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Every now and then I catch my mind wandering so far that I begin to feel disconnected from myself. It meanders, then floats away, as if my head suddenly believes it’s been a helium-filled balloon all along.

This time, a work contract had abruptly ended, my wedding was approaching and beyond being “in between things right now,” I was starting to feel … detached. Feeling this way when you’re about to willingly – enthusiastically, even – join in one of society’s most obvious attachments, is mildly ironic. Perhaps the prospect of connection accentuated the disconnect.

The sensation was familiar and far from pleasant. But if there’s anything decades of intermittently suppressing and expressing anxiety have taught me, it’s that making things by hand is an effective salve for a mind on the verge of untethering.

Something about the tactile world consistently mends any frays in the ethereal. It can be as simple as sorting old fabrics or as ambitious as turning said fabrics into a chuppah, a Jewish wedding canopy, for my own coming nuptials.

The chuppah, or something like it, was a project I had loosely envisioned since acquiring a densely packed bin of my late Bubbie’s fabric.

She sewed everything. Curtains, clothes from curtain runoff, tea towels from clothes that no longer fit. She sewed out of necessity and ritual and an Eastern European war-survivor ethos: That’s just what you did. You want something, you make it. You need something, you make that, too.

Her antique Singer sewing machine sits in my living room, its narrow drawers still containing original spools of thread, handmade pincushions, fabric shears blunted by their combined years of use and disuse. Every now and then I like to open each tiny drawer, hold something in my hand and imagine my Bubbie doing the same thing, before gingerly setting it back in its place and closing the drawer, careful not to disturb the time capsule.

I have a blue floral cardigan that was once hers. When I wear it, I feel like I am somehow summoning her and am suddenly overwhelmed by the immediate need to get myself to the nearest Kosher-style eatery and order a bowl of borscht or potato soup, STAT.

Of course, logistically, this is not always an option and so sometimes I simply like to focus on the feeling of her sweater on my skin.

I wonder if she also noticed how it felt on her skin, imagining that one day in the future she’d have a granddaughter who would also know this exact sensation, this particular cardigan as it glides over this particular part of her forearm? Would she button it all the way up to the top or leave a couple undone? Does this shade of blue go with these pants? Is that a potato soup stain on the sleeve?

But even as my head continued to hover above my body, it was that bin of old fabrics that kept calling me back, over and over again.

And what fabrics! Faded florals mingling with ginghams, paisleys with geometric motifs. The sweet and stale scents of their collective previous lives – in kitchens, on bodies, strewn across plastic-coated couches – wafting forth with every lift of the lid.

Everything about these scraps of cloth both calmed and invigorated me all at once. It was a tonic, touching the different materials, running my hands across each piece, smoothing over the jagged, irregular shape of disquiet.

You can find a suitable wedding canopy just about anywhere. You can use an old sheet if you’re really in a pinch. But I wanted to give these pieces new life, as my Bubbie had so many times before. I didn’t need to sew my own chuppah. But I also absolutely needed to sew my own chuppah.

You want something, you make it. You need something, you make that, too.

Precision didn’t matter. I had a vision. I took my design cues from the fabrics – a total nightmare for any seasoned sewer. No pattern. Minimal measuring. Mostly just eyeballing things and hoping for the best.

But it made me feel giddy. It brought a sort of clarity I’d longed for without even realizing it, adding both form and function to something that had always been so difficult to pin down.

Knowing these same pieces were each at one point held and manipulated by my Bubbie’s kind, determined hands infused everything with an added layer of gratification. I no longer felt disconnected. I was doing important work, stitching together pieces of myself, my family, my lineage.

Flashes of her cheekbones, exquisitely defined and framed by chestnut hair; her eyes deep, dark pools that had seen far more than anyone should ever have to, burned so vividly now. She was sewing through me. I was bringing her back to life.

She was bringing me back to life.

Florals bloomed brighter amid worn, faded prints. Linear patterns roved and wandered within their flowy confines. The eye could follow them forever. Each piece found its home in a patchwork that seemingly always knew what it was meant to be: achingly beautiful, billowing in the wind, securely tethered to four birch posts.

A gentle parachute, guiding my head back to its body.

Reap What You Sew

Partial image of the actual chuppah, sewn and assembled by the author in 2016. It would go on to be used at two subsequent family weddings.

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