Monthly Archives: June 2019

Goodbye Mama

We’ve called her “Ma” since we were in our teens, but today it seems she’s gone back to being Mama.

She was taken to hospice a few days ago, in end stage kidney failure. Our relationship over the past few years has been complicated, usually companionable but sometimes turbulent, and I had not talked to her for a while (she could no longer communicate well on the phone), and could not possibly go to visit her, many hours from where we live.

I had gone to bed that night, and it took me a while to fall asleep. It took me til nearly midnight to settle in. As I was drifting off, I had a thought.

“I wrote a story today, Ma. I learned what it means to spin straw into gold. It is flax. It is dried, and kinda rough like straw, but you treat it, then spin it and wax it, and if you do it right, it ends up golden colored and shiny. So you really can spin straw into gold.”

I heard a reply. Not with my ears, but more like an echo of my mother’s voice in my mind. “That’s JUST the kind of thing I love to learn!” She sounded really tired.

And then, “Laura, I’m afraid.”.

“It’s ok. It’s just a door. You’ll keep learning cool stuff, you just won’t hurt as much.”

And I went to sleep. I am comfortable with death, and I’d often felt my father, and my daughter as though their presence was near me, after their deaths. On some occasions, I’d had that feeling of hearing them in my mind. It was a comfort to me, to know they are still aware of the lives of their loved ones.

I woke a few hours later to go to the bathroom, and heard my mother in my mind again, “Laura?”

“Yes.”

“You gave me a gift! I’m ok! I’m not scared, I’m ok!” she sounded cheerful.

I went back to bed. In the morning we got the news that she had died in the night.

She loved to learn new skills, and had once learned to spin. I hope she really did hear what I tried to say. The one thing I am certain I learned from my mother is that if I need to learn to do something, I can.

Her body and mind were so crippled for the last several years that she really could not do that anymore.

It was several days before I realized I’m not even grieving her death. This is a hard thing to admit, since people get so nasty about it if you do, but my stages of grief over losing my mother were over long ago. She left years ago, and the person in the house with us just wasn’t her anymore, and wasn’t going to BE her anymore. She lived in her chair, and entire days would go by without her saying anything to anyone. She’d hold it together enough to be chatty with visitors, but even then she could no longer control her side of the conversation. Dementia robs you of the person day by day, and you grieve it out as it happens. By the time they are truly dead, they’ve been gone a long time already, and there’s nothing left to mourn.

Ma lived next door to us for about 11 years, and relied on us and our kids to help her out. I was the one of her children who saw the gradual breakdown of her capabilities and her capacity to reason and think things out. We moved away, and she would not go. When we met up with her again a few years later, her capacity had declined so much that she could no longer live alone. The last 4 years of sharing a home with her were tragic in so many ways, that her death has brought us only the sorrow that those years were so difficult, and so painful for both her, and us.

We did not have a funeral, there really wasn’t any point, since only a couple of people could get there. And I’m really ok with that, f I could afford to travel up for a funeral, I’d have done it when she was alive, when it mattered to her. I did not need to say goodbye to an empty body. She was already missed… and we are kind of used to that.

I hope she now has the chance to learn to spin straw into gold.

Rumpled Skin and the Queen’s Stilts, A Historic Fairy Tale With Sarcasm

Once upon a time, in a land we hope does not actually exist, there lived a King. It is always a King, it has to be… Occasionally a Prince, but we know he HAS to grow up to be a King. Otherwise it would not be a fairy tale.

This King, like all Kings, needed clothing. And the clothing MUST be fine! If it were not fine, he would cease to be King, and look like all the other sad relics in his oppressed Kingdom. (Of course they were oppressed! He’s a King after all!)

The King is single. This makes clothing much more of a problem, not having a wife to tell him he looks good in this, to order the fabric for that, to sit by his side throughout the day spinning exotic thread just to weave his very own clothes! WORK WITH ME HERE! THIS ACTUALLY WAS A THING!

Fine clothing comes in many kinds, but some are finer than others. And finer cloth requires finer fiber, and finer fiber is often more difficult to spin than coarse fiber. Remember that, it is kind of important for the story line.

Imagine this to be somewhere in the middle ages. The whole story just works better if you do!

