Wednesday, December 26, 2007


Minnesotans like to think they’re special when it comes to winter. Our winters are harsh and we have learned to adapt. We laugh when we read about a southern state that closes down when an inch of snow falls. That’s why it’s so pathetic when we have a mild winter. Where’s the fun of living in Minnesota when the winter is like one in Tennessee? Last year we had a thin dusting of snow a couple of days before Christmas and were disappointed.

This year I think one or two too many people were singing "I'm dreaming of a white Christmas" around here, because we got pretty well clobbered. There was already snow on the ground when it started in again on Sunday. It didn't seem to be snowing very hard, especially at first. Just those little tiny flakes we sometimes get. (A few days before that, the temperatures were in the upper twenties, and we had a very quiet, windless snowfall of huge flakes that put about two inches on the ground. It was the stuff they show on television when they want us to think snow is beautiful.) But on Sunday it just kept on snowing, all day. And it was windy, so there were drifts. And the temperature was falling as if someone had broken the bottom out of the thermometer. We were to go to my husband's sister's house to exchange presents and have a Christmas dinner. There was seven or eight inches of new snow on the ground when we set off about five o'clock -- it was dark by then, of course. There was not much traffic and everyone was moving slowly, going about forty mph on the freeway. We’re Minnesotans, but we’re not crazy. A snowplow had made a pass, but the road was still covered with packed-down snow that was very slippery. The wind was blowing hard enough to rock the car and send thin little drifts of snow ("snow snakes" we call them) wriggling across the road in twisty waves. The exit ramps and the side street we went down to Margaret and Steve's house was deep with snow, and slippery. But we made it all right. And once inside, divested of six layers of coats, sweaters and scarves, we were laughing and proud of ourselves. Other members of the family arrived soon after, all laughing and proud to make little of the drive over. Snow – ha! We're Minnesotans!

It’s exciting when I’m doing research and find a new angle on something that fits perfectly into the plot. For example, I’m writing about a piece of silk embroidery that is very, very old. I'm using an actual piece of silk. It was found in a Chinese tomb that belonged to a woman of noble, but not royal birth. A photograph of it was very intriguing and I'm using some details from it in the story I’m writing. But recently I stumbled across an article that gave more information about the tomb. Sometimes it only takes a couple of facts to give a story a new and better angle. The woman’s tomb was small but she was wrapped in layers of exquisite silk, of a quality higher than that to which she was entitled -- sumptuary laws are not only European. More, she held rolls of silk in both hands. One article describes it thus:

The Mashan lady was from a lower aristocratic class, yet she was buried in patterned silk garments that normally would have been restricted to the upper nobility. In addition to her clothing, her face was covered with cloth, and she held rolls of silk in each hand. Like Zenghou Yi (see More About Excavations at the Tomb of Marquis Yi), this woman was apparently intent, despite the rules governing dress, on displaying her taste and wealth through the objects she chose to be buried with. []

It seems to me that this woman might well have been the supplier of silk to the upper classes. She owned a shop or factory that spun, dyed and wove the silk and hired workers to do the exquisite stitchery – that’s why she had all that silk on hand to cover her body; that’s why she was holding rolls of silk in her hands! A woman proud of her occupation, and willing to show off her accomplishments. And since my sleuth owns a needlework shop, she would feel a kinship with this woman.

Did I mention that the tomb was built in the second century BC? A feeling of kinship, a sympathy of feeling, across cultures and centuries -- there's a story worth telling!

Sometimes I feel that kinship when I’m making bread. I stand at the table kneading dough, pushing with the heels of my hands, feeling the dough come warm and alive – pleasantly aware that I’m standing at the head of a line of women making these identical movements, a line that reaches, unbroken, back to the earliest human civilizations.

Life is good.


Anonymous said...

Lovely! You've woven (yes, pun intended) so much history and context into that small item.

Touching or holding pieces of the past can be very moving. A couple of years ago I had the opportunity to visit a house that I knew had been built around 1810 by my sixth great-grandfather. The stair posts were wooden and very simple, and the caps on the newel posts had been worn away by two centuries of use. I stopped with my hand on one and thought: this was shaped by my ancestor. And here I am, my hand following his. It's a powerful feeling.

Sheila Connolly

Monica Ferris said...

I haven't been able to touch or handle anything made or used by a distant ancestor. You are specially blessed, Sheila!