Tuesday, April 04, 2017

Marcee Stiltner 1948-2017

My mom died two months ago. She suddenly got very sick in mid-January, and was quickly re-diagnosed with the cancer she had managed to fight off for a couple of good years. Only it had spread to all the places you don't want cancer to spread to. The plane ticket she bought for me to fly to DC so I could go the Women's March was changed into a last minute ticket up to Olympia, where I spent almost two weeks by her side with my younger sister. She died at home in hospice care, which is where I hear most people want to die, but very few actually do.

My mom refused further treatment for her cancer, a decision she was completely clear on and my sister and I had both been prepared for long before. My mom believed in quality of life. She was a mental health advocate her entire professional life which informed her choices about a lot of things and shaped her character. For her, getting treatment that may extend her life by a few months while at the same time making her so sick that she would not be able to work and enjoy her family wasn't even a choice. It was amazing how long it took her oncologist to understand that. He had all kinds of life-extending plans for her. She wasn't having any of it. And she didn't. She died quickly, which many have told me is a mercy, but I can tell you is just a total shock to the system.

My sister and I took several weeks to clean out my mom's house, with help from friends and family. Our mom's actual living quarters were pretty easy to deal with-- aside from that peculiarly American habit of buying paper goods in extreme bulk and her obsession with office supplies, my mom was not a collector or hoarder of things. She was very neat and organized by habit, with contained areas of chaos, mostly isolated in a junk drawer or a laundry room cabinet. While I was growing up we moved so many times to follow her career that I think it gave everyone in my family an allergy to tchotchkes. She did have a lot of jewelry which I was moved to meticulously collect in 3-inch plastic baggies, one baggie for each item and pair, and store in a bin. The jewelry is not valuable nor to my taste, but I can't give it away. Not yet.

It was my mom's sewing studio that tripped us up. My mom was a self-taught master seamstress. She has sewn since she was a teenager and she has always sewn, no matter what, no matter how busy or overwhelmed with work or raising kids on her own. I remember a period of time when I was in elementary school and she was briefly unemployed, and I often came home in the afternoon to find her sewing.  Next to reading, it was her main hobby in life and she never got bored with it.

The home she has owned for the last 15 years has a large basement where she finally had the dream sewing studio she always wanted. She had four sewing machines: a regular machine that most seamstresses have, a serger machine, a quilting machine, and an embroidery machine. She had a professional iron that I barely knew how to turn on, and a custom made ironing board that was longer and wider than a regular board. She had a cutting table that dominated the space, with a huge cutting mat so you could line up your fabric perfectly. One wall was lined with racks that held thread of every color. The opposite wall was lined with shelving that held over a dozen bins of fabric, ordered by type, color, and print. Other bins that held scores of zippers of every length and color. More bins that held sewing notions. Even more bins that held stuff for fun sewing projects. One giant bin of just patterns. My mom was an early adopter of the internet (she was the first person I knew to install Prodigy and start surfing the web) and was always trolling online looking for the latest sewing gadgets and tools, and those gadgets and tools were everywhere in her studio. I can't even begin to list them all.

My mom made everything, all the clothes she wore, down to her own tailored slips, for most of her adult life. Women and men always asked where she got her clothes, and she loved telling people that she made them herself. She was a professional woman through most of her career and made the most beautiful suits: tailored jackets, skirts, pants, blouses.  She copied the first designer jeans in the 80's, making her own Calvin Klein's that looked exactly like the real thing, missing only the Calvin Klein label.  She made her own t-shirts and shorts. She sewed her own bathing suits. When jogging became a thing she sewed up her own jogging outfit and actually jogged 3 or 4 times. She made a floor length fur coat made from fake fur and took shit from people on street who thought it was real.  In my closet I have an exact copy of a Chanel jacket she made, down to the quilted lining and gold chain that runs around the inside hem. It is a work of art, yet my mom never thought she was an artist or even particularly creative. She just like to sew. A lot.

