Two Childhood Stories
by Susan Vorbeck, Jul 7, 2012
For some time I’ve been aware of Susan Vorbeck’s remarkable skill in needle arts that range from quilt making and restoration to the design of uniquely contoured draperies. Most of her work has been for wealthy and perfectionist clients, and I suspect that she hasn’t had to advertise much. Her work calls to mind the sort of pieces that artists and craftspeople produced for patrons in the Renaissance.
A mutual friend mentioned that Susan had written some evocative autobiographical pieces about her beginnings, artistically and otherwise, in a Colorado childhood, and Susan was kind enough to pass them on. They took me into a lost magical world, and I’ve included two of them here. Recently we spoke together at her home on a quiet, shady street in Petaluma, in the spacious bungalow that she has renovated over the past 15 years. The house is filled with Susan’s works of art and craft, from gossamer curtains and tailored pillows to paintings—as well as the work of other members of her family.
Right now Susan finds herself in transition. After thirty years of devoting herself to making other people happy with her work, she is ready to follow her own inspirations in continuing her work with needle, thread and fabric. She showed me an example of that—a striking wall hanging made of silken diamond-shaped blocks pieced together in shimmering gradations from light to dark.
Susan’s mother was a talented artist, and her grandmother had "all these beautiful things, Persian carpets on the floor and china and silver and crystal, and beautiful antiques, beautiful linens."
“From an early age,” Susan said, “it was clear that I loved to work with my hands and that much of my intelligence was in my hands. When I use my hands, I understand what to do. In this new endeavor to make what I myself want, I can explore with my hands the world of color and light and form as I work with silk, making the fine stitches that give form and relationship to bits of fabric.”
Susan spoke of her continuing interest in the domestic arts—quilting, knitting, embroidery, and weaving—that women have always done. She is particularly fascinated by the crazy quilts of the Victorian era. “It was such a stifled era. Their lives were very regulated, so they would let their creative energy come out in the making of quilts. When you work with their quilts, you go into the world of the women that made them, and you figure out what they were up to, almost what they were thinking.” Limited as their lives may have been, Susan felt that those women had access to a much richer array of sensory materials than is commonly available today in our homes. By contrast, she said, we’re starved of those experiences.
Susan said she had been struck by how limited the opportunities for working with one’s hands have become. “And if you haven’t had that possibility, your intelligence is diminished. In teaching young people I’ve noticed that. Since they aren’t learning these crafts and skills, certain relationships, certain activities of the brain, and certain experiences of hand-eye coordination are missing. It’s a great loss, because these crafts, besides producing something useful, are for the development of the brain. I was working with a friend who had had a concussion, teaching her how to knit. She said it was amazing how she could feel the neural connections being made. Through learning how to work in a new way with her hands, she could actually feel that. At some point I’d like to work with veterans with PTSD, as well as other people who have experienced extreme traumas. It’s essential to learn to focus your attention on a part of yourself that can learn something new, to find aspects of yourself you didn’t know were there.”
Susan spoke of why she had written these stories of her childhood. “It came from the wish to discover something of myself, that true spirit we are born with that may only appear as a brief glimmer or whisper in our daily lives. The desire to know myself is embraced with peril. It’s one thing to remember with love and joy the magical aspects of childhood, but sorrow also comes with the experience of this joy. —Mary Stein
When I was a young girl we lived in the country in southwest Colorado on 3rd Fruitridge, only about three miles out of town. The town was small and the roads out were gravel. The valley was desert but had been irrigated by a system of canals and ditches from the Colorado River, and so the Grand Valley had become a paradise of peach trees.
Where we lived there were little farms and houses. There was a large canal close by and then ditches, and then the inlets to the fields, and then, smaller still, the little rows of water that ran along the mounds of dirt that contained the seeds.
In the early spring, the ditches would be cleared before the water came. A child could jump into the empty ditch and walk down the avenues of hard mud, arms outstretched to feel the sides. You could look up to see the tall winter weeds that were waiting for Spring. Or you could try running with eyes closed, your little body on the Earth, the air moving past and the smell of wet cold mud to guide you.
