When I learned that Helen Tartar, editor of Fordham University Press, had died in a tragic car accident, the first thing I thought of was the fact that my school’s (Drew University) annual Transdisciplinary Theological Colloquium was only a matter of weeks away. I go to this conference every year, and I found it impossible for me to imagine the TTC without Helen in the audience, patiently knitting and listening while she sat through the extremely long and intense weekend conversation. I still remember the first time that I attended the TTC, as a new PhD student, in 2009. I saw this elegant woman in the crowd, quite obviously attuned to the intellectual discourse, yet simultaneously knitting this incredible and intricate lace garment. I found it oddly empowering. I was unsurprised to learn, over the course of time, what a subtle, elegant, and intricate critical imagination Helen had—as a thinker, and an editor. In a certain sense—though she was extremely kind, deeply unpretentious, and totally unassuming—you might say that she almost wore this on her sleeve. As an editor, she did so much to broadcast the kind of intellectual work that was being done at Drew. She started a series, to publish the annual proceedings of the TTC, and the kind of feminism that’s emerged from the ecosystem that is Drew University (deeply informed by thinkers like my advisor Catherine Keller, by Virginia Burrus, by Laurel Kearns, as well as former administrators like Maxine Beach and Anne Yardley) came through so well in powerfully simple things like the covers of these books. But over the past couple of days, I’ve been trying to articulate what it was that I found so oddly empowering when I saw Helen knitting in the midst of an academic conference.
On some levels, it’s obvious. I grew up in a family of women who sew. My great grandmother was skilled at making lace crochet. By the time I knew her, she had lost much of her hearing and much of her eyesight. But the home of my grandparents, and my own home, were graced with curtains she’d made decades earlier. The lace was thick, but the patterns she wove were large enough to filter the sun into speckled streams. My mother and I were both a little heartbroken when our crazy beagle, Teddy, chewed off the corner of one of these curtains so that he would have a small porthole to stick his head through, to stare out the window. I think either my mother or I might have cried. But who can really blame a dog for wanting a better view? My grandmother used to make these fantastic dresses for herself, and for her grandaughters. Living in an immigrant family (with seven children), who’d come to the U.S. after living in a displaced persons camp, my grandmother never had much money. But she worked as a seamstress and had enough to buy, periodically, some beautiful silky fabric for an elegant dress. And enough to keep a little bottle of Chanel No.5 on her vanity, for special occasions. She was glamorous, and I was in awe of her. One year, for Christmas, she made my cousins and I these velvety dresses in different shades of red. I felt like we were royalty. My mother went through a period in her hippy youth where she made all of her own clothes. And we still own some of the intricate and embroidered little garments that she made for me as a small child. I used her old sewing machine until I was in college, and I cried when it broke down. I did. I had to call her, thinking that I should ask for permission before I got a new one. She laughed, because it’s just a machine. But for me, there were histories bound up in the machine: ties to my past, to the women of my family who’d passed away and left me with their skills and sensibilities.
It’s weird, I know, for me to write about this at a place like AUFS. Even though I’ve written about things like Barbie before, I kind of feel like this is one of those places where I go to be a little bit more of a dude. But I’ve seen this blog billed as an “anomalous” space. So I’m just going to go ahead and anomalize a bit. Say what I want.
This past weekend, at the TTC, we ended up making a quilt for Helen. Read the rest of this entry »