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Piecework  Newsletter


Read the newsletters from Sandra Dallas for news about upcoming books, stories, Sandra's Picks and reviews:

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A Christmas Tradition Gone

Volume X, Issue Four | December 2015

Last summer our basement flooded. The glass in a basement window broke, and rain and hail from a tremendous storm poured in like a waterfall. The deluge was expensive–$7,500 just to dry out the basement, and thousands more to replace the carpet, none of that covered by insurance, of course. We spent more money adding brick courses around the window wells and window well covers.

We were lucky. Dollar damage to our possessions was negligible. Still, we lost things we valued. They included my wedding portraits, hundreds of snapshots, boxes of files and records, and–I just discovered–my collection of bottle-brush Christmas trees.

I’d collected the trees over 50 years, dozens of them, picking them up in antiques shops and shows, and at flea markets. Some were gifts. Originally, they’d been cheap Christmas decorations, tiny stiff trees set on square bits of wood. Now such decorations are collectors’ items, and the good ones are not only expensive but harder to find. Most of mine were four to six inches high, although the most valuable were just an inch. While many of the trees were green, there were also blue and bright pink ones. Some were plain, but one had a gold star on top, several had sparkles. Others were decorated with miniature ornaments.

I don’t know how many I had. I never counted them. Probably 50 or more. When we moved three years ago, I discarded most of the Christmas decorations—the plastic holly and fake magnolias. But I’d kept the things that meant the most—the post-World War II German houses and the Crazy Quilt stockings. And the trees. They’d decorated the mantel in the old house and were set on shelves and a table in the new one. They’d become a tradition. But when I opened the tin container last month, I saw they were a sodden mess of decayed wood and bristles, the bright colors muddy. They went into the trash.

In the scheme of things, such a loss ranks pretty low. That’s obvious when I see news reports on television of people who’ve lost cars and houses and even family members in floods. I can count my blessing. I’ll miss the trees but I still have the wooden houses my folks’ G.I. friend brought from Germany. And the stockings, made from bits of finery saved over the years. And I have the memory of the little trees. After all, that’s a big part of Christmas. Not the things themselves but the memories. The fact the trees are gone doesn’t change the pleasure of our having unpacked them each year and put them out. Like the other traditions we build up over the years, they represent not themselves but the joy of Christmas. –SD


A Meeting in Istanbul

Dana and I were in The Columns, a beautiful textiles and jewelry shop in the heart of Istanbul last fall, when the proprietor introduced us to a friend, an American woman, Christine Martens. We chatted about textiles, and I asked if she was interested in quilts. She said it was odd that I had brought that up, because she was in the midst of acquiring quilts for a show of Asian quilts at the quilt museum in Lincoln, Nebraska. The show will open in January, 2017.

Christine invited us to tea the next day at the Grand Bazaar, where she was restoring one of her acquisitions. I wondered about that. The Grand Bazaar is a wonderful, cavernous collection of hundreds of shops, an exciting place to lose yourself for a day or two, but except for jewelry and a hodge-podge of old stuff, we hadn’t found much in the way of antiques. We’d seen dozens of goldsmith shops and places selling pashmina shawls and knockoff handbags, rugs and pillows and yard goods. Plenty of trinkets. But we hadn’t encountered any antique quilts.

But they were there, down a hidden hallway. Christine took us into one shop where we examined a lavender silk coat, covered with thousands of tiny stitches, priced at $7,000. (We passed.) There were fine old rugs and textiles and brightly covered Asian quilts. Then we went up a set of narrow stairs, to a clutter of rooftop shops filled with antiques, surrounding a grape arbor. Over tea, served in Turkey’s iconic tulip-shape glasses, Christine told us Asian quilts are made by professional men, not by women snatching time away from household chores to sit with their needles. In the dappled light coming through the grape leaves, we examined the quilt top Christine was restoring, which was made up of appliqued squares in bright colors.

