Navels, Braiding and Mother’s Day in the North Country

A few weeks ago, my daughter and I traveled to Parishville, New York to learn how to braid rugs. It was my daughter’s birthday and Mother’s Day weekend. Helen Condon, whom we’ve gotten to know from Great Camp Sagamore, has a thriving cottage industry in the old grange just by the dam over the St. Regis River there. Her second floor is a vast workshop with shelving all around and heaving piles of wool in chromatically arranged colors.

DSC00464The fields of wool

For a fee, she will feed and house two people at the grange over a weekend, provide a kit with the colors of your choice (and Helen’s theme) and teach you how to braid a rug or a basket or a chair seat. I chose a rug color scheme called “Blue Heron.” My daughter chose “October Forest.” During a weekend with Helen, you can form about eight rows of an oval rug and on Sunday, you bag up the remainder with all the accouterments, haul it home and finish it. It is now some weeks later and my daughter has finished her rug. I am now up to row fourteen of seventeen total rows for a 4 1/2 x 2 1/2 foot oval rug.

A braided rug begins with a “navel,” the center connector of the three original 2-inch strands of wool in different colors or patterns. The strands are folded, imbedded and stitched in a T-formation. We attached the navel in a clip on a piece of plywood bound to the worktable by a C-clamp, and the braiding began.

My mother used to braid my long hair when I was a child. It was a somewhat painful ordeal, especially for someone with my thick, easily tangled hair. But every day after breakfast until I was about eight or nine, I had my hair braided. If my mother was not around, one of my older sisters would do the duty. Straight part down the middle of my head, braids over either ear, barrettes to hold back the wisps on each side. Scrape, tug, pull, twist, pull, twist, pull, twist. There was a ferocity to the process which I endured and not quietly as I recall. However, I loved to braid and there was no one younger or willing to suffer my attentions. When I had measles (several times), I was forbidden to read (there was, and is, some medical evidence that measles could cause blindness in children, but as a result of a measles-concurrent Vitamin A deficiency, not, perhaps, from reading or eye strain, but this was the 1950s.) To entertain myself through the interminable days of illness, I would tear strips of tissue from a Kleenex and braid the strands, making little book marks for the books I would not be able to read until I was well.

Helen would strip long yardage of wool for her rugs and tear them into 2-inch wide lengths to be used for braiding. Every time we’d get to the end of a strip, we’d add the same (or at a given point another strip) with a diagonal run through the sewing machine, then back to braiding. After about three feet of braid lay about us and around the fattening rug, we would stitch the braid to the last row of rug with a special thick, waxed thread and a broad flat needle. We’d break for wonderful meals with Helen and then back to work in the fields of wool.  Helen had acquired a new kitten, named Della Reese, who sat either on my shoulder or on my daughter’s lap while we braided and stitched and turned. With the rushing sound of the St. Regis River outside the window, it was a lovely way to spend a weekend.

The fields of wool

Helen, myself and Della Reese

Genna braiding "October Forest"

Genna braiding “October Forest” with Della watching.

I’m not sure I will start my own cottage industry of Adirondack rug-braiding, but it has been interesting to learn a new skill set, one passed down from Helen’s grandmother to Helen and now to my daughter and me.  At home, my own cat, Wink, sits on the rug while I work. “Blue Heron,” Helen’s Adirondack canvas the colors of pond, stilted regal bird, moss and reed greens and blue sky, is growing row by row in my imagination – perhaps a poem. I look out at the waning Adirondack spring and imagine a canvas of my own with all the shades of green we see driving through the hills, the colors of lilac, honeysuckle and forsythia by the farm houses, the blue of sky. I wonder how much of those colors I could capture, as Helen has, in a 4 1/2 x 2 1/2 oval rug. I might call it “Adirondack Spring.” But Helen will probably beat me to it.

I made sure to keep my daughter’s hair short when she was much younger. She could grow it as long as she wanted when she could shampoo and care for it by herself. I spared her, at least, that childhood imposition of forceful braiding. She did have the vaccines for measles, mumps and rubella. I’m not sure if I or someone else taught her to braid, but how lovely to have the ability to take something so inherent in our shared lives to make an object as useful and enduring as a woolen rug.



Assignment: Write about a photograph and what it means.

I’m remembering a picture of me as a little girl in a pinafore holding an Easter egg.  Nearby, on our front stoop in Ohio, sits a basket with a real live duckling. My mother is nearby. The year is 1954. We are on our way to Easter Services at the First Presbyterian Church. My father, Buster Shartle, took the picture. It is warm enough in southwestern Ohio  to be without a coat.  Here in the Adirondack foothills there is still a bit of snow left and I’m still dressing in layers.