My mom once rented a RV with one of her friends and they drove to a national park where they sewed all day in beautiful surroundings. She was a little bit crazy when it came to sewing.

Later, she started making other things: quilts, wall hangings, curtains, toiletry bags, throw pillows, oven mitts, purses, wallets. Slippers. Cell phone covers. Laptop bags. When she got her embroidery machine she would sew something up and then embroider it. When she got her quilting machine she would sew, quilt, and embroider. When she was diagnosed with cancer the first time she made bunch of cute hats in anticipation of losing her hair during chemo, and then she didn't lose any hair and gave them all away.  She made ridiculous things too: she created an item she called a "charger cozy"-- a colorful sleeve that slipped over a cell phone cord so it would be more difficult to leave behind when you were traveling. She had little interest in buying anything that could be made. Sewing was more fun than shopping.

My mom mostly liked to sew for herself, and for me and my sister, and she liked making gifts for friends. She had no enthusiasm in doing it for money. She tried a couple of times but she said it took the fun right out of it. She made me a dress for Pioneer Day when I was 7 with a matching bonnet that I continued to wear for everyday attire. I loved that outfit, especially the bonnet, and refused to take off even for a formal portrait with my sister, which led to a huge throw down in the portrait studio (I won). She made the dresses that we wore to dances in high school. She made the dresses that we wore to our college graduations. She made my wedding dress and my sister's bridesmaid dress and of course, her own mother-of-the-bride dress. She made the aprons I wear to work every day. She sent me sheets embroidered with mine and my husband's name along the top. She made me a silk "sleep sack" so I would not have to be tortured by low thread count sheets when I travel, a personality quirk of mine she thought showed a specific weakness of character, but made me a sleep sack nonetheless. (It's not that I have such refined taste, I just have very sensitive skin.)

My mom taught me how to sew in a two week marathon of sewing at her house when I was about 21.  Up until that time I had no interest in sewing. My sister and I grew up trying to entertain ourselves in fabric shops, and I can tell you there is very little that is entertaining in a fabric shop unless you want to buy fabric. My mom and I did sewing marathons almost every time we got together for a visit, and she did the same thing with my sister. It was a great way to spend time together: my mom would fix all of my mistakes and I had new clothes at the end of it.

There was a period of time where I was making all of my clothes too, but I lacked the meticulous skill my mom brought to sewing. I liked to take shortcuts, skip reading the directions, fudge on steps. I didn't have patience. I started sewing again in the past couple of years, and finally my mom's lessons came through: take your time, do it right. I will never be as obsessed as she was with sewing, I have my own obsessions to tend to, but I enjoy the process now in a way I didn't before.

In recent years as rhuemetoid arthritis started causing pain in her hands she slowed down with sewing and started wearing store bought clothes more often, which always profoundly disturbed me. It was a small sign that she had to give up something she loved. And it was just a slight loss of dignity, of being forced to flip through racks for mass-produced clothing like the rest of us. As I've watched people age, I've realized that everything you love becomes everything you eventually lose, sometimes slowly, sometimes more quickly. Trying to hold on to your dignity through this process  is one of the most difficult things of all.

Cleaning out her sewing space seemed like an insurmountable task. There were days where I couldn't even go down there because it was so overwhelming. It was like a fabric bomb had gone off. My mom gave us permission to throw away every item in her home, except for the poetry she wrote (she's written poetry since she was a child), which she wanted my sister and I to keep. While I had little problem boxing up most of her home for Goodwill, her sewing stuff was another thing. My sister and I divided up the machines and some gadgets, her best friend hauled off a lion's share of fabric and supplies, and that still left a ton of stuff. We felt it all needed to go to people who would appreciate it, not a scrap would go to Goodwill. And we did it, down to the last box filled with cotton quilting fabric and quilting books which went to a quilter friend. We probably could have headed home two weeks earlier if not for the sewing studio.

