by Marion Agnew
What can I give you
that will be of use in your next life,
the one you will live without me?
“At your age I wore a darkness,” Maggie Smith
The ladder, its unvarnished wood cracked and splitting, rests on two walls in the corner of our bedroom. Its rails extend six feet toward the ceiling, connected by four rungs about twenty inches apart. I can wrap my thumb and middle finger around the rails at the top, but at the bottom, the rails are larger than my grip.
A ladder repurposed as décor isn’t our usual style. You’d be more likely to see ladders in decorated-from-Pinterest homes, serving as bookshelves or towel racks.
Our ladder isn’t furniture, though. It leans in the corner not only for what it holds, but also for what it is.
In a few years before and after 1970, when I was in elementary school, my mother scheduled her university teaching, research, and meetings so she could spend some afternoons with me at home. My siblings were mostly grown and gone by then. And while Mom trusted me to be a responsible “latchkey kid” most days, she didn’t feel right about leaving me alone at home after school every day.
Oklahoma’s afternoon light crept through the patio’s sliding glass doors to illuminate the family room. The wood-paneled walls embraced chairs of dark wood, upholstered in the then-popular avocado-and-orange earth tones.
I’d sit sideways in the harvest-gold recliner, twisting my too-straight, too-fine, so-long-it’s-tangled hair as I read. On the adjacent sofa, my mother spread the contents of her crocheting bag—skeins and balls of yarn plus her work-in-progress. She’d learned various needle arts as a girl in the 1920s and 30s, sewing clothes for her dolls. As a young woman, she knit sweaters for her older brother and needlepointed floral-and-navy-blue chair covers. Crocheting and knitting had experienced a grand resurgence in the late 1960s, and Mom embraced it.
At 4 PM, I’d put down my book. In the hour before I had to leave for swim practice, Mom and I watched Perry Mason reruns on TV.
Mom enjoyed mysteries and had read many of Erle Stanley Gardner’s books. She approved of Raymond Burr as Perry and Barbara Hale as Della Street. However, she often said that William Hopper was too good-looking to be Paul Drake, their private investigator.
Still, she thrilled, as I did, when Paul showed up in the last moments of the trial. He’d exchange a significant look with Della and whisper something to Perry that changed the direction of the case, letting Perry tie up loose ends and restore justice in the world of TV reruns.
My grandfather, Mom’s father, made the ladder that stands in the corner—perhaps ninety years ago, perhaps only seventy—from trees he’d cut down to clear space for the camp. He stripped the bark and sanded the rails so they’d feel good under his hands. For the rungs, Grandpa chose thick, sturdy lengths and large nails to minimize the chances the rungs would split while bearing his weight.
For decades, the ladder stood or lay outdoors, its feet or rails in snow, damp leaves, mud, moist earth. Lichen and mold grew on the rails.
It’s difficult to tell what kind of wood it’s made of—it’s weathered grey now, and the rails don’t hold obvious traces of branch patterns—but spruce, balsam fir, and even cedar are possibilities. Some paint residue, shades of Atomic Tangerine and Plum, cling to its surfaces, where I cleaned brushes while repainting the camp.
Mom’s fingers knew how to crochet, even while she watched TV. She made granny squares—a pattern starting with a small square of double-crochet stitches around a circular eye. The design grows as you add concentric, square-shaped “rounds.” The finished squares, usually four or five rows, are sewn together into a larger fabric to cover pillows or serve as blankets.
Now cliché and used as TV-show shorthand to signify working-class families, granny squares can also be very attractive. Some people choose colours carefully, to complement a specific palette. Mom’s squares, though made carefully and well, were a hodge-podge of colours, like a wildflower meadow in bloom.
Through a year or two of Perry Mason reruns, she made dozens of squares of different colour combinations, unified by a final row of black. Eventually, she sewed them into a blanket as a gift for my sister, who lived on campus.
I don’t know why I imagined Grandpa’s old ladder as décor. We favour sentiment and comfort over a more intentional aesthetic, but I’m as susceptible as anyone to Pinterest, I suppose. Besides, I wanted to incorporate an object from Grandpa’s era into our home.
But as my birthdays have accumulated, I’ve become increasingly aware of how quickly time passes. Improvements to the camp that my husband and I made “recently” are showing their age after fifteen years. Exterior and interior paint and roof patching would all be welcome. The floor under the piano needs to be shored up again. In the face of such impermanence, I needed to choose my treasure quickly.
A significant advantage of the ladder as an heirloom was its portability. I couldn’t remove the peeled-spruce posts holding up the inside roof, the wall paneling from a grain car, or the wavy-glassed windows.
Through the years, the ladder had already made the transition from tool to artifact. Long ago, Mom had bought safer aluminum ladders to use. I found it hard to watch the wooden ladder rotting, returning to the dirt the trees had originally grown in. So I rescued it—to use it again, but differently.
I carried the ladder from the camp to our house, where I left it on the porch “for a little while” that became a full year, while I pondered what to do with it. In the summer of 2020, I reconnoitered. About a foot of the bottom of each rail, plus the bottom rung, were rotten beyond reclaiming, so I took the chainsaw to them. Sandpaper got rid of rough spots and lichen, and it otherwise cleaned up well.
