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.