I can write about my mother for a very long time. I was a terrible, terrible teenager, to the point where my mom kicked me out for a while because I refused to go to a drug rehab (I didn't need it, not really), but even during those times I always loved her, always felt loved by her, and always knew I could count on her. I know many people are not as lucky as I was with my mom. I have always been able to take her unconditional love and support for granted. She has helped me through every difficult period in my life, never telling me what to do, but helping me figure it out. She knew everything about me, I stopped keeping secrets from her once I moved out of the house at 17. She never judged me. Or if she did she kept it absolutely to herself.

My mom had many stellar qualities, but her ability to help me and my sister prepare for her death and talk about it openly was one of the last amazing things she did for us. My sister and I wondered if we were too open with her about our anxiety about taking care of her at the end of her life; my sister could get paid family leave for 3 months but I would have to improvise. We were semi-panicked at the idea that she would be in hospice beyond our ability to personally care for her, dreaded the idea of draining her account or having to sell her house to continue her care. But she kept telling us she wouldn't last more than a week, even though she was talking and laughing with her friends and making jokes, so we didn't take her totally seriously. But she was right. We brought her home for hospice on a Wednesday, and she died on the following Sunday.

My mom did a lot for me, but unfortunately she could not prepare me for what life now feels like without her. There is no wrapping your head around that until it actually happens. People who have been through it tell me it gets better, but I don't know what that looks or feels like, I just try to hold on to the idea that I might one day feel better. I try to be grateful that I had two weeks with her before she died, but she was only 69 and I wish I could have had another 20 years.

You can read her obituary here.


  1. I'm so sorry for your loss. We lost our mother and very often I want just 5 more minutes with her. No one tells you how to grieve you just do.
    I hope your memories give you joy.

  2. Thank you for writing this. My mom passed away from pancreatic cancer on January 15th of this year, and she too died at home in hospice care, lying next to my father who was holding her hand at the end. Her battle was short, and fast, and nothing could have prepared me and my siblings for the pain of it all. But with that pain, also came the memories, as you have described. My mother also was an excellent seamstress, who loved to sew and crochet, right up till the end. We still have not put all her things away, as my dad is still learning how to cope without her (they were married 62 years). I am not looking forward to the task, but I know that it will hold bittersweet memories that I will never forget. Thanks again for your poignant words. It's nice to know that I am not alone in my feelings of loss and love. - Suzie

  3. Whitney! I am so so sorry for your loss. There is nothing like losing a mother. My mom died 1 1/2 yrs ago. like yesterday. The first year was the worst, the past year is still bad, it doesn't really get better except that life goes on and we have to go on. The pain is always there, some days less intense and others more. I carry my mom around with me every day and that's just how it is. I wish for you comfort all the days of your life.

  4. Your mother is my hero. I am 69 and although I am not sick, I am preparing for that day in the future and how I pray that I will meet it with your mother's courage. She raised some fine girls. Thank you for sharing your experience. It helped me to know how to help my son. Love and peace to you.

  5. What an amazing woman she was! Thank you so much for sharing her story, I am deeply sorry for your loss.

  6. So beautiful Whitney. Thank you for sharing your stories, your heart and your grief with us. Your mom will always be with you in ways big and small. I'm thankful for the gift of you that she gave to our world.

  7. Hi Whitney--I once bought some stuff from you and told you that we found you by searching my sister's name--Whitney Smith. Our mom also died Jan 15th from pancreatic cancer in hospice care. Bizarre--it's like we are all soul sisters. Our mom lived for over a year--We had a beautiful Christmas. Our mom looked great. But, we all knew...it would be her last. She chose to stop treatment the day after Christmas. And, she had such clarity. Looking back I think it was a gift of hers to us. To be sure that she didn't want to extend the pain any longer. We loved her so much...more everyday. We still haven't cleaned out her closet or so many other things. So, we have a long way to go. Her love and her signs keep us going everyday. They show up when we least expect them...and rainbow in the real view mirror, a song on the radio...In My Daughter's Eyes...a scripture being real aloud that her part of her service.