Wool is the most common cloth. Sheep are plentiful, and there are many kinds of wool, from coarse and durable to fine and soft. Kings like the fine and soft kind, they only like the durable kind for horse blankets and shoulder patches when one must go hunting. Wool may be spun very fine, and pretty much anyone can spin wool. If you can spin, you can produce reasonably usable wool yarn or even wool thread. The King has plenty of wool.

 

Cotton is not a common cloth at this time. It is worn, but it is not highly durable, and is fairly costly to produce, so it is far less often worn than wool. Cotton is simply too difficult to process, and even slavery makes it expensive, so there’s no help there! Cotton is spun thin, into fine yarns or threads, and while it is a challenge to spin it well, the King is not concerned with this. He can obtain all the cotton he can afford, and there is not a serious obstacle other than general availability.

 

Silk is wonderful, not highly durable, but fairly easy to spin once you learn how. The issue with silk is not whether it is easy to spin, but other inconveniences. It is VERY costly to process into Noil (clumps of fiber that are ready to spin). Every cocoon has to be opened, cleaned, de-glued, and shaken out. Cocoons range from 1-7″ long, and it takes between 20 and 200 cocoons just to make a single OUNCE of silk Noil. That spins up into a little less than an ounce of thread – and silk MUST be spun fine. Spinning fine takes a LONG time to do, you can spin 8 ounces of knitting wool in the same time it takes to spin about half an ounce of weaving thread. But anyone can spin silk, provided they have the time!

 

Hemp was not worn. Nor was bamboo. Both take intensive processing to produce wearable threads or yarns, and if you try to make clothing from less processed hemp you end up wearing burlap (VERY itchy and rough), whereas bamboo is just splinters. So forget trying to tell me how you think they must have used these for clothing in the middle ages, they did NOT. Hemp was used for coarse rope, and bamboo was used as an alternative to wood.

 

Flax is the thing. Flax not only gleams and looks good, but it is also VERY strong and durable. Flax is just a plant that is dried, and the hay-like stems processed into fibers. It can be processed into a few types of fiber – coarse brown, semi-smooth (comfortable) gold (or light brown), smooth cream, and smooth white. All are difficult to spin, due to the length of the fibers, which must not be cut if you want really strong thread. Flax is also spun very tightly, so you have to have a spinning wheel set up to spin it, with a higher bobbin ratio than most wheels, or without a flyer – I am assured it CAN be spun using a drop spindle, but since you have to work it more as you spin it, with both hands, it is far more difficult to do. Each lighter color of flax is progressively smoother and more difficult to spin. Flax is also slippery if you are spinning white flax, and this is considered one of the most difficult fibers in the world to spin. It takes skill, and patience, and good hand coordination to be able to spin white flax well. The person who can do this is rare, and remarkable. And this is the thing which preoccupies the King – but he has a preference for gold flax.

Flax is the fabric that both looks good and wears well, and the fabric that one never has enough of if one must have fine clothing for events of state. This King knows, if he is to marry, he has to have a wife that is skilled enough to run the royal household, and to attend to all the important things that annoy him so much if they are not done! Spinning of flax is not the ONLY thing… but it is a thing one can find out fairly quickly, if one just puts another to the test.

The King loves silk, and sometimes spins it himself, just because it is about the most fun thing to spin, and if you HAVE to spin something, this is the one you choose first. We need to understand the character of the King. Oh, he’s a despot, naturally, but he believes in Nobless Oblige. So if spinning must be done by all in his household in order to provide for the common good, spin he will! It is his duty, just as it is his duty to tax the peasants and threaten the lesser nobility. A successful King must understand these things!

A successful King must also marry. How is he King then, and not married? Surely if he be King he must be old? We are uncertain of the details, but we are assured that he is young enough that he MUST marry to secure the succession to the throne, and he has no parents to foist a bride upon him, so he must find one himself.

He sets out to find a bride who has the necessary birth, and skills, but those with birth seem to be singularly lacking in skills!

They can paint a watercolor that has some colors that suggest the scene they are trying to capture. They can make a small needlepoint tapestry without too many freckles. They know how to dance at least two different dances. One or two are able to sew a seam, or embroider a daisy (a few can even make a French knot!). Not a ONE can dress themselves. And none can spin flax into thread.

