One day last week, in search of a tape measure, I went to the sewing stand in my bedroom.
My mother had given it to me at the time of my wedding, in the vain hope that I would take to sewing.
Every drawer had been filled by my mother’s orderly hands with needles, thread, scissors and other things I’ve never touched like snaps and hooks and eyes.
I remember a yellow tape measure in that stand, neatly folded up just as my mother had left it. In the intervening 60 years, I’d never needed such a thing, having had a husband who took care of all household chores that might require measuring.
But the pixies must have gone off with the old tape as it was nowhere to be found.
Desperately I ransacked every drawer, finding unused embroidery thread and knitting wool of lovely colors.
My mother couldn’t cook a meal to save her soul, but she was a dab hand at knitting sweaters and shawls, and embroidering tiny flowers on handkerchiefs.
At the back of one drawer I did find something unexpected, a small wooden ruler with Jean Milholland printed on it in black letters.
Now how could Jean Milholland, the girl I once was, have used a seven-inch ruler? For sure, I needed all the math help I could get as I was hopeless at numbers, but what on earth good would a seven-inch ruler do? And how had that little bit of wood languished unseen in my sewing stand for so long?
Maybe my grandfather, an MIT graduate and engineer, hoping to encourage me to be more accurate, gave it to me. Alas, there’s nobody around to ask from whence came this mysterious gift.
Even my younger brother is gone, though heaven knows he would be even less likely than me to be familiar with the contents of a sewing stand.
But somehow finding that funny little ruler brings him back to me. In my mind, he’s still five years old. I see his gorgeous copper curls and his devilish smile. You can be sure he’s making up some plan to tease me.
And there am I, curly brown hair tamed by a pair of fat braids, peering at the world through spectacles perched on my short nose. This is before World War II, long before wearing specs was fashionable.
I hated those glasses, but couldn’t even see across the room without them.
Reading was my obsession. By second grade I could read almost anything I was interested in, but subtraction stopped me dead in my tracks.
Did somebody give me that ruler carefully printed with my name in the hope that I would suddenly sit up and find success in long division? If so, they were sadly disappointed.
Marcel Proust had a French cookie that took him back through the years. For me, it’s a useless ruler that opened a window into a time I’d almost forgotten.
So many memory touchstones came rushing back—a far off railroad toot, picking Japanese beetles off my grandmother’s roses, the detested sight of prunes on the breakfast table.
I can suddenly remember a time when I’d rather run than walk, rather shout than whisper and when each day dawned bright and shiny promising a new adventure.