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Thread: Personal Indulgences No. 2

People ask where your passion for something started. As if a passion were an unreasonable thing to have and needed to be justified by a specific root cause.

For me, the devotion to dance began when I was a child and saw a picture in Life magazine. It was a small black and white photograph of Diana Adams in arabesque, as I later learned to call it, in George Balanchine’s compact version of the sublime “white” acts of Swan Lake. As far as I was concerned, the image was a bolt from Heaven. I brought the magazine into the kitchen where my mother was producing one of the endless meals a middle-class housewife provided back in the day. “What’s this?” I asked. My mother glanced away from the stove. “That’s ballet,” she replied, matter-of-factly, and turned her attention back to her casserole. “What’s ballet?” I asked. I can’t remember her reply, but I do recall understanding, on the instant, that ballet was for me. Talk about the fairy’s kiss!

As for my devotion to the visual arts–as painting and the like are called, but, oddly, dance is not–that came even earlier, in our neighborhood branch of Woolworth’s, the five-and-ten-cent store of my youth, a vast emporium crammed with small irresistible treasures (or so it seemed to a pigtailed eight-year-old).

I grew up in a time and a community where a mother could let her young offspring out of her sight for a moment without endangering the child’s life. So while my mother, list in hand, ranged from counter to counter acquiring household and personal necessities–a frying pan, an inexpensive lipstick, a retractable measuring tape that, at a touch, would retreat into its hard shell like a startled snail–I could disappear in the direction of the Sewing Department (on the right, in back).

There, riveted to the spot, eyes wide, mouth slack with wonder, I would gaze at row upon row of inch-high wooden spools of 100% cotton sewing thread in every color imaginable, rising from waist height to far over my head. The thread had no pretensions to being silk–Woolworth’s customers were common folk–yet it was wound on the spools so tightly and evenly that each spool gleamed like a unique beacon of colored light.

The spools were arranged according to hue, one hue succeeding the next in rainbow order, with pedestrian black and white relegated to the bottom row, like a grudging afterthought. Each color family–this was the marvel–offered infinite variations on its basic theme. Women brought minuscule swatches of fabric from which they planned to create a dress and matched thread to them exactly. Not sort of, not close enough to make no never mind, but exactly.

I had no desire to sew anything, a stubborn lack of interest that has lasted a lifetime. All I cared about was the phenomenal range of color: A dozen shades of pink lined up in order of color saturation from the faintest blush to an almost psychedelic strawberry. A riot of reds, now veering toward a stinging orange, now to succumbing to cinnabar; now surreptitiously creeping up on purple. Cool greens from palest seafoam to the forest darkness that approaches black but obdurately refuses to arrive at it. Blues beginning with the merest hint of blueness and methodically progressing through cerulean and sapphire to the velvety indigo of a midnight sky. Grays more subtly differentiated than any panoply of twilight shadows I’d seen. Even the beiges, so often dullards, were worth looking at.

When my mother finished her shopping and was ready to reclaim me, she’d purse her lips and give the family whistle to summon me to her side. Half the time I was so absorbed in the bewitching reels of color, I didn’t hear her and she’d come looking for me. Soon she knew just where to find me. And one day she said, “If you like the thread so much, pick your favorite, and I will buy it for you.”

“You don’t understand,” I cried to myself. “It’s not one I like. It’s all of them together. And I don’t really want to have them. I just want to look at them.” But as a child I never learned to say important things like this aloud. I whispered, head down, eyes on the floor, “No, it’s all right.” But, as with Diana Adams in the swan’s arabesque, that glorious, hardly believable image of the spools of thread stayed with me, shaping me as I grew. I think I will die remembering it.

© 2007 Tobi Tobias


  1. Jeannette Andersen says

    Your piece on passion is divine. [Sent October 4, 2007. –Ed.]

  2. Audrey Ross says

    Yes, it’s interesting what makes an impression on kids and inspires them. When I saw my first ballet, I’ll never forget how the curtains swept open to the sides of the stage, or the performance itself. My sister, on the other hand, who was sitting next to me, has zero recollection of the afternoon! [Sent September 17, 2007. –Ed.]

  3. Eva Yaa Asantewaa says

    We were so alike. All of the sewing thread colors, all together, please! And, no, not the slightest interest in sewing. I had–still have–a similar nuttiness about yarn. [Sent September 17, 2007. –Ed.]

  4. Yung Wang says

    I believe you are writing your biography. Looking forward to see #3, 4, and 5 . [Sent September 17, 2007. –Ed.]

  5. Judith Young Malin says


  6. Mindy Aloff says

    Another beauty. The graph on the threads is pure magic. [Sent September 15, 2007. –Ed.]

  7. Allen Robertson says

    Just read your Thread piece. You know, there are points on the Richter scale where we really are soul mates. [Sent September 15, 2007. –Ed.]

  8. Micalyn Harris says

    That’s simply beautiful. Brought tears to my eyes–and no, I didn’t have a glass of wine with lunch. It’s just beautiful. [Sent September 14, 2007. –Ed.]

  9. Audrey Ross says

    That was a great story–I really enjoyed it! [Sent September 14, 2007. –Ed.]

