Mourning cushions

Originally posted here

A new object for The Museum – a ‘mourning cushion’ one of a pair made on the death of a father. This post explores the importance of moments of abeyance in the grief process and the allusions and associations contained within the stitches of an object that has the potential to become a family ‘heirloom’.

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Indian Elephant Red by Anita Gunnett, Erhman

The photograph for this post is of one of a set of two cushions in needlepoint sewn by my sister and me shortly after the sudden and unexpected death of my father twenty five years ago.

I think that my sister bought the first kit and that shortly after I most pressingly ‘needed’ an identical kit of my own, which I bought in a tiny shop in the Cotswolds dedicated to needle crafts close to where I then lived. This perceived need was acute I remember, as was the one for chocolate and other comforts. My father’s life is the subject of my other blog, and the emotional turmoil we experienced on his passing was undoubtedly aggravated by the unresolved and unspoken issue of his own grief at his lifelong exile from Spain at the fall of the Second Republic in 1939.

Our mother was a huge influence in the choice of object with which to mediate our feelings, being a needlepoint cushion queen with many gorgeous creations cheerfully plumping her sofas and those of her family and friends. The very act of sewing steadily along a line with method and concentration becomes an apt metaphor for aspects of our mother’s character. Mum seems to have been born steady, a natural nurturer, constantly yet quietly productive and organised in so very many ways. A marvellous thing to observe from the perspective of a butterfly brain.

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Mum

I well recall the soothing action of pressing and pulling the needle through the canvas and revelling in the time-stopping concentration required to stay on track (not always successfully). It wasn’t that the grief left you but rather that it was held aloft somewhere while the brain prioritised attention to the task. A trick perhaps but so very welcome. A relief from the constant bruising and chafing of such a complex loss.

Looking at the cushion all these years later I can see how my sister was drawn to the design. Our father travelled to India as a UNESCO delegate in 1957 and was forever taken by the experience, returning with his delegate suitcase brimming with menus, hotel receipts and programmes, hundreds (possibly thousands) of black and white photographs, ankle bracelets, yards of sari fabric, and a broken wrist from falling between the gap at Delhi station while attempting to step onto the platform. Even his fall couldn’t dim his affinity for the people and the place. I’m certain Dad would have loved Anita Gunnett’s design.

To this day we can tell the cushions apart and my teenagers enjoy identifying which bits I fluffed or made a neater job of, even with a pre-set design there is room for manoeuvre and for personality to come through. You still have to interpret the lines and make decisions – you have to stay steady and upright. My sister had a tendency to turn the cushion round and some of her stitches face the wrong way. I tended to make a hash of the elements that needed regular spacing. Yet somehow we stayed within the structure enough for the cushions to form a pair and I am, due to my sister’s extreme generosity, owner of both.

The mourning cushions have recently been rescued from the loft, where they were stored for safe keeping while the children were younger, to reduce the risk of too much of a certain kind of heavy duty wear and tear. To my astonishment I found them to be almost completely flat and in need of new fillings (where did all the feathers go?). A gentle hand wash was also part of their process of rehabilitation. They now sit on a futon which doubles as a sofa and vie with school books and electrical clutter (earphones iPads etc) for space where teenagers sprawl. This feels good, dad is somehow still part of things, in the thick of daily life, and jostling familiarly with the next generation.

I think he would enjoy the view.

Sonia Boué
soniaboue.co.uk

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