Taking out Red Jack

Once a year, for the month of September and October, I unroll my rug Jack In the Red and hang "him" in my house.  This is a very deliberate thing I do, and it is always twinged pain.  All rugs I hook hold memories.  How can our hands not weave into our rugs our hearts and lives?  Of all my rugs though, this one holds the most bittersweet of my memories.

In the late 90s, when I was still a new rug hooker, I used all recycled wools that my mother and I found at rummage and estate sales.  One friday autumn afternoon, we had the joy of coming across a number of bright red and bright orange wool coats at different church sales.  It was decided that my next rug had to feature leaves.  So together, my mother and I collected maple and oak leaves from the the woods.  These became templates for my rug design which included Jack peeking out behind the leaves.

The rug is huge, and it took me several years to hook.  I was a much slower hooker then, and hadn't yet figured out that if I was ever going to finish my rugs, I had to hook on them everyday.  In the summer of 1999, I had finished it, much to my mother's joy.  Two years earlier, I had moved to Illinois to take a professorship at Illinois Wesleyan University.  So I was excited to visit my mom that summer and share with her the finished rug and display it at Sauder Village.

The sad part of this story is that my visit home also included a surgery that my mom did not survive.  She died at age 57, twelve years ago, on September 28.  So I hang this rug in memory of her life and also her passing.

This rug went on to be featured in the Celebration magazine, and became the source for my studio's name, Red Jack Rugs.  It represents for me the celebration of life, in all its wonder and all its pain. 

Last Reflection on "turning" and memories of my mother

Yesterday marked the tenth anniversary of my mother's death. On September 28, 1999, Gail DeConick died after undergoing a triple bypass surgery. It was a sudden and tragic death of a woman 57 years old who had not seen the birth of any of her grandchildren or her oldest daughter married. She was a person full of life, a joy to all who knew her, a woman whose family and our happiness was more important to her than anything else (including herself). She passed on to me her motherly wisdom which was rich and true, a sensible common wisdom that I rely on everyday of my life. She taught me not just to dream but to make my dreams happen. She believed in me even when I was having a hard time believing in myself. Her strength became my strength. After she died, I found myself looking in the mirror and seeing her standing before me. It struck me hard that she was living on in me, and at the time, this realization helped me grieve her loss.

Photo: me and my mom, twenty years ago!

A few years before her death, when I was still living around Ann Arbor, Michigan, she and I went on an autumn leaf hunt. We had just found an old orange coat at a church rummage sale, and we were so pleased with ourselves. What was I going to hook with this brilliant orange wool? We laughed together, saying "leaves" at the same time. So off we went, driving around Chelsea, seeking the perfect autumn leaves. She held the leaves as I drove to a local Kinko's were I placed the leaves on the copier machine and made photocopies of each one. When I got home, I carefully cut around the paper leaves, enlarging them slightly as I cut. These became the templates of the leaves in my rug Jack in the Red, leaves that now adorn the banner of this blog.

Jack in the Red is a big rug. It was almost too ambitious for me to hook at that time since I had only been hooking for a year and a half when I started it. It took me a while to figure out that I couldn't hook the leaves plain orange and plain red because they looked like blobs. So I experimented with splotchy (and sloppy, I might add) over-dyeing which I couldn't reproduce today if I tried. Who knows what I actually did. I sprinkled some burgundy and brown Cushing's dyes on red, orange, brown and plaid coat wools I had recycled. I studied pictures of how other people hooked leaves, and finally I figured out how to hook one leaf I liked using this variety of splotchy-dyed materials. I then tried to reproduce that leaf throughout the rest of the sixty leaves on the rug.

I didn't finish that rug until the summer of 1999 and only because my mother kept talking about that rug and how she couldn't wait to see it finished. By that time, I had moved to Illinois where I was teaching at a university, and I was at a stage of my life when I was very alone and struggling with that. So I spent many evenings in my apartment working on Jack in the Red.

In August, my mother called me and said that she had been having bad chest pains. She had to go in for immediate open heart surgery. I drove home the next day and spent a week with she and my sister before her surgery. We just went around doing normal mom and daughter stuff. We swam, sat on the porch and sipped tea, we ate out, we shopped. And, much to her delight, I brought along Jack in the Red which I had just finished binding. My sister and I had planned to attend Sauder Village camp the following week and put Jack in the Red on exhibit. But with her surgery, that plan fell through. So my good friend and fellow rug hooker, Robin Rennie, carted the rug down to Ohio and it was displayed there during the week of my mom's surgery.

My mom died six weeks later, never regaining consciousness after the surgery. Although I did not intentionally hook Jack in the Red as her tribute, that rug has become so over the years because it is bound up with memories of the end of her life and her death. Yet the rug is not a sad rug. It is a happy rug. It is about the life we lived together and shared with each other. About all those special moments in our common days together. Every autumn when I hang Jack in the Rug in my home, it reminds me of my mom and that lively and joyful autumn leaf hunt we shared on a beautiful crisp day in Michigan. It is a celebration of her life and our togetherness and all that she passed on to me as a mother and a friend.

It also reminds me of the swiftness with which life changes, with which it turns. That August and September were not only tragic and filled with loss, but it was also the moment in my life when I met the man of my dreams, whom I married a year later on August 5, 2000 - Wade Greiner. It was the moment that my life changed directions as swiftly as a blink of the eye. It was a moment that was pronounced both with loss and with love, and I really understood for the first time that life outlives death and that suffering and joy are reflections of each other. I realized that living is not really about the big things we do, the things that occasionally punctuate our lives. Rather living is about the little things we do with each other, the everyday things are what matter.