The young ladies all know how to gossip, they all know how to swoon, they can sit for hours complaining while their hair is done, and they know not to fidget too much while the maid is buttoning them up. But when he asks if they can spin straw into gold, they look at him dumbfounded, and ask him why he should need more gold, he being the King and all? They haven’t a clue in their little heads where a practical skill is concerned, nor the common phrase to describe the valued talent.

Meanwhile, in another part of the Kingdom, there lives a young miller’s daughter. No ordinary lass this, otherwise she could never come to the attention of the King!

No, she is not an ordinary miller’s daughter. She is, in fact, the adopted daughter of the miller (the plot thickens). A girl of questioned, though broadly suspected and gossiped, origins. Origins quite easily explained, by a passing nobleman (who was not in fact noble in character), the OLDER miller’s daughter, and an unnamed hunting lodge somewhere in the Smoky Mountains, no doubt.

The miller makes a living. A fairly good one. He is, in fact, well off, and having a daughter of marriageable age, has a dowry to offer. She, being the bastard daughter of… She, being the orphaned daughter…. No, that isn’t going to work either. Anyway, given her background, there aren’t any takers. At least not for the girl. Plenty want the money!

The miller has never received a dime from the presumed fatherer of the girl. You can’t pay someone to raise your bastards, you see, if you do, you’ll never have an end of it. They’ll squeeze you blind, and the miller is a merchant of some repute, and good at squeezing, so the nobleman isn’t about to take a chance with that!

But the King is on the hunt… and the miller knows this. The King is also a greedy… Well, we can’t say that. He was born to married parents! The miller suspects maybe there is an opportunity. And he knows as well as the King, where the value is.

The pity of it is, the miller has not taught the girl a thing that would help her be a good queen. He hasn’t even taught her anything that would make her a good mistress, fearing greatly that this might be the only offer she’d receive! He has SOME principles, after all.

The girl can spin. She spins a good, smooth woolen yarn, and a nice, usable woolen thread for weaving. She can’t even spin sewing thread, her mother (having no time for this) has to buy it instead. But she has never even handled the finer fibers, in her whole life.

The miller bids his wife pack a pack, and he saddles his horse, and rides off, he says, to trade in the big city. And trade, he does.

A certain nobleman being vulnerable to a suggestive threat, the miller receives an audience with the King.

Through much inference, a respectable amount of flattery, and a good deal too many words, the miller finally gets the bored King’s attention and persuades him of two things:

The miller has a daughter of marriageable age, of uncertain, though CERTAINLY NOBLE birth, with a SIZABLE DOWRY, which, unaccountably, nobody wants.

 

The daughter can spin. She can spin FINELY!!! So fine, in fact, that she can spin straw, into gold.

The King is intrigued.

The King is also emotionally disconnected. Not terribly good husband material, too many wars, too much indulgence of his whims, you know, the usual Princely challenges. He is, in fact, Nobless Oblige aside, a bit of a bully and a brute. Not a BAD King, mind, just not a good MAN.

Our psychologically dysfunctional King is caught in a fit of consternation.

The spinning he wants.

The dowry he wants.

The wife he must have.

But he must also be able to prove that the bride is worthy of his attentions. His advisors will bow to his wishes in the thing, but he cannot just go out and marry a commoner. He’s got to have SOME upper hand in this, to prove his judgement just.

So he informs the miller that he is to bring his daughter to the dower house, which is occupied by the Aunt of the King, where she is to be installed in the second drawing room with an appropriate amount of straw, which she is to spin into gold within three days. If she fails, she is to be put to death as a consequence of the dishonesty of the miller – fair being fair and all. Men of those days understood the importance of justice, after all. (The plot sickens…)

The miller returns home and informs the poor girl of her fate. This girl has no clue other than that she knows people say it is hard to spin flax. The only way she is better than any of the others is that she knows what it means, and has an acquaintance with a spindle. Oh… and she can protest. But this is not an asset in a prospective queen.

The following morning she is bundled into a cart and hauled off to the residence behind the castle, and installed with a basket of dried flax, into a nice sized room with a chaise in the corner. She is given leave to go to and from the room to meet her personal needs, and told that she may request what she needs to finish the task.

This flax must all be spun by morning, she is told, or she’ll be put to death. And then she is left alone.

