. I was safe and happy, and so was she.

Long white hair tied up in an old frayed ribbon
Aunt Mary gave me ribbons…a protected memory

They laughed a lot
And I smiled
They gave me joy that they'll never know
And I'll never forget

She was full of life and dreams
Old and new
She said he failed her once…
To comfort me in my disappointment

I am grateful
And with determination life moves on
I am an extension of her
She never gave in to defeat

Give me a chance
Time to realize my purpose
Sever me from guilt
I will make you proud

Aunt Mary was Nana's sister. She saved ribbons for me…and empty perfume bottles. These gifts were pure gold to me. I thought Nana and Aunt Mary were very funny sisters..and their banter gave me belly laughs. They shared a sense of humor that was adorable and contagious. I often thought about how close they were…intertwined in each other’s lives. I believed that was the way sisters were meant to be, but I wasn’t completely sure because I had nothing to compare it to…and I sorely missed having someone so close.

My brothers and I took turns spending a week or two with her during summer breaks from school. Her zest for the simple things in life was infectious and I wanted to be just like her. She had a peaceful spirit that, even as a youngster, I knew was rare. Our days at Nana’s began with a breakfast on the sun porch. The wooden plaque on the entrance frame between the kitchen and the sun porch read,"Good food, good meat...good God, let's eat!" There was always a plate of toast and jam, with eggs fried in bacon grease left out on the stove top to solidify and render, to be used to make lye soap. Spooky, Nana’s feline companion was always present but rarely seen except after breakfast when Nana fed her…sprinkling a spoonful or so of bacon grease on her food. A wink and a nod from Mr. Mooney and off we went on a stroll into town, for no reason other than to stretch, shake out the cob webs, and window shop. A bowl of rainbow ice cream at the Dairy Dell was a highly anticipated treat, and we often spent the remainder of the day on an adventure into the woods to find punk to take back to Nana’s and decorate, or perhaps a hike down to the reservoir to look for drift wood.

On days when the weather wasn’t in sync with our plans and we needed to stay closer to the nest we explored the back yard where there was plenty to hold a child’s attention. Twice daily, just like clockwork, Nana could be found out at the grape arbor, picking beetles off the foliage and dropping them into a jar of kerosene. After that she routinely trimmed the evergreen trees in preparation for the Christmas season. When family members or friends expressed concerns about some of these outdoor activities, especially during the sweltering summer heat her response was always the same. "I will do as I darn well please and you can mind your own beeswax!" Nana was an independent, tough cookie.

Uncle Tibby’s picnic shed was something out of a mystery novel, and I transformed into a garden fairy dancing on my tippy toes under Aunt Mary’s grape arbor. The old bell guarded watch over the rock garden that was inlaid with colorful marbles, and walking through the grove of Christmas trees was an adventure bigger than life when you did it with Nana. It was a treasure trove of delights for a youngster who never experienced the magic until Nana took her hand.

My grandmother was a source of fact and fiction that had no end. There was a story attached to everything, and historical fact very often became interwoven with folksy fiction. But to me Nana’s stories were the absolute truth, and nothing could shake my faith in her.

Evenings spent in her shop by her side as she wove were amazing. I was fascinated by the soft whirling sound of her spinning wheel. Even today, if I close my eyes I can still recall the music made by the rising and falling of the 4-harness loom heddles, as she wove her rag rugs. The music of the loom and the pungent aroma of her homemade lye soap drying on the rack gave me a sense of euphoria. When I learned to weave as an adult, I was delighted to discover that without intention, I produce the very same rhythm…like the familiar melody that often seeps into my dreams.

There were no snacks at Nana’s house. Instead, I held a tiny cut glass salt cellar in my hand, and I dipped my finger in the salt and licked it…something I never even thought of doing at home…something saved only for when I sat next to her on the creaky wooden bench as she wove. It was all part of the ambiance and it was magical. According to my grandmother, during the Middle Ages when salt was a valuable commodity, being granted the favor of sharing the salt cellar of the host was seen as a sign that one was held in high esteem. All I knew then was that I was special in my grandmother’s eyes and I often held my breath for as long as I could, hoping the magic would become a part of me.

Nana had a sharp eye and nothing went unnoticed. I knew that wearing a brightly colored article of clothing would always prompt the same response. She took a pinch of the fabric and with a twinkle in her eye she simply said, “nice!” The uninformed might have considered that a compliment, but those of us who had her number knew she was imagining how that garment would look, cut up and woven into a rug!

After Nana’s passing, I inherited her loom, her passion for spinning and weaving, and her love of the old-timey crafts. I spent endless hours cutting rags into strips, sewing the strips together, and rolling them into balls in preparation of weaving rag rugs like those that my grandmother made. I also made beautiful shoulder bags, with handspun wool straps, spun with a Celtic twist.

When we moved our family to Maryland in 1997, and we were in the process of adopting our second daughter from China, I had to admit that I no longer had the time, or the space in our new home for the loom. I contacted the Cambria County Historical Society in Ebensburg and offered it as a donation. I was heartsick about giving up my loom. I feared that, even with the best of intentions, it would make as its final resting place, a stack of debris in someone’s basement. I never called to inquire about it…I didn’t have the heart.

Several years later, my mother sent me an article from the local paper, The Mountaineer Herald. The subject of the article was the new textile floor at the Historical Society building…and to my absolute delight, there was a picture of my loom, completely intact, along with a picture of my grandmother and the various accoutrements of her craft that I donated along with the loom.

Recently I contacted the curator to inquire about the loom. She invited me to come to Ebensburg and do a weaving demonstration for the public in November. I had the honor of weaving on my grandmother’s loom at the Cambria County Historical Society building. This was a monumental event in my life for many reasons. I was honored and humbled to weave once again on my grandmother’s loom, and Megan and I had a wonderful time of mother-daughter bonding during our weekend trip to Pennsylvania. But there is another reason that weaving on Nana’s loom again was such a thrill for me. In 2001, I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. With the progression of my designer disease came tremors so severe I could not hold a cup of coffee. The old timey crafts that I loved would no longer be possible, or so I thought. In December of 2009, I underwent Deep Brain Stimulation surgery at Georgetown University Hospital. Miraculously I am now able to do all the things that I had given up on…including my weaving demonstration for the Historical Society last month.

Every occasion spent with my grandmother was a teachable moment. Nana was a great listener and always referred to our conversations as “conflabs”, which I later realized was a nana-ism for the word “confabulation”. I learned some valuable life lessons from my grandmother during our conflabs. I learned that true satisfaction can be found in preserving a piece of history with your own two hands. I learned that pure gold can be found in the mud at the reservoir’s edge, in the form of driftwood, which she cleaned and polished, and transformed into a work of art and hung on the wall in her shop next to a myriad of other treasures beautifully displayed. With names like, “Dead-Eye Dick”, “The Raven”, “Late Again, " and "One-Eyed Pete”, Nana’s sense of humor was blended into her dandys like a golden thread, woven into fabric that would otherwise lack luster. I learned that nature is breathtakingly beautiful and full of treasures. I also learned that harboring old hurts is burdensome and toxic, and if you want a tranquil life you have to learn how to forgive and move on. I learned that cruelty of any kind is unacceptable. I learned that it is up to you whether the glass is half empty or half full…life is what you make it, and then it is what it is. I learned that history is important. It lets us know where we came from and who we are connected to. And I’ve learned we always leave a legacy of some kind to our children. The content of that legacy is totally up to us. Dorothy Keener's legacy calms me and defines me, and brings me the pure joy that it brought to her. It is one, truly woven from the heart.


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