Creative Threads and Magical Thinking

Acrylic monotype on paper, 2020 by Stephanie Khattak.

Lately, I have been thinking of embroidery. And by extension, I have been thinking about my Auntie. She died late April 2020, but not of Covid. A distinction that didn’t matter once she was moved into a skilled nursing center for what we thought would be a few weeks of care and then home, or worst case, private hospice. When she went in, she was well enough to ask for a specific red jacket to be brought to her, already planning her outfit for her release.

For about a month her daughter and my mother, her niece tried their best to communicate through speakerphone, FaceTime, message relays from the nurses (for as long as she could understand them) and finally, the last goodbye. My cousin, my mother and I stood in a nursing home parking lot in Tyler and yelled into a stranger’s iPhone as Auntie slept fitfully, inside and many floors up and maybe heard us but who knows, really.

She was my second casualty of the last two years and the first involving a person. This kicked off a parade of horrors that marched on to include the deaths of her husband “Pete-o”; a cousin younger than me and both of his grandparents – another great-aunt and uncle of mine, and two other cousins – siblings. Within one week, I lost two classmates – one who I had adored since 1981 and another that I had happily tolerated for just as long. A married couple from the family next door warranted a double funeral, closing off yet another chapter of our multi-generational story. The husband had gone online and learned to make turnip greens and would drop them off for Pete-o after Auntie died. Loss upon loss.

And of course, the Big Bad gas station. The Final Boss that will send my family scrambling back to Hoot Owl Holler where we came from, four generations and nearly 100 years ago.

I know mine is just one story in many similar ones these days. I really don’t know where any of us go from here. For me, and for a lot of people I imagine, there is a strong sense that things will never feel normal again. And how can they, with such loss? And how could we even want them to?

Thinking of Auntie, and thinking of embroidery, I keep coming back to stitches and sewing. Perhaps it is my mind, as it often does, working things out creatively when it is hard to communicate in other ways. Piecing it back together, trying to bring out the beauty.


Auntie was the family seamstress, making most of my clothes for most of my life. All of my prettiest dresses came from her: the red strapless prom dress with a full petticoat skirt and bow on the bodice, so glamorous and timeless that it was altered to fit my very short best friend a year later and looked equally amazing. A black, off-the-shoulder floral Gunne Sax-inspired dress for the 1990 National Future Homemaker’s of America (FHA) convention in Washington DC, complete with hand-placed clear sequins over every pink and red rose petal and green leaf. That trip was my first time on an airplane, so of course I had to have two new wrap skirts made to wear on the flights – a navy one with a bright, whimsical crayon print, one in tropical pastels.

In researching my family history, I learned that Auntie’s auntie was a pattern maker, and her great-grandmother did professional needlework and embroidery for the community in the early 1900s. I didn’t inherit any of that. I did poorly in my Home Economics sewing unit, somehow stitching a needle into the pillow I was making. (My FHA success came through its public speaking components.) Once, I thought I’d sew a sundress for my little cousin and was feeling pretty good until my mother walked by, sighed and rolled her eyes. “Make something she can wear,” she said.

But still, I think about stitches, piecing together, making something plain just plain prettier. As with my prints, never obscuring or transforming, always honoring and enhancing. So, stitch by stitch, something new begins.

Work in progress, acrylic and embroidery on photo-printed canvas. Stephanie Khattak 2022.

When Auntie and Pete-o died, it fell to my mom and my cousin to clean out their house. There isn’t much in there that I really wanted. An oil portrait of my mother and a matching one of my cousin, if she or her child don’t want it. A framed 1993 Youth Fair needlepoint project depicting the million little things that make up a sewing room: thread, a sewing machine, scissors, spinning wheels…it was so big and complicated that I pulled tearful all-nighters to complete, sometimes working on one corner while my friend Jake worked on the other. It lost to a scene of a teddy bear eating an apple. A teddy bear! But that’s fine because Auntie liked it, and I liked it, and now I want it back.

But, what I really want is her sewing kit, a lidded basket in the shape of a beige house edged in blue and green. It sat by her machine for as long as I can remember, there with everything she’d need for each stitch and sequin, snip, button and flourish. There was never one thing out of place in that house, and yet that sewing kit is nowhere to be found. My other family members aren’t interested in it, and if they were they would just tell me. It’s simply not there.

Maybe it will turn up, but if not, that’s okay. I have a theory, or maybe some magical thinking. Perhaps she came back for it, took it with her to wherever she went. Her greatest joy was in her sewing, the satisfaction that can come from fixing a stitch, making something pretty, making something right.

There is a lot that is wrong right now. Who’s to say that the other side is so cut off from us that they can’t feel it? Maybe they feel helpless, too. So many gone, in such short time. To them they’ve arrived en masse somewhere entirely new with lingering, fuzzy memories of voices through smartphone speakers, unrecognizable shapes in hazmat suits, blinding lights. Who’s to say that they too, wouldn’t like to return to the comforts of old joys, to attempt to set something right, perhaps stitch by stitch. Who’s to say they can’t?

“Mimi and Auntie, 1940s” digital collage 2021. Auntie and her sister, my grandmother. By Stephanie Khattak.