I am also remembering that little girl, so daintily dressed and pampered, lying in bed unable to sleep at night, trying to imagine what it must have felt like to have nails driven through flesh. Easter is, first of all, about the hideous death before there can be the Resurrection. It seems there was a lot for that little girl of four or five to absorb. The duckling was dispatched by a fox. The mother had issues. Easter ducklings and pinafores didn’t change things. These days in a world of hurt, it still hasn’t changed. A South Korean ferry filled with teenagers flipped over; we remembered the Boston Marathon bombings; another crazed high school kid went on rampage; another soldier, ditto.

Perhaps that’s the reason that I have Buddha and Kuan Yin represented around my house and in my office rather than crucifixes. These are a witness to my life long struggle with all that’s been preached, promised and, in some cases, threatened from a Christian pulpit.  Nietzsche said that the last true Christian died on the cross. John Shelby Spong said that God is unemployed, if not dead. He doesn’t save, He doesn’t heal, He no longer affects weather or battle outcomes. We seem to take care of or fail at most of that ourselves without His interference. So why church? Why Holy Week?

On Saturday I helped the Altar Guild, one of the few of such active institutions left in this Episcopal Diocese of Albany. I polished brass. There is an 1880 collection plate fashioned by J&R Lamb Studios, famous still for its church windows, wood carvings and artifacts. The brass plate is engraved in the style of the pre-Raphaelite Brethren with passion flowers, oak leaf clusters, a cross and whip on the left side, and the three nails to the right of the central IHS symbol. The plate was donated by a woman named Abby Mumford Thompson in memory of her sister, Lucretia C. Whiting, about whom I can find little or no information. It is a thing of beauty, this plate meant for collecting money from the congregation and yet reminding the giver and receiver what is crucial to the faith–crucial–the same root for the word crucifix. Those engraved symbols seemed to be given more credence in those Victorian times.

As I work on a chapter about such artifacts for a history of Bethesda Episcopal Church, I am aware not only of Bethesda’s history, but of all faiths and religions and their symbols. There were people back then who, when they cried “Heaven help us,” probably believed that there could still be Divine intervention in their crises. I honor the history while I struggle with the faith. I love the music, so beautifully performed by Farrell Goehring, Kathleen Slezak and the Bethesda Schola Cantorum. I love listening to scripture. I believe in showing up, helping, listening. I do not cry for Heaven’s help. I go to the doctor. I read John Shelby Spong. I wonder if the snow around the Buddha will ever melt.

Buddha before spring, 2014:


Buddha on April 14, 2014:



ForeWord Reviews to publish review of Lily Martindale

ForeWord Reviews will publish a review of The Truth and Legend of Lily Martindale on June 1st, 2014. Here’s a snippet:

“Mary Sanders Shartle paints a strong portrait of New York’s rugged Adirondack region in her debut novel,The Truth and Legend of Lily Martindale. It’s an atmospheric tale about a great tragedy that devastates two little girls. One refashions her life, finding love, faith, and a rewarding career, while the other struggles for many years to forge herself anew … Shartle’s memorable novel will find a ready audience with readers who are already fond of the Adirondacks, but it is so studded with rich detail and scenery that others will want to transport themselves to this wild, dangerous, yet achingly lovely place.” — ForeWord Reviews



It’s snowing.

Yesterday it was fifty degrees on the back side of the house where the sun hits the thermometer. I sat outside on the steps with my tea, flanked by big plow and shovel piles. Now big wet flakes are coming down and it looks like it’s going to be a day full of weather with the temperature dropping. I think I’ll stay put, watch the snow piles grow.

March library view 2014 001

I like winter fine. It’s why I live up here. But lately I’m feeling hemmed in by those plow piles, by the ice on the driveway, by things I need to do piling up on the desk. It could be a productive day. The measurements I’ve heard about the gathering snow range from four inches to over ten inches. By upstate standards, that’s pretty average. There’s about a foot of work piled on my desk: two mss in progress plus research, plus bookkeeping, etc. etc. As always, there’s nothing for it but to get to work.

Meanwhile, an old poem from one of the Three Poets chapbooks:


February melts away. The first
bird to sing of it is chickadee.
The radio guy says a robin’s in
someone’s backyard, but that’s
south of here by some.

The little melt revives the bees, beavers and maples.
Tempted with the risen sun,
I feel the false sense of warmth.
A dark shirt will warm my back
on the way to the mail at noon. But night
brings white ice. I feel my bones,
not my sap.