    I know she's here. But, I miss her. I know she's in a better place smiling down. But, it's hard not to have a few tears every now and then.

    Big hugs. And love--keep being creative for her...

  8. I don't know you, or you me, but I am a potter and started to follow you work on a recommendation by a pottery instructor (Dara Hartman) or by random find on instagram (can't quite remember which but likely the former). As an artist wannabe I have totally enjoyed all the candid heartfelt thoughts and advice you have shared on your blog (I have enjoyed a few late night backwards blog readings here) as well as your pottery. This is a lovely tribute to your mother... I am very sorry for your loss.

  9. Whitney, honey...this is a beautiful tribute! I had forgotten that your mom made your wedding dress (+ Brena's bridesmaid and her own dress for the occasion) - WOW! I feel lucky to have spent the night at her house so I was able to witness that awesome sewing workshop of hers downstairs. I had ALMOST charmed her enough for her to sew me one of those towel-bathrobes for which she had found a pattern~ almost! From the sounds of it she had a mountain of projects waiting...what a supermom for sure!

    From my own experience with losing my mom (now 22 years ago) I can only say it S U U U U U C K S but is part of life. I felt royally screwed out of about 40+ potential years with my mom, but what can you do? After all, I'm still here and I count my blessings for that, yet know I will meet my mom again someday in an alternate universe! And won't that be incredible?!

    Love you, doll. Here for you always! Just let that grief RIP (and I mean rip, not rest) !


  10. This is the most beautiful, honest, tearful piece of heart-writing I've ever read. I lost my father to a six-week long battle with cancer, and I too praise the compassion of Hospice. He died in a Hospice facility, and my uncle - who lost a longer battle with cancer - with home Hospice care. Both of them, like your mother, were open and practical about facing death... but nothing ever really prepares your heart. It was a good six months before I could wake up in the morning and not feel like I'd been hit by a bus, and another six months after that before I truly started to feel like myself again. Grieve as you need to grieve, let your heart feel what it needs to feel, and I hope for you that laughter and fond stories outweigh the darkness of grief. I think a little of your mother is going to live on now in all of us, every time we go for our own sewing machines. Thank you for sharing this. You said you could write about her for a very long time - I'm sure many of us who read your blog would love to hear more stories of her. Thank you for writing this. It is a beautiful tribute.

  11. I am so sorry for your loss. Your beautiful tribute brought tears to my eyes and flooded me with memories of my own mother who died three years ago. My Mum was also a seamstress, and I too remember spending hours in fabric shops. Grief is difficult and complex, but your wonderful memories will keep you moving forward.

  12. A beautiful tribute to your mom. I'm so sorry. We lost my amazing mom 10 years ago in March, and I'll miss her always.

  13. Whitney, I've been following you and your blog for some years now. Your writing always moves me, and reading this beautiful tribute to your amazing mom brought me to tears. Thank you for sharing! Ah, grief. I don't know that it gets "better" but I think it gets less terrible. It never becomes a fixed thing; it comes and goes like ocean waves. Very sorry for your loss.

  14. Whitney, this is a lovely tribute to her. She was a Judi Tavill early collector too. She seems amazing. I am so sorry your loss. My Dad passed 1/9/13 and I won't lie. It remains hard and I miss his existence in this planet every day. And HE was a character. She really seems like a bit of an angel. Peace and love.

  15. This is such a beautifully written tribute for someone who was clearly an exceptional human being. My deepest condolences for this huge loss. I am so happy to be following your work again. Many blessings.

  16. Thank you for such a tender story. I am a hospice nurse. Your Mom made the right choice. No one can go around grief. You must go through it. Tears are great for healing. You will never forget your MOM. Your memories will carry you though. As an aside, my Mom was also an avid sewer. If I could go back to any time spent with her, it would be in the fabric shop or at her side as she ripped out my mistakes without complaint. May God bless you & comfort you & your sister in your sorrow. Your Mom will always be with you.