Pictures Old and Torn. A New Song.

 A new song – “Pictures Old and Torn.” Follow this link to hear a home recording!

And now, a story about waiting for songs and how it’s like knitting the heel of a sock. 

Knitting is a lot about having faith – trusting the process. I just turned the heel on my first sock. I have this flat piece of fabric which I am making by putting loops of yarn on sticks. Until I made the loops on the sticks that piece of fabric didn’t even exist! But then this runic code, which looks like “slip 1, p2tog, p7 to 1 before gap, then p2tog, p,” chivvies me into taking this flat thing and making it hove up into the shape of a human heel. Extraordinary. I looked at the instructions and thought, “Just do what it says, Jennifer, and it will happen. The instructions wouldn’t be there and the finished sock wouldn’t be in the picture if this was all a great ruse.” I call myself by my long name when I’m being firm with myself.

If you’d like to try the magic of sock-knitting yourself, there are many good resources out there. I got my scrappy sock yarn and instructions from super cool Rachel at Odd Sock House in Yorkshire.

So, I followed the runic code and the heel emerged. This will feel like magic every time I do it. And there will be a second sock.

I feel blessed that when I was a child I was handed a piece of yarn, a plastic needle, and a card with a picture and some holes punched in it. I was meant to take the yarn and stitch it through the holes around the image. This was the beginning of sewing. I still have one of these boxes of sewing cards thanks to my mom who has been the joyful and untiring museum curator of my life. I love her so much for this and many things.

One of the things I love about these cards is that they are Holly Hobbie. So 70’s and 80’s. I still aspire to be her today; living a gentle life with fellow rag dolls in floral print dresses kindly watering flowers by an endless meadow with a purring cat against my leg. I also love that there are remnants of my stitching in a couple of the cards. I often stitched them and then took the stitching out and started over again. I also wrote my name on the bottom of the cards and the “J” is backwards. So, I was better with my needle than my pen. I knew my stitches before I knew my letters.

Sometimes I’ve struggled with the diverse nature of my loves – I’ve written about this more than once. I love music and performing, playing instruments and writing songs and essays, but I also love stitching, knitting, painting, printing, and creating anything with my hands. I often think that if I would just set aside my visual and hand work, that I would be a much more exciting guitarist because I would have that all important gift of time to work at the pentatonic scale, but it’s just not possible. I am absolutely compelled to stitch and hand make stuff. I actually feel a bit sick – both physically and mentally ill – when I don’t make things. I have been on tour or on a trip and decided to be very “good (read minimal, gasp)” about my packing and not bring any sewing things only to feel very strange after a few days. It’s like a kind of vertigo. I have to seek out needles, thread, and a piece of stitchable fabric until I can relax.

Similarly, I feel really weird when I go somewhere without a guitar. I recently went on a trip from a Friday to a Monday and, somewhere about Saturday afternoon, I started feeling queasy about not having an instrument.

I’ve realized over time that my music and my making are inseparable from each other and from me. So, they just have to share time and that doesn’t have to mean that either of them suffer from not being the star of my brain. These loves communicate with each other.

Sewing things, a diorama in progress, tiny red shoe collection, a Dave Stacey Vega banjo, and my Froggy Bottom guitar. 

For instance, from fall 2019 until February 2022, I wrote more than seventy songs. And then for the last year, I wrote none. In February of this year, I wrote my first song in a year and it felt so good. In the meantime, while I wasn’t writing songs, I was editing my novel, applying for grants that didn’t come through, teaching, being sick, visiting family, visiting friends, making rabbits, sewing, singing, playing my songs, learning to knit again, drawing, painting, and generally being me. If I hadn’t had all of these other passions at my fingertips – if songwriting was the ONLY thing I loved to do – I might have felt quite desolate this past year. But, though it did feel like a curious circumstance not to be writing songs, I knew that songs would happen again.

Aunt Essie in the black dress and Aunt Kitty in the skirt and sweater. My new song was inspired by stories which Essie’s son, Patrick, and his wife Barbara shared with me. Essie was my Great-grandmother Narcie’s sister. 