My sister calls from Maine to say
crocus are up. All I see
is the patch of brown over
the septic. Can’t ski
anymore, can’t rake either.
The shovels wait, knowing, by each door.

means deceit. When I crave
to bask, to flutter, to hatch, to fly,
it snows again on top of ice.
The pulse slows to crawl and
strives to race like a bad dream,
and again it snows on top of snow, on top of ice.

March is the torture of hope.
To the frozen heart the open cell
door leads to the waiting arms of the jailer.

Mary Sanders Shartle

(from Glacial Erratica: Three Poets on the Adirondacks, Part 2 by Elaine Handley, Marilyn McCabe and Mary Sanders Shartle)

Endless Winter in the Adirondack Foothills

“Sometimes it seems that it’s always winter–always been winter, will always be winter in the North Country.” The Truth and Legend of Lily Martindale

I saw a chipmunk a couple of days ago. Likely his/her stores got low in the cozy den, and he/she was out foraging under the bird feeder. A week or so ago the chickadees started calling. They do that in February when it’s really cold. Then the titmice chime in and things start to lighten up out here in the woods. Not just the three minutes added to the daylight count either. The heart inflates a bit.

My right knee, however, looked like one of those old, black and white Farmer Jones cartoons–like a pig with a garden hose in his mouth, getting larger and larger and defying gravity like a balloon. The doctor drained off 50 ccs (that’s about a cup) of yellowish fluid. Although all tests came back negative, he decided it looked like Lyme disease anyway. So a week later and two caps of doxycycline a day, the swelling is down considerably and the pain level has leveled off to previous arthritic zones, and I have joined the swelling (sorry) ranks of Friends-With-Lyme.

When the doctor saw the improvement yesterday, his comment was “Son of a bitch–it’s Lyme” and proceeded to go into a rant about how there is no funding in this litigious society, no movement forward on creating a vaccine to stem the swelling (sorry) tide of the illness. We talked about the frequency of Bell’s Palsy showing up that’s related to Lyme and all the weird stuff that can happen.

Years ago when I was working in Admissions at Skidmore College, I interviewed a young woman whose best friend’s mom was the first person ever diagnosed with the disease in Lyme, Connecticut in the mid-1970s. It took some years for someone to figure out that her symptoms resembled Rocky Mountain tick fever, and treat her with antibiotics. I asked how she was doing (this being in the 1990s) and the young woman replied “Fine.” However, “fine” is not exactly what I have heard from my cohort group of FWL. Beyond the aches and pains there can be serious brain fog, memory impairment, Bell’s palsy, fibromyalgia,and more. And sometimes, like malaria, there can be an echo effect. You’re better, and then after awhile you’re not better.

“The one thing that this long, cold winter will do,” Doc said, “is kill off these ticks.”

Now that’s something seriously worth considering to appreciate this long, tedious winter! It has been consistently very cold up here in the foothills of the Adirondacks, unlike recent winters. The depth of frozen, frosted soil must be pretty good by now. Unless the black-legged tick (otherwise known as deer tick) has been biding its time breeding and building super powers, we should have a relatively tick-free summer. It would be nice for the first time in five or six years, to go out in the garden without long sleeves, pants tucked into socks (so uncool) and a coating of Deep Woods Off that would drive small children away. Speaking of small (and not so small children), you should turn them on to:

“The Tick”

So – back to the early signs of spring. A prose poem:


The 2-note whistle of the mating call is my father’s, not precisely the same. Pretty close. The
2-note phrase: “Yoo hoo,” echoed across crowded parking lots, airport waiting rooms, baggage claims or just inside the front door of the house. “Yoo hoo,” meaning I’m home, over here, look here, you’re going the wrong way, don’t wander, come back. It was our names, discretely piped, our direction reordered, our curious heads turned back to the fold. Hounds to master, cat to dish, grandchild to lunch.

“Chickadee” is the territorial standoff, the buzz of warning: “chickadee-dee-dee” meaning my place, not yours, my food, my nest, my mate, my tree, my sky. He knew his birds, my father. I’m amazed he did not mention the origin of his call. When I moved here to the woods, I first heard the call. Dead of winter they start, you know. February, minus ten degrees, sunny and suddenly one calls off in the trees. I imagined my father, dead since Christmas, alive again. Come my beloved, my wee one, my pets and babies, come home.

Mary Sanders Shartle, Three Poets, Notes from the Fire Tower

Go in peace to love and serve the world.