Across the drive from our house was an old apple tree growing on the ditch bank. It grew small green apples with worms. My sisters and I and the neighbor children loved to climb the old tree and eat the apples with salt. Once the days became long and hot and there was water from the canal, we spent hours playing in the muddy water of the ditch.
The bank of the ditch had just the right slope to become a slide when water was added. A large amount of enthusiastic splashing would do the trick and the bank would be transformed into a slide. Then there was the slippery slide into the ditch on small muddy bottoms, the chaos of splashing water, the wet bodies scrambling up the slope—and another slide, another splash. One day, in total abandon, we packed our whole bodies with mud and made a little parade around the lane. There were only three houses at the end of the lane, and we knocked on every door to see if we would be invited in!
There were no rules. No places you couldn’t go. No time. No shoes and a minimum of clothing. Food when necessary and be home by dark. I suppose there were adults looking out and watching, but we were unaware of anything but the world we were exploring. Every bug, lizard, snake, grasshopper and toad was known to us—every weed, tree and rock. We explored deep, even into the sides of hills that had once been root cellars. We tried digging a cave to make a clubhouse, but somehow an adult appeared and said it might cave in on us.
This little band consisted of me, the middle sister, Karen my older sister and Gretchen the younger. Then there were the neighbor children—Ann and Gil in the second house on the lane and June in the third house. Down the hill were the Kennel Kids, consisting of baby Denis, Sharon, Janet, Sherman, and Howard. We took the form of a club and had meetings and made plans. The older members—Karen, June and I—had more authority and were responsible for an endless stream of creative adventures. The younger kids, Gretchen, Ann and Gil, filled in when they were needed; the Kennel Kids were more like drop-in members.
When we were older, our adventures led us down the lane and across the road to the canal, a wide meandering body of milk-chocolate-colored water, with a dependable flow that followed its prescribed path through the countryside, intersected only by the occasional bridge across a road.
Although the sides of the canal were rather steep, you could pull yourself up by the cattails growing all along the banks. The bridges, of one-lane wooden construction, which were built level with the ground, could be jumped off, walked across, or swum under.
Swimming under required some skill, either holding your breath and going under for the duration of the span or popping up in the middle between the steel girders to see what life was like in a dark wet world. Sometimes huge water spiders had constructed their large webs between the girders.
One important ingredient of the adventure was an inflated inner tube. Perhaps people don’t remember the days when tires required an inner tube of rubber which, when filled with air, made the tire a tire. Inner tubes resembled large gray doughnuts, usually with patches on them, and a spigot in the inner curve, like a pointed nipple to put the air in. With this inexpensive treasure one’s adventure became a journey of luxury and grace, a wonder that would be with you forever.
Floating down the canal nestled inside the curve of the inner tube with our bottoms for ballast, this small band of country children navigated their world with the freedom to stretch their spirits and encounter whatever the current offered. How far shall we go? This is the moment of life! Eventually we would remember the questions: How far have we gone? How will we get back? Is there an end to the canal? At some point we would emerge from the water and confront the hot dry burning gravel road with our bare feet. When you seldom wear shoes, the bottoms of your feet turn to leather, but still there was hopping and running to the shade of an occasional cottonwood tree. Usually a friendly farmer saved the day, and there would be a ride in the back of a pickup. Wind, dust and speed carried us back to the little lane from which we had started.
The arrival of fall brought the change of golden yellow to the cottonwood trees and a time of rest for the canal. Somewhere someone would close a gate, and the water would disappear from the canal. All was quiet in the sunken space, brown wet mud with an occasional tire or other thrown-away bit. But there were some deeper stretches and sections where the water remained, and we would wait for the year to deepen into winter, when what was left of the canal would turn to ice. God or nature or whatever spirit of joy there is in this world would give us an ice-skating rink.