According to Mom, Grandpa never imagined that our property, ten acres and two camps, would still be in the family after all these years. I’m not sure Mom was right about that. After all, Grandpa gave her the smaller camp after she’d gone away to graduate school, before she married. Was it a tether to ensure she’d return, at least occasionally? She did, of course, and our place sustained her through the decades when she could spend only a few weeks here each summer.
But Mom did have a point. Grandpa barely met me—he died when I was an infant—so he couldn’t predict that I’d torque my life’s path and come here to live. He could never have known how this place would continue to challenge and reward me.
What’s harder to accept: Mom never knew, either.
A mathematician, Mom prized order and symmetry, and she was a born problem-solver. During Perry Mason’s commercial breaks, we puzzled over motive, means, and opportunity. Who could be lying? Whose alibi was suspect? What would Perry’s court strategy be?
We talked about her crocheting, too—did she have enough yarn of this colour for this square’s fourth row or only the second? Did olive green or teal look better with this dark scarlet? Would this butterscotch complement the row of cream or make it look jaundiced?
Our time with Perry Mason came to an end as I grew up. But Mom still enjoyed crocheting. Eventually, she started a blanket for me—hexagons this time. We both enjoyed the silliness of the phrase “granny square hexagons.”
Though I am a writer, not a mathematician, I too solve problems. I puzzle over memories. I know some facts about her gift to me. Hexagons, the choice of bees for their honeycombs, make for sturdy yet lightweight structures. My blanket, ninety-eight hexagons in total and edged with four black, lacier rows, has also endured. Over the years, it’s become pilled and worn, and some of the colours have faded unevenly, but it’s otherwise intact.
Though facts remain, many of my specific memories are lost in the past. No matter how intently I look, I can’t see Mom’s darning needle, threaded with black yarn, flashing in and out as she sewed the completed “hexagonal squares” tight. I can’t remember when she gave me the finished blanket. I was probably in high school, when I never made my bed.
I do remember the blanket from other eras. In the years after my first marriage, I draped it over the back of the one chair (also harvest gold) in my bare-bones apartment while I read assignments for graduate school. I wrapped myself in it on winter evenings while crying over my stupid decisions, over my brave ones.
My mother’s fingers, nimble before her knuckles grew arthritic, wound and caught and do-si-doed yarn into knots in orderly rows. Then the finished blanket disappeared into the larger fabric of my life. It became part of the background, largely taken for granted.
As was she, until her memory began to unravel permanently. She switched from crocheting to knitting, and I was grateful that knitting sometimes eased her fretfulness and anxiety. She continued to knit increasingly uneven squares until late in her disease. At a day program she attended to give my caregiver father some respite, she brought needles and yarn and taught several of the workers there to knit.
Traditionally, ladders symbolize the connection between Heaven and Earth, the divine and the mundane. In the Abrahamic religious traditions, Jacob dreamed of a ladder, with angels ascending and descending, and received a prophecy of a promised land.
“Jacob’s Ladder” is the title of a song—several songs, actually, some by rock bands as well as the moving spiritual sung by enslaved African and Black peoples in North America.
Novels and movies, trails and landmarks and sections of highway, a specific type of pocketknife and a mathematical surface all bear the name. It’s a pattern for a quilt square and a cascading ribbon-and-wood-block toy.
Jacob’s Ladder is also a figure in the Cat’s Cradle, an ancient game found in many cultures that involves a length of string tied in a circle. Working with a partner, you take turns looping the string around your fingers to form different images.
The eighty-plus Perry Mason murder mysteries depend on a ladder—“The Murderer’s Ladder,” a plotting tool Erle Stanley Gardner developed. It considers the killer’s very human motivations and temptations; how those feelings might engender a plan; and then, given the opportunity, how they could lead someone to take the next step, and the next.
A ladder’s construction echoes its purpose. Its two rails are linked by rungs, and a ladder links space on the ground to space above or below, or, when it’s laid between structures, connects this space to that one.
The very structure of our DNA, the spiral staircase of the double helix, is a type of ladder.
For many years of winters in this house, Mom’s blanket lay on the end of the guest room bed, waiting to welcome me on nights made restless by hormones or snoring. Summers, I’d fold it and set it on the closet shelf to wait for the first snow, when I’d bring it out to air before draping it on the bed.
As summer became autumn in 2020, an unsettling season in a tumultuous year, I brought Mom’s blanket down from the guest room shelf. Again, I unfolded it and smiled at its colours—the flame-orange and pewter-green of lichens; its hues of moss and bark, blueberries and snowflakes, granite and quartz and basalt.
In our own bedroom, I re-folded the blanket and hung it over a rung of the ladder, its wood silvered like the winter sky and summer twilight.
As sunlight wanes and waxes with the seasons, I press my palm to the ladder’s rails. With a finger, I trace the outline of a colourful hexagon. I find comfort and continuity, even in this time of great uncertainty.
It’s what he made. It’s what she made. These are the things they gave me, that are of use in this life, the one I live without them.
Marion Agnew’s personal essays are collected in Reverberations: A Daughter’s Meditations on Alzheimer’s, published by Winnipeg’s Signature Editions in 2019. It was shortlisted for the Louise di Kiriline Lawrence award for nonfiction.
Her writing has received support from the Ontario Arts Council and been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and a National Magazine Award.
She lives in Shuniah, mere yards from Lake Superior, and is unduly proud of her prowess with loppers and chainsaw.
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