It was a delightful afternoon, one of the highlights of our visit to Turkey. And it made me think that all over the world, quilts bring women together. –SD


Sandra’s Picks

Last Bus to Wisdom

By Ivan Doig. Riverhead Books.

Ivan Doig, who died this year, was known for his nonfiction as well as his novels. His final work is the story of the adventures of an eleven-year-old boy who travels across the country on a Greyhound—the so-called dog bus. Doig surely drew on his own memories of boyhood to write this engaging and light-hearted novel.

Donal Cameron lives on a Montana ranch with his grandmother, the cook, who is taken ill and must have an operation. No one there can take care of him so Donny is shipped off to Wisconsin for the summer of 1951 to live with his grandmother’s sister. His precious autograph book in hand, he meets a variety of characters on the dog bus, even has an encounter with Jack Kerouac.

To Donny’s dismay, his aunt, the spitting image of Kate Smith, is a bossy, self-righteous woman who makes life hell not only for Donny but for her husband, Herman, a German immigrant, as well. Furious at the boy’s antics, she ships him back to Montana to live with a foster family. Donny is devastated. But who should be on the bus but Herman, who has ditched his wife and is ready to discover the West.

The two have a series of adventures that are both comical and poignant, including one at the Crow Fair, where Donny dons an Indian costume to hide from his grandmother’s ranch boss. All the while, Granny thinks Donny is having a wonderful summer with his aunt because of a series of letters he’s written that are posted weekly by one of Herman’s Wisconsin friends.

“Last Bus to Wisdom” is evocative of the early 1950s. There may be too many coincidences in the book, but who cares? This might not be the most literary of Ivan Doig’s books, but it could be his most fun to read.


Picturing Migrants: The Grapes of Wrath and New Deal Photography

By James KE. Swensen. University of Oklahoma.

Most of us know about the Great Depression from reading The Grapes of Wrath or viewing pictures taken by the Farm Security Administration. Who hasn’t seen Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother,” possibly the most reproduced photograph ever taken?

John Steinbeck was inspired by the pictures, as well as his own visits to 1930s migrant camps, and later, after The Grapes of Wrath was published, photographers tried to find subjects like Steinbeck’s characters the Joads. But until now, nobody’s paired the two in a single major study.

“Picturing Migrants” is a stunning book of dozens of photos and text that tells how both the book and the pictures came about and how they influenced each other.

While today’s Syrian refugees are a long way away from the Okies of the 1930s, you see the same look of despair on the faces, the same hopes for a safe refuge.

Hubbell Trading Post: Trade, Tourism, and the Navajo Southwest. By Erica Cottam. University of Oklahoma.

I was about 10 when my parents took us to the Navajo reservation and I saw my first trading post. We must have stopped at eight or 10 of them. For years, my idea of an ideal vacation was driving through the reservation, stopping at trading posts to watch the women in velveteen blouses, their hair tied up with string in squash knots, negotiate rug sales with the traders. I’d search through old pawn and drink Navajo-brand strawberry pop. When I covered the Navajo tribe for Business Week, I did just that, although Navajo pop was no longer available.

The rest of it is gone now, too. The women dress like everybody else. The Navajos no longer pawn their jewelry in the reservation stores. And the trading posts themselves are disappearing. My favorite one, Shiprock Trade, is now a dollar store.

Erica Cottam captures this bit of America in Hubbell Trading Post. The Hubbell post at Ganado, Ariz., is the most famous of all the trading posts. Lorenzo Hubbell was an early trader who once operated multiple posts in the days when they were reached only by a long wagon ride over muddy roads. He developed a market for rugs and had artists paint pictures of designs for the Indian weavers to copy. The Hubbell post was a favorite destination for writers and artists. And it’s still there, because it was acquired by the federal government in 1965 and is now operated by the National Park Service.

Reading takes me back to those childhood days on the reservation. I just wish I had a bottle of strawberry pop to go with it.–SD

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