Stitch Work


In a slouch of loose books on a flea-market day, one book lies bare. No cover to speak of, no art, just one woman’s signature—ink so blue it might be black, letters so perfectly made they seem to ride an invisible line.


Helen Eagle.


That period at the end is hers.

In the glare of winter sun, I turn to cast a blue shadow across Helen Eagle’s apparent autobiography. The interior pages, like the cover stock, are thick, slick, and uniformly aged. They run twice as long as they run high, are bound by the pamphlet stitch of a vermillion thread, and present their glued-in contents with accurate pride. Tweed, muslin, chiffon. Rectangle, trapezoid, square. Basting, back stitch, French seam, brier stitch, buttonholes that are button-garnished, thin blue stripes impeccably patched. A drawstring pucker. An elocution of hems, one of them false. Exculpatory captions written in the author’s blue-black, well-made slant.

“Now that,” the flea-market proprietor says, behind my back, “is really something.”


Are you a collector of Shirley Temple mementos, depression glass, Elvis Presley items, or Golden Oak furniture? Then perhaps you are among the thousands of Americans suffering from ‘flea market fever.’ Attending a market can be an exhilarating experience. Seasoned shoppers have been trained to expect the unexpected; both beginning and advanced collectors are usually intent on bagging a bargain. — Dan D’Imperio, Flea Market Treasure


Thirty-five dollars. I buy Helen Eagle.’s book for thirty-five dollars. I am not a seasoned shopper. I do not know what to call this volumetric artifact in which the thread, the glue, the stitches hold, this previously unimagined treasure for which I pay thirty dollars more than I pay for The Arabian Nights illustrated by Maxfield Parrish, The Juniper Tree and Other Tales from Grimm illustrated by Maurice Sendak, and Laverne Timperman’s circa 1954 copy of Rhythmic Activities, combined.

Home from the flea-market where the air beyond my shadow blue was lemon yellow, I close the door. I arrange my things. I retrieve my find.

Helen Eagle. is mine.


Dan D’Imperio was my uncle. Victorian antiques expert. Country antiques expert. TV anchor of Cape May, New Jersey’s “Let’s Talk Antiques.” Writer of a nationally syndicated column, Flea Market Finds.

Out in the world he scouted Lenci dolls, Schlegelmilch porcelains, Barney Google toys, and bisque nodders. In my world he loved me best. I was his Betty Boop and Bethie until I became just Beth. I was the middle child of his only sister who would grow up to be a writer.

He bought his most ridiculous gifts for me. He rolled the cuffs of his trousers and walked the littoral with me. He told me Judy Garland stories, sent me postcards, gossiped: Immediately following this photo session, Lana Turner reached for the peroxide and presto, she became a star. Consoled and advised: Although your precise function at most may be blurred at this point, it is only a matter of time before the storm will subside and you’ll find your niche.

Uncle Danny died on Thanksgiving Day of a brain aneurysm. When the phone call came, my mother took it. We had just sat down to eat—an overflowing table. We understood from my mother’s face, her words, her gesture toward the steaming gravy boat that the crying would come later, that we would be left alone to privately reckon with the magnitude of our loss.

Loss like a secret.

Loss, like always.


Dear Beth: Having you for a niece rates as one of the best finds of my life. I am so proud to have you call me Uncle. Hope you love this book, like I love you! Uncle Dan. — Dan D’Imperio, Flea Market Treasure


There is no dedication in Helen Eagle.’s book. Instead, to the inside cover has been glued a folded sheet of typed instructions. This is the narrative, the known history, the intersection between artifact and conjecture, the means by which I imagine Helen Eagle. standing on a slightly raised platform in a slightly humid classroom in a town halfway between Philadelphia and Harrisburg, progressive politics and Woodrow Wilson.

The heads of the girls before her are bent toward their work.

Her dark curls fall loose from a gray ribbon.

The chalkboard behind her is neat with her own invisibly lined script, and the air beyond the windows of this classroom is neither lemon colored nor blue. Instead that air is sound—the rumble of a locomotive; the transport of coal and rubber; the talk of Roosevelt’s Bull Moose Party. Now Helen Eagle. remembers her place in this time on this day and turns back to look upon her girls, their needles and muslins in hand.




Public Schools, Reading, Pa.




General Directions


I. Pupils should sit well back in the chair with heads erect and both feet resting on the floor, the elbows should be held at the sides of the body, and the hands in such a position that the work will be at the proper distance from the eyes.

II. Do not fasten the work to the desk or knee.

III. Never sew without a thimble. Either the top or the side of a thimble can be used.

IV. When scissors are not used, to break the thread place the left thumb-nail firmly over the last stitches; wind the thread around the right forefinger, and break the thread with the right thumb-nail. The practice of biting threads should never be allowed, both because it soils the work and it may injure the teeth irreparably.


At the funeral home a man as tall as my uncle, with hair that frothed like my uncle’s, wearing a suit and a tie that had belonged to my uncle introduced himself as the lover of my uncle. Thirty years, he said. Thirty years they’d been together, the entire stretch of what was then my life. Thirty years during which, sometimes, the lover wearing my uncle’s clothes would watch from a distance as my uncle walked the shore with me, as my uncle bought dark fudge for me, as my uncle sat with his sister and her entire family in a restaurant fronted with glass.

The lover said.

And what had I known?

How had I not known?

Does not being trusted with your favorite person’s secret make love half a love, make love a question?



V. Needles must be straight and sharp and of suitable size for the fabric and thread employed.

VI. Thread should be no longer than the arm of the pupil that it may be drawn comfortably with one outer motion.



There was the funeral. There was the burial. There was an Italian lunch in a plastic-grapes-hanging-from-the-ceiling restaurant, family elbow to suffocating elbow, my mother dazed and stoic, and somewhere between the passing of the menu and the clatter of the salad I excused myself so that I might lie on the dirty tiles of the restaurant’s bathroom floor, heaving with migraine, so hot, so very cold.

After the meal was done, someone came to the bathroom door—my father, I suspect. Someone said, he said, it was over now, and we were going home.

I couldn’t lift my head.

I lifted my head.


VII. Do all sewing nicely making the stitches small and even, having the wrong side look as neat as possible, and sewing the corners with great care.

VIII. When obliged to take out the stitches, use the eye of a needle, and pick out one stitch at a time.


Helen Eagle.’s autobiography is a plain sewing sampler. Her stitches are straight.

My uncle’s autobiography is “the perfect pocket reference to take along on all your flea market excursions.” His more than 250 entries are alphabetically organized.

Helen Eagle.’s script slants fine. Her sewing is perfect.

My uncle’s script is a garden full of poppies—the letters puffy and exuberant, the bottoms of p’s and j’s and g’s dragging across the tops of t’s and w’s and o’s in the line below. Everything tangled. Everything alive. Everything folded in, and folding, stitching in, unstitching.

Helen Eagle.’s hair curls at her neck as she watches her straight-backed, thimble-fingered girls hemming and patching and back stitching. As she wonders what is ahead for them, for herself, for her century.

My uncle’s hair froths and it froths as he watches me, as he talks to me, as he writes to me: One of the best finds of my life, and does not know what is ahead for him, does not know that he does not have time to tell me.

What is artifact?

What is conjecture?

The periods belong to them.

The stories, and the secrets.


XIII.  At the close of the lesson, the work should be carefully folded and placed in a paper envelope or pasted in a book marked with the pupil’s name, which should be brought out at the next exercise.


Folded and placed. Carefully.