  10. Martha Ullman West says

    What gorgeous writing. Thank you. I’m going to lie down now and think about colored thread. [Sent September 14, 2007. –Ed.]

  11. Lynne Schwartz says

    I love it! You have found a new metier. You should keep writing these for the rest of your life and I will keep reading them. Gorgeous. [Sent September 14, 2007. –Ed.]

  12. Elizabeth Zimmer says

    I love this. Thanks for doing it, and for sending it. [Sent September 14, 2007. –Ed.]

  13. Charlotte Christensen says

    The night before last, at a performance of the Royal Danish Ballet, I was telling a woman from my ballet class about my early childhood as a dancer (ages five to nine) and in the Royal Theatre (starting roughly at the same age). I told her about the thrill of the old theatre, the first night of Ashton’s “Romeo and Juliet” (which continued to spell “love” for me throughout my early teenage-years), and about Henning Kronstam when he did his glorious entrée in “Graduation Ball” on his own first night, and about all the times I cried because the lines of Erik Bruhn’s movements were so pure that you felt your throat tighten.
    Those were the days when the dancers and the audience believed in what they were doing and seeing. Now it is “after the fall,” and one is so seldom convinced of anything.
    I’m glad that you keep bringing your grateful audience little pieces of exquisite prose. [Sent September 14, 2007. –Ed.]

  14. Catherine Turocy says

    Coming from a middle class family of eight children, I was not driven to my ballet lessons but rather took the “rapid transit” to downtown Cleveland when my father was done with work. He was a mail carrier and would pick me up from school in his uniform and drive me to the transit stop. On my walk to the dance studio from Terminal Tower I would take the shortcut through Woolworth’s and usually had some time to fill before my lesson. I knew every inch of the store. Yes, the thread display was impressive. I also liked the pets in the back of the store and was intrigued by turtles, rabbits, fish, birds, and lizards.
    I agree with your first statement on passion. (Why do we need to justify it?) My passion for dance was declared at age four and I found it odd that other people did not have a lifelong passion declared at a similar age. I first saw a performance of “Swan Lake” on television and asked my mother what they were doing. She said, “ballet.” [Sent September 13, 2007. –Ed.]

  15. Andrea Siegel says

    The thread essay is so right. It is wonderful.
    I will refer others to it. [Sent September 13, 2007. –Ed.]

  16. Jan La Cour says

    What a lovely thread-story! And when did my passion for you start? I am sure I will die remembering you! [Sent September 14, 2007. –Ed.]

  17. Christopher Caines says

    Beautiful piece. I felt somewhat the same about the 64-crayon box of Crayolas, the one with the built-in sharpener. Too beautiful, almost, to use. My grandmother gave me a vast watercolor box once with about the same number of colors–too sophisticated for a small child, really–and that I never could bring myself to use. I didn’t want to sully the perfect tiny pillows of color, didn’t want to spread the potential out on actual paper. I just wanted to stare at the open box. [Sent September 13, 2007. –Ed.]

  18. One more note about this!
    I miss Woolworth’s so much! So much! Has anything ever come along to replace it? Convenience, price, availability of just about anything you needed for personal care, for the household, for your pets, for little hobby necessities.
    I doubt I would have pursued my addictive love of knitting and crocheting were it not for the yarn (in delicious colors, like your enchanting spools of thread), the pattern books and magazines, the hooks and needles and stitch counters–all comfortably within my budget!
    I recently noticed that the one upscale knitting boutique in my neighborhood has closed up shop forever. Yes, the yarn there was sophisticated and exciting, but I can’t say that I crossed its doorstep more than twice or that I could ever miss it the way I miss Woolworth’s!

  19. Amy Horowitz says

    I have not forgotten your compelling comment that “Thread” is who you are, and so of course I read that first. What I find most startling is your realization at that young age, that seeing those spools of thread in their spectral context was more important to you than owning any one of them. I have often wondered about the concept of ownership; what does it really mean?
    Long and careful consideration has led me to believe that memory is the most powerful determinant of ownership; the ability to visualize, internalize, and by that means possess. I think you do own those threads: all of them.
    After reading “Thread,” I went on to read each “Personal Indulgence.” Although I enjoyed them all, some cried out to be part of a book with the unifying concept being the impact of remembrance; understanding through vivid impressions of previous occasions, people, things. “Slaves to Books,” “The Dress,” “Perfume,” and my personal favorite, “Gerry’s,” are prime examples of this.
    I asked myself why “Gerry’s” spoke so compellingly to me. Is it because I am a “flea market hound” at heart? I’m sure that’s part of it, but it’s more than that. Through that piece, you summoned the sense of community that only a group lured by the same glimmering “oasis in the desert mirage,” could share. Revealing the etiquette of that assembly was “dead on” in concert with my experience with other vendors. I was transported beyond the words, to that particular place and time.
    Yes. I think a book is pushing its way into existence. I imagine a title like, “Dairy of a Little Girl by a Big Girl: A Writer Looks Back.” I think that memory is a different form of currency from hard cash or loot. Its buying power is greater. Those feeling-infused images we acquire along the way are portable and, if compelling enough, permanent. These are the things you can take with you.

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