In these times of freedom there was no sense of censure or adult authority. There was no shame for bad behavior and no voice to monitor the innocent passion to discover life and the Self.
Our little house had once been a barn. My sisters and I liked to say we slept in the hayloft. The big window at one end had been the opening where the rope and tackle hung for the hoisting of the hay bales. It had been divided into two bedrooms, and we had both congenial times and times of loud boisterous fighting up in our “hayloft.” I have forgotten what the fighting was about for the most part, but some of our best times were spent huddled all together on someone’s bed, talking about houses.
Who knows why we all shared an interest in houses? Perhaps it was that our artistic mother was remodeling our house. But we would take turns, in birth order, describing our dream house in great detail. It seemed to be not three separate houses but one amazing structure that would become grander and grander. By the time Karen, my older sister, and I had finished, all that little Gretchen could contribute were the stables and the pastures for the beautiful horses that were her favorites, and then the vision would be complete.
We all loved storybook dolls of delicate porcelain, perhaps eight inches tall, dressed for the character they portrayed—Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella or Little Women. They always had sweet little faces, and they always came in a white box with large pink dots. At Christmas and on birthdays I always looked for the familiar dimensions of the box among my wrapped gifts.
We would make an elaborate game of storytelling and house-building with our storybook dolls, sometimes acting out a movie we had seen. I remember that The Secret Garden with Margaret O’Brien was one of our favorites.
My mother, being a modern woman, had designed long low bookcases along the wall with varying sections partitioned with wooden dowels, alternating books with objects of art such as a piece of hand-blown glass or a hand-thrown pot—none of the crystal, china, and silver things you would find on my grandmother’s shelves. We sometimes took the bookcase apart and turned the shelves into rooms on different levels, with the books becoming staircases leading to the multiple stories of the house—a maze of rooms in which our characters acted out their stories. One of our more brilliant adaptations was Cinderella’s carriage—a dress-up red high heel shoe of my mother’s, just right for a storybook doll to slip into for her ride to the castle.
Our outdoor houses were made of more varied materials, my favorite being more akin to a little settlement. There was a lot of dirt and space in the yard, our mother being disinclined to such things as gardening and cooking. Cooking she did out of necessity, but gardening would never enter her head. So the large plot of dirt beside the house was ours to develop. We built roads for our little metal cars, and we built varied houses to put on our streets. My favorite house consisted of little adobe bricks I had shaped out of dirt, a little grass, and water. I had been watching the Indians who came to build an adobe cottage for our neighbors. The women and children would come with the men who made the bricks. I watched the women build a fire and take care of the children while making tortillas—pat, pat, pat—and then cooked them over the fire for the men’s lunches. What beauty and grace I found in watching this domestic enterprise! How calm and natural they all were working together! I could sense an order that was missing from our family gathered around the oak table in the kitchen, stiff and uncomfortable, with Daddy teaching table manners and evaluating our attempts at conversation, and Mother huddled in her corner of the table against the wall, usually not talking, unaware and unconcerned about the carelessly prepared food she put on the table for us to eat.
The visual arrangement of the kitchen-dining area was symbolic—a large round oak table which was permanently anchored to the floor in such a way that one side was pushed against the wall. We sat on little wooden stools, which could be easily pushed under the table when we had finished eating. It was not a setting to linger in.
But outside the house our little village grew. My tiny adobe bricks were stacked to make walls, and sticks and straw were put atop for the roof. I see the creative spirit of the child fulfilling her need to manifest a harmony that is missing from the family: the father isolated behind the newspaper with a glass of bourbon, the mother isolated behind her anger and high ideas concerning art and philosophy, the children rather on their own.
Let’s play! Let’s make a house of leaves. Outside, the cottonwood trees have lost their golden leaves, which lie on the ground in umber heaps of crinkly, good-smelling shapes. Let’s rake them into large piles and jump into them. Let’s make the piles of leaves into rows, like a floor plan with doorways so we can go in and out of the rooms. I’ll make a pile of leaves here for my bed. Let’s sing a song and play and be happy in our house.