“A” Is for Apron
Ilene H. Kingsbury
Old apron woman! Do you have to always be seen in a style so old-fashioned that we smile as you walk by?
Yes, indeed! For then around my knees my children are still playing, my loving husband comes close to my side, old friends call my name.
And Clarissa mused on a night, half a century ago. Before a glowing pine-knot fire she waited with her husband for rescue in a long storm, early arrived on the summer range.
Somehow the conversation got around to tools, clothing, and uses of common things close at hand. Her husband sat whittling a chip and fell to saying that a man with a pocket knife could survive under any adversity. Not to be outdone, she defended the most useful part of a woman’s apparel, her apron. all of which led to a sort of debate. Each recalled, in turn, the humorous, the tragic, the useful. Each must have won his point, for before the time began to drag, the noise of horses, sleighs, and men came over the icy air; and they were safe again in the companionship of friends.
As Clarissa recalled the apron-knife evening, her mind cleared and she could hear herself saying …
I have worn them long and short, gathered and skimpy, leather and lace, linen and sailcloth, starched and limp, clean and dirty! When I walked across the plains I carried my baby brother in my apron, and when we made camp at night I changed to another one made from a torn wagon cover, waterproof, and gathered to its fold buffalo chips as fuel for our fire. Once, I had a black wool plaid apron, a sort of divided prize from a Scotch clansman, and this was as often as not a shoulder shawl for Mother, as we sat outside the wagon at sundown.
In early days I had a part of an Irish linen table cloth, just enough to make a half-cover apron; but before I had worn it twice to church, a little mother, fresh from the Old World, was bereft of her firstborn, so I offered my white linen apron for a shroud to protect the dead and comfort the living.
The gayest apron I ever owned was made from a remnant end of a red and white checkered tablecloth. The joke was how could I tell I was eating off the table or off my lap? But it was that very apron that concealed a child from prying eyes when it was trembling and afraid. How strong I felt then, with the little waif clinging to my knees, his heart pounding on my shin with a tattoo beat.
One time we camped out on a pinenut hunt, and my six-year-old fell out of a tree. The only splint we had with which to bind his broken arm was a tent stake and my apron strings. his bones mended straight and strong. later, when someone said he really had been tied to his mother’s apron strings, he laughed right out loud and didn’t mind at all.
I have tethered out a child near a berry patch with my apron strings, and have had him tag along at a safe jog as I picked a pail for dinner. at least I knew where he was.
Once I had a leather apron, a sort of blacksmith’s protection, only scaled to my size. It hung on a nail by the back door, quite near the woodbox. When the chips ran low, the chip apron came off the nail and out to the woodpile I went for a lapful. Some would say that was work for boys, for girls, or for men, instead of labor for a wife already overburdened. But I called it a choice task as I stooped to gather those pine-scented chips, each bearing the scar of an ax blow, obliquely cut. They bore the polish and pressure of utility. Their designs of rings resembled the ripples of spring water in a basin, except they were solid and were caught in annual paths which might be seen forever, even until they turned to stone.
Sometimes, as I scooped the chips to my apron, often using a large, flat shingle size for a shovel, I thought to save one – a handsome piece. Into my pocket it went, and I rested it in style on a ledge of the chimney corner. One long, indoor-weather winter, my husband took out his pocket knife and shaped the honey-toned slivers and gnarled knobs and palomino browns and golds of fragrant chips into a table top of inlaid beauty. Laughingly, he called it my chip-apron table. From wood lot, to wood pile, to wood box, to wood surface, it was a thing of glowing wonder.
Old apron woman! Your eyes grow dim. You do not walk our lanes as you did last season, and the last before that. In your plum tree shade you stay so quietly, we think you are sitting for your portrait – lace cap on head, long white apron over your knees, knotted fingers hidden in protecting folds. Are your thoughts far away to other days?
Ah, child, yes – other times of stress, of sorrow, of triumph. and the theme – a piece of feminine apparel – persisted in Clarissa’s thoughts as the sifted summer sun warmed her ancient frame.
Yes, those aprons had been many and varied: opaque, see-through-lace; no bib; full-gathered to shield the news of the coming of a child; serviceable to protect the only dress Clarissa had owned in four years. Always there was a pocket on her lefthand side to carry peppermints or cloves to sweeten the smile. Plain or fancy she remembered them: knit lace insertion and edging decorating the lower third, hand-stitched tucks, deep as the lace, to give it body. As the aprons wore out they were turned to good use. Swaddling clothes, petticoat, or pinafore; they fit the next one down in size and youth. No usable fragment was thrown away. Rag rugs, whose pieces once graced her spare frame, were of comfort to the feet.
These were aprons of memory. the wrinkle, the crimp, the fabric, the warp and woof, the crumple of cotton or linen – all were part of her wifery, her stewardship, her harness.
Today, in the plum tree’s shade, she is wearing The Best Apron – always white, always worn for Company.
The odd thing about this Sunday apron, the one deserving of fancy decoration (but quaintly plainest of all) was her initial in the lower left hand corner near the hem – or is it an initial?
More of a map if you look closely: a sketchy thing of a river’s course or a path over the Divide. Squint your eyes: the westering sun has warmed the last stretches of earth and may dazzle you to the details.