The girl tries to pull the flax apart. It separates, but is stiff, rough, and won’t spin into thread. She’s pretty sure it ought to be nicer.

She tries for an hour, and cannot do it. In despair, she puts her head in her hands and sobs out her frustration.

A man enters the room. He’s pretty old, rather bent, and NOT attractive at all. He carries a bottle, and a bucket.

He tells her that if she will give him the necklace she wears, he will give her the things she needs to make it work.

She protests… The necklace, a simple locket, was given her by her mother. A token from the girl’s birth father, with a name inscribed within.

But she must spin the gold! So she surrenders the necklace, and the man gives her the bottle and the bucket, and hobbles out the door.

The bottle is vinegar. She pours it into the bucket, and drops a bit of flax in, and stirs it for a few minutes. Then she pulls it out. It is different. Smoother. Flexible.

She needs WATER. To rinse the flax. And washbasins. And more vinegar.

These are brought, and the flax is treated, and then rinsed, and laid to dry by the fire.

Once dry, she begins again to try to spin the flax. It isn’t straw anymore, it is fiber. And spinning it is HARD.

It spins, but wants to stick out on the sides. Getting it even is difficult, the fibers are so long they do not distribute well, and teasing them straighter requires some strength and considerable fussing.

By 3:00 in the morning the flax is spun. It is not beautiful, it is still a bit rough, rather fuzzy, and not quite even. But spin it she has, and she collapses onto the chaise to sleep off some exhaustion by morning.

She awakes in the morning to find the Aunt gathering her work, while a footman carries in two baskets of dried flax. This must be spun by morning, or she will be executed.

Her work of the day before is taken to the King. He examines it, and pronounces it to be poor work, but she HAS done one thing… She has spun the straw into gold yarn. He cannot say she has not done it, only that she has not done it WELL.

He sends word back to her… It must be FINER, and it must be SMOOTHER.

She cannot make it smoother. She can make it finer, this comes with practice. And it makes the fingers sore. But this is the work, so you do it.

If you make thread instead of yarn, it takes longer. It must be spun tighter (more turns), and it takes longer to spin a large bulk. There is NO WAY her poor spindle will produce enough thread to finish TWO baskets of flax by morning.

Once again she lays down her head in her hands to sob out her discouragement. And once again a man enters the room, the same as the day before.

This time, the old man asks for her ring.

She protests… This ring, the only other thing she has of value, also from her mother, was given her by the man who fathered the girl. It has a family crest on it.

Reluctantly, she gives him the ring.

He brings her a spinning wheel.

A flax wheel is hard to learn to use, and she’s never learned to use a wheel at all. It is threaded, with a leader thread, so she ties a bit of flax to the leader, and starts to spin slowly. She has to stop periodically to replace the bobbin full of newly spun thread and start again.

It takes a few hours to really get the hang of the wheel, and her thread is spinning faster, and she’s learning to keep it neater, but it is still hairy, with fibers sticking out. Flax tends to not want to bend, and the loose fibers want to unwind and stick out.

But gold thread is produced, and the baskets empty. By 1:00 in the morning she is feeding the last of the flax into the spinning wheel, and again falls exhausted onto the chaise to sleep.

Morning heralds the arrival of the Aunt once again, to gather the night’s work to take for inspection. The footman brings three fresh baskets of dried flax, and replaces the empty two. It must be done by morning, or her execution will be carried out.

The King once again inspects the work, and is not fully pleased. She has spun a finer thread, but it is still hairy. He wants it smooth and gleaming. He sends word that he will not accept it in the morning unless it is both fine, AND smooth.

She cannot get it so! It will not go! A sob and a wail and she’s down again!

In comes the little old man. He’s strangely happy today, like he is about to get what he wants. It isn’t a nice kind of happy.

He has the answer. She knows he does, he’s had it before. He’s got an old spinster in his pocket, and she’s helping him out, because he’s obviously a man to whom work is not a familiar visitor. But he has gotten the answer, and he’ll barter it for the right price.

She has no currency. He is not disturbed, he only wants a little thing. Such a little thing she’ll never miss it. Just a child. Just one child. The first one… Oh, not a girl, that does not count! The first USEFUL child, of course.

What can she do? Her child, or her life? Her shoulders slump, and she agrees, hoping the man may die before she has to comply with the promise.

