Traces of a friend’s life in everyday activities

While responding to an e-mail from someone I’d hoped to see at BookExpo America last week but didn’t connect with, I went to the bookshelf to take a quick look at Shirley ("Shirl the Purl") Scott’s Canada Knits: Craft and Comfort in a Northern Land.

Nearby on the shelf, face up, was another small book with what I realized with a pang was Deborah Pulliam’s handwriting on a yellow sticky note. About four years ago, I’d mentioned to Deb that I was having trouble finding a book I’d heard of—perhaps because it had been published in Australia and was not yet readily available in North America—and she had sent me a copy. So here’s It’s My Party and I’ll Knit if I Want To! by Sharon Aris, with Deb’s comment: "It’s a good read overall—enjoy!"

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Reminders of Deb P keep popping up in my life like single fibers, apparently insignificant on their own but cumulatively powerful.

For example, every day when my daughter and I walk the dogs we use the leashes Deb made from nautical rope and brass fittings and sent to us after she visited, many years ago. Having experienced our walking conditions firsthand, she made the blue leash longer than the red one. It was custom-sized for Heather, our well-behaved Australian shepherd. The shorter leash was red (for "not so calm"), intended for Ariel Miranda, our then-young Border collie cross. Because of their personalized leashes, Ariel had to stay closer to us and Heather could evade puppyish antics.

Now Ariel, age 12 1/2, uses the blue leash and we clip the red one to Tussah’s collar. The knots Deb tied have held firm under all conditions. She was right: there’s no better leash to be had. Last night, my daughter said, "I don’t know what we’ll do if they ever wear out."

On Thursday while the memorial service was taking place in Castine, Maine, I thought of Deb as I was in New York at a wonderful all-day gathering of independent publishers. I wish Nomad Press was going to be able to publish the book she had in progress.

I thought of Deb even more frequently than usual on Saturday, which would have been her fifty-fifth birthday. On that day, another friend and I attended a performance of a new Broadway musical called The Pirate Queen.

The musical is loosely based on a novel called Grania: She King of the Irish Seas, by Morgan Llewellyn, which is in turn loosely based on the life of Grace O’Malley (also called Granuaile and Grania, among other names), who was an Irish contemporary of England’s Queen Elizabeth I, who was then expending a lot of effort to include Ireland in her realm.

The creators of the musical adjusted the particulars of what is known about Grace O’Malley’s life (by adjusted I mean "simplified radically" and "altered in many important ways") to produce an entertaining theatrical production that becomes an artistic statement on its own terms. It especially examines some ideas about strong women in cultures that have specific role expectations that some individual women refuse to accept as boundaries. It’s fiction that uses history as a launching point for its own purposes.

I have a particular interest in historiography (which I take to mean the idea that what happened in the past is always perceived through a lens, and the study of various lenses is part of the study of history) and in the integrity of artistic vision. That sentence can lead down rabbit holes into a vast wonderland of inquiry. This was one of the subsurface threads in a lot of the conversations Deb P and I engaged in. There’s no end to it. We had come nowhere near completing any of our discussions.

I also have a more focused interest in the history and story associated with the life of Grace O’Malley, sparked by an astounding play called A Most Notorious Woman, written and acted by Molly Lyons.

My close friends know that I don’t ordinarily like to repeat experiences. I do re-read books, but not often. I’ll see a movie a second time . . . if I can bring my knitting.

Over a couple of years, I saw A Most Notorious Woman several times, all at Bas Bleu Theatre. I saw it twice during the sold-out world premiere in 2000 and once (or was it twice again?) in 2001 when the play returned to that theater for another sold-out series of performances. This is not at all normal for me. The play kept drawing me back.

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Molly based her play on Granuaile: Ireland’s Pirate Queen, 1530-1603, by Anne Chambers, which is not a novel. I know a lot about O’Malley’s life from Molly’s play that may have given me a deeper appreciation—both historical and artistic—for the large-scale musical. Molly herself is both an incredible actor who portrays Grace O’Malley from girlhood to crone and a gifted playwright who can weave what is known about O’Malley’s life into an effective drama without simplifying the content. Her play is one of the finest artistic creations I have ever experienced.

After I saw A Most Notorious Woman a couple of times, I special-ordered a copy of Chambers’ book from a specialist in Irish publications (the work is more readily available now). It’s not a fast read, but gave me a good overview of what is and isn’t known about O’Malley’s life and the context within which she lived, so I could become acquainted with the soil from which Molly Lyons grew her play.

I haven’t had additional time to really learn more about Grace O’Malley. But related topics have, obviously, intrigued me for a number of years. For example, when I couldn’t locate my copy of Chambers for the photo I just grabbed another book that happened to be handy: The Pirate Queen: In Search of Grace O’Malley and Other Legendary Women of the Sea, by Barbara Sjoholm.

As I work on bringing books to the world as an independent
micro-publisher in a world of mega-publishers, these stories from the
past help me keep my focus and courage up. What I’m doing is relatively
easy, by comparison!

This discussion connects more than casually to Deborah Pulliam’s and my conversations over the years, because about this time in many previous springs she would have been preparing for a trip to the United Kingdom to look at knitting in museums and to visit the northern islands where there are sheep and wool and wonderful knitting traditions—and where the stories of some especially headstrong and capable women like Grace O’Malley originated. I’ve never been to these places. Each year, I looked forward to having Deb tell me about what she’d found.

A pair of gloves handknitted from North Ronaldsay wool hangs from the peg rack in my living room. Deb brought them to me from the Orkneys. Not only are they made from wool grown by a rare breed of sheep (one perfectly acclimated to living in the tidal area of an island), they have been worked in an unusual manner, with seed-stitch background and a two-color Celtic knot on the back of each hand.

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One of these days I will stumble across a note from Deb—probably on a postcard—with the name of the maker, which I can almost but not quite recall. Jane . . . ?

I am not going around looking for these Deborah Pulliam-contributed fibers in the strand that is my life. The bits are just here, reminders of years during which our paths ran parallel in ways that allowed us to hash out ideas or add new perspective or egg each other on with projects or questions.

To the many people who have been sending me notes about their own connections with Deb P, those who knew her in person and those who knew her through her publications: Thank you.

While these notes highlight the loss and bring tears to my eyes, that’s a good thing because I’m having trouble mourning because I don’t want to believe Deb and I are not going to have another Saturday-evening phone chat either this week or next. Your notes also offer me hope and new connections that honor the memory of the friend we share who is still, and always will be, an active and inseparable part of our lives.

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3 Responses

  1. Kristi aka Fiber Fool

    Ooo, we saw the premier of A Most Notorious Woman. We saw it very early in the run and it was rather long at nearly 4 hours if I recall correctly, but it was good!

  2. Crik Christophel

    I was about to send Deb samples from this year’s shearing when I heard of her death. We met in Virginia and quickly became friends. We were both originally Hoosiers and also both spinners and knitters. We stayed in touch through phone calls, emails and the occasional conference as roommates. I always enjoyed her reporting on her research. She will be missed.

  3. Molly Lyons

    Dear Deb,
    What a surprise to stumble upon this blog!
    I was researching the internet for a couple of theatres to submit my play and your blog was listed.
    I’m so moved and pleased, I hardly know what to say which, as you’ve seen my show, you know is surprising.
    I’d love to chat with you about the changes the play has undergone and the places it has visited.
    Molly Lyons
    A Most Notorious Woman
    P.S. for Kristi – while the BBTC premiere was long and may have SEEMED 4 hours, it ran only 2:40 and is now down to a neat 2 hour including intermision. 🙂

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