Writing my new song came from a quirky little sequence of events including borrowing library books on the Cherokee nation, applying for and not getting a PhD bursary, and using the free ancestry resource at the library which lead to a Facebook post, which lead to talking to a long lost relative on the phone in North Carolina. Because of the seemingly unconnected and odd things I did while NOT writing songs, I was building a song little by little in my mind. So, when the time came, I simply sat down and wrote out the words and, later that same day, I sat down with my guitar, turned on the voice memo recorder, and the melody simply appeared in my hands and strings. It was like the thrill of reading the runic code of knitting and seeing a human heel-shaped piece of fabric emerge in my hands. I had been writing a series of song notes in my heart and head and my cousins Patrick and Barbara handed me the last note I needed.

So, I’m VERY excited to share this new song with you.

The story of “Pictures Old and Torn.”

I visited Clell, Virginia, for the first time in the summer of 2022. It was a legendary place in our family where Aunt Laura and Uncle Pat and their many children lived (hear a song about them here). Uncle Leonard and Aunt Bobbie lived there. And my Great-great-grandmother, Sarah Catherine Margaret Nipper lived there (read about her here). Some of them were said to be buried there. Mawmaw and her sisters remembered a funeral. But none of them had been back there since the fifties. They couldn’t remember what it looked like and how to get there.

The “road” in Clell leading to where our relatives lived.

I said, let’s just get in the car and see what we find. I could see this place on the map called Clell where there appeared to be very little left from the satellite view. Well, long story made very short: we flagged down some men on a Gator truck, they turned out to be relatives, the older gentleman had known Laura and Pat, they took us to the former site of the homes where a gas well now sits, and I put my hand in the water of the creek that Sarah Nipper used to cross to her house every day.

Then I wrote about her on Facebook and my relative, Patrick, and his wife got in touch. I called them. He’d been to Clell. He’d eaten at Aunt Bobbie’s table! He remembered her bread. He remembered Uncle Leonard going hunting with his own Dad. He also remembered Uncle Leonard reading his Bible and praying. His own mother, Essie, was sister to Pat and Bobbie, but moved to Indiana with her husband Jim which back then was quite a distance away. Patrick remembered a funeral. He remember just enough to make my heart sing. And I had a song.

The child is Essie and the woman is Sarah Nipper. This photo was taken in either Whitewood, Virginia, or Sophia, West Virginia around 1929.

One of my favorite things that Patrick remembered was that Aunt Bobbie and Uncle Leonard didn’t have any electricity and, therefore, no refrigerator. They kept things like milk and butter cold in a window of the house and in a tiny house that sat in the creek. So, Aunt Bobbie would make a midday meal, tidy the table a bit afterward, but leave the leftovers on the table covered by a sheet until the evening meal. So, pulling a sheet across the table became a linking idea in my song.

Aunt Bobbie and Uncle Leonard Sneed are the couple in the center of this picture.

There’s so much that my relatives can’t remember anymore. There are photos with no names on the back and no one living who can say who is pictured. There are so many questions I wished I’d asked people when I was little and sewing yarn through holes in Holly Hobbie cards. But there are traces and we are the traces – the living traces.


Pictures Old and Torn
© Jeni Hankins, 2023

Pull a sheet across the table
We’ve got a quilt to tie and hem
Our Essie’s getting married
To that handsome sailor Jim
They’re off to Indiana 
And we’ll not see her again
Pull a sheet across the table 
We’ve got a quilt to tie and hem

Pull a sheet across the table
Sunday dinner’s done
Daddy read your Bible
Before the light is gone
No rest for a woman
When a mountain is your home
Pull a sheet across the table
Sunday dinner’s done

It was all so long ago
And I wish I remembered more
All the unanswered questions
In pictures old and torn

Pull a sheet across the table
Your poor Uncle Leonard’s dead
In Heaven he’ll be dreaming
of your Aunt Bobbie’s bread
He’ll no more go a-huntin’
To keep his family fed
Pull a sheet across the table
Your poor Uncle Leonard’s dead

Whoever drinks the water
Whoever feels the wind
Will know that we have walked here
Though we will not come again
Like the flower, we may wither
Like the time, we may fly
But you’ll follow in our footsteps 
Where the soul never dies

Vocals, Fingerstyle and Rhythm Guitar by Jeni Hankins – 
a "My Little Desk" recording in Carnforth, Lancashire, England.

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