Embroidery via Lumberjacks and the Canadian Armed Forces

My grandfather was a lumberjack. He was also a construction worker, a makeshift electrical engineer and a general hired hand; the story starts when he was a lumberjack. Lumberjacking was the kind of job, especially in the forties and fifties in rural Québec, that would take you away from your wife and eight (Eight!) children for months at a time.

Leaving your wife alone for months at a time with a brood of boys and one small girl, simply asking for forgiveness will get you nowhere. These boys were boisterous, tricky and fond of fighting. My grandmother was a petite, thin red headed woman with fragile nerves. Just asking for forgiveness was a one way street to the dog house. So he cross stitched.

There isn’t much to do in the middle of a forest at night. You can get drunk with the moose and the bears, or you can prep your way back into your wife’s good graces. He would take large, complicated cross stitch projects out there with him, and would return, months later, with something to appease her. It usually worked, unless my father (HIS son!) had been particularly trying and picking fights with the neighborhood dogs and getting the police involved. Then it might take two or three projects to get back into the house.

Which brings me to my father. My father was, for twenty odd years, in the Canadian Armed Forces. It made my family both bilingual and well travelled within Canada, and also meant he was away on various exercises for weeks and months at a time. While my mother, much less frail and much louder than my grandmother, only had one, two and then three children to deal with, he still needed to work his way back in. It always seemed that everything broke while he was away; the fridge, the washing machine, the toilet. By the time he came back from an exercise when we lived in Yellowknife, my mother was on a first name basis with most handymen in the area. My father took comfort in the fact that it took multiple men to replace him. My mother laughed at him.

My father cross stitched many beautiful things. In my mother’s living room hangs a large sampler, stitched on black Aida. He stitched it in 1987, and had it framed for her under uv resistant glass for their 20th wedding anniversary, about 17 years later. He is much more responsible than I am with his work, keeping it rolled up in blue tissue paper in a drawer in the basement. More on how I store embroidery later (look for a blog post called “The Box of Shame”). He has also started the most beautiful triptych ever, an Amish farm scene with gardens and quilts. He is two thirds of the way through and has been for the last ten years. Such is the way sometimes.

I don’t remember when I asked him to show me how to cross stitch, but I remember the pattern was a ridiculously girly bear in a purple dress. I went into his ridiculously organized floss collection and picked out the colours I needed. He got a bit upset when I didn’t put the browns back in in order, but I survived. Then he saw the back of my work and berated me on the back not being as tidy as the front. That’s right: my dad is one of them.

I eventually gave up on that little bear with the purple dress. She has probably been thrown out in one of the many moves since that time. But that bear, on what was probably 16 pt aida, planted the seed I needed to decide to pick up stitching and embroidery years later. My father and grandfather, no matter what their motivations for doing cross stitch was at the time, showed me that there was not only beauty to be made with thread and fabric, but that you could also do it even if it wasn’t expected of you, even if you were doing it in unexpected places. That tends to happen to me a lot, so I’m pleased I have that backing me up.


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