Sunday, September 22, 2019

Immortality and Family Heirlooms: The Book of Secrets

Cover: ecoprint with cabbage and eucalyptus

I have a long-held belief that you continue to exist as long as someone living still remembers you. My great-grandmother, born right after the Civil War and a huge influence on my life up to the age of sixteen, still lives vividly on in my memory. My best shot for this kind of immortality lies with my two grandnieces, whom I have been doing my utmost to impress in an artsy, maker kind of way for the past eleven years. It occurred to me that I don't have all that much longer to sum it all up, try to pass on what I have learned over the course of a lifetime through trial and error, and hopefully save them from the same mistakes I made. And here you have it — an instant family heirloom.

Inside cover and first page

Materials used are cotton and silk and a lot of eco-dyeing and ecoprinting

Second round of dyeing for ecoprint bundles

Once the cloth was dyed, each sheet of fabric was folded to form two pages, front and back. A page of poster board was inserted between the pages, and all paired-page edges are hand-finished. I figure that years from now, even if the people who stumble across the book have absolutely no idea who I am, they will take one look at all of that maniacal stitching and feel there is just too much work in this piece to casually throw it out. Which leads us to the second immortality strategy — heirlooms. Even after all who remember you are themselves dead and gone, the heirloom may live on. So here you have it: The Book of Secrets.

Inside cover: cotton dyed with cabbage and eucalyptus

The book is a joint gift for the two girls and their grandmother (my sister). She is in the habit of reading aloud to them and then engaging the girls in animated discussion. The idea here is that The Book of Secrets works a little like the I Ching: You randomly flip to a page, read it aloud, and then all present discuss what it means and the relation to their current lives. As with the I Ching, as your life changes the meaning you draw from the text also changes, so the book itself has a kind of built-in immortality. These are the lessons I wish someone had taught me when I was a child. Now, at age 71, I am still trying to master these strategies, sometimes succeeding, often falling short, and continuing to learn.

Page one: silk dyed with rose leaves, smoke bush flowers

Page two: silk dyed with maple leaves, rose leaves, smoke bush flower

Page three: silk dyed with rose and eucalyptus leaves

Page four: silk dyed with rose and eucalyptus leaves

Page five: silk dyed with maple and rose leaves

Page six: silk dyed with smoke bush flowers and rose leaves

A pause here to acknowledge that yes, there is a mistake in the printing on this page. Instead of dismay, my reaction was delight; mistakes are perfectly in accord with the secrets in this book. Regarding the printing itself, I used a vintage children's printing set with individual stamps for each letter and a pad of archival ink.

Page 7: silk dyed with tea

Page eight: silk dyed with tea

Page nine: cotton dyed with cabbage and maple leaves

Back cover: cotton dyed with cabbage and maple leaves; patchwork with sashiko stitching

Why not add a little mystery to the heirloom? When the girls were born I decided I wanted them to call me Tante Minna, which offers a tiny bit of extended immortality to two people from the past whom the girls never met. My great-grandmother was part of a group of friends from early childhood in Germany who called themselves "the jolly ten."  We called each of them by the honorific "tante" (aunt). As a child, the name Tante Minna, one of the ten, always struck me as very funny. A hundred years from now no one will have any idea who Tante Minna was, but through this book I, my great-grandmother, and the original Tante Minna live on. Until, of course, climate change makes the entire human species a vague memory.


  1. Wonderful. Thanks so much for sharing yourself.

  2. This is a beautiful gift of love and memory...transcending four generations. My Dad always says children are the message we send into the future

  3. I'm moved to tears by your wonderful gift, thank you so much for sharing the story.

  4. Love this! Especially the advice for fear. right on.

  5. wonderful gift of live, especially fear the advice


Related Posts with Thumbnails