The man hands her a small packet wrapped in a cloth, and leaves the room. The cloth conceals a bar of beeswax.

She has seen her father make rope, using  waste tallow to hold it tight. So she has an idea of what to do with beeswax.

The spinning wheel has a wax box in the middle, and the bar goes there. She rubs her fingers in the wax, and smooths a bit of thread. The thread is a bit waxy, and dull looking, but smooth. She wipes it again, and the thread starts to shine.

With practice, she can spin and wax the thread, and she gets faster and faster as the day goes on.

There’s a thing with spinning. It wears you out when you are not used to it. She’s used to it. But this involves new motions, so some of her muscles are sore. You have to not just get FASTER, but you have to learn to MOVE more efficiently, or the soreness will slow you down instead of skill speeding you up.

By midnight she’s finishing the last of the third basket, and she tumbles onto the chaise just before the clock in the corner chimes the half, and she’s asleep before it is heard.

Morning arrives, along with the Aunt, but no footman. She gathers the best of the previous day’s work and carries it off while the miller’s daughter slides back into an uneasy sleep where bars of beeswax make her feet slip, yards of tangled flax trip her, and someone keeps trying to execute her with a spindle. The human mind is a strangely logical thing sometimes.

The King is resigned this morning, that he’ll have to marry her if she’s finished the job. She IS at least capable of learning, and that is a great asset to someone who may lack a few of the finer social graces, and she isn’t bad looking, there’s many a queen flat out ugly and proclaimed a stately beauty, and this girl isn’t ugly. Besides, some of his Counselors are pushing for this girl, on account of the dowry, and the nebulous presumed noble connection. Court politics never stop, and there is a manipulator around every corner, so this kind of intrigue is to be expected.

The flaxen thread is lovely. It has been prepared with a good sense of timing so it is neither rough from under treating, nor colorless from over-treating. It is fine enough for weaving a strong cloth, and very even (which is a big deal). It is smoothly waxed, with just enough wax to shine, but not enough to dull or cause the thread to stick together.

He could send her home now, and break his word, and she’d be bettered by the skill. But if he does, he’s still stuck with trying to find a bride who can do what this girl can. All in all, he’ll be no worse off, and perhaps a little better off with a wife.

The girl is left no choice. The decision is made without so much as anyone questioning whether she WANTS to marry a tyrant who would kill her just because she did not live up to the promise of the miller’s lie. King or not, that sort of thing tends to lower the value of a suitor in the eyes of a prospective bride.

But the King decides, the miller rubs his hands in glee, and the little old man in the corner gives a nasty little chuckle.

The thing is done, the girl is queen. That is queen with a LITTLE “q”, not big “Q”. That’s important.

The King and the queen proceed to create a large family, all very healthy, and all girls. Six red, screaming baby girls into their married life, she finally bears a son, and has no idea whether or not the little old man has persisted in life or not.

The boy is Christened, Breached, and Baptized, and enters training in the court under the eye of his father. He must learn a few Kingly skills, and they are duly exhibited for his edification.

Oh, we’d all like this to involve a threat and having to guess a name, wouldn’t we? But you forget, this is palace intrigue. And it follows a more crooked course.

The old man is there. He’s been there all along. And he already GOT the son.

The queen meets him in the hallway one day, even older, and more bent, and realizes, he’s been there advising her husband, training her son, raising him up so that when he becomes King himself, there will be a puppetmaster behind him, either the old man or someone who is chosen by him to follow in his footsteps, so the young King will know to whom the favors and privileges are owed. This is how power play works with children in the palace.

She can’t get rid of him. But she CAN guess his name.

It is inscribed on the inside of a locket that he took from her.

But all in all, he made a fair trade.

And the queen really COULD spin straw into gold.

 

About the name of the story: An old man, and a miller’s daughter who is elevated. Actually, it was just a silly reference to Rumplestiltskin.

Grow a Garden!

Gardening doesn't have to be that hard! No matter where you live, no matter how difficult your circumstances, you CAN grow a successful garden.

Life from the Garden: Grow Your Own Food Anywhere Practical and low cost options for container gardening, sprouting, small yards, edible landscaping, winter gardening, shady yards, and help for people who are getting started too late. Plenty of tips to simplify, save on work and expense.