Interdisciplinary artist Karen Krolak tells us about the t-shirt she hand-stitched for her father and why it's so important that she hold on to it.
Editorial advice provided by Ariana Martinez -- thank you, Ariana!
"This Our Home" by Blue Dot Sessions
"Spring Cleaning"by Blue Dot Sessions
"When the Guests Have Left" by Blue Dot Sessions
"Egomaniacal Pluck Melody" by FJX via Looperman.com
"Bebop intro in C" via Looperman.com
Mementos Season 1: Episode 2: A T-Shirt Hug from Dad
Lori: Welcome back to Mementos, where we talk to people about the personal meaning and deeper stories behind the items they keep.
Lori: I’m your host, Lori Mortimer, and I’m excited to bring you Episode 2.
Lori: On this episode, we’re gonna switch gears and talk about a handmade gift.
Lori: Handmade gifts connect the maker with the recipient. Both people are represented in the final piece.
Lori: My husband – let’s call him Steve -- really enjoyed making toys for our kids when they were little. He hand carved and painted them Star Trek phasers (from the original series – for you nerds out there). He made them swords. He carved them little totems to wear after we watched the movie Brother Bear.
Lori: And he even made them canoe paddles. We had gotten a canoe and the standard paddles that came with it were way too long for them. They were just unwieldy, and that frustrated them. So instead of just buying kid-sized paddles, my husband, Steve, bought two pieces of wood and used this hand-scrapy tool that had belonged to his grandfather, who was a carpenter. And he slowly and deliberately carved them kid-sized canoe paddles. Like the apocryphal story of Michelangelo chipping away at the stone until David just emerged, Steve scraped away and chipped away at the wood until the paddles that were inside were revealed.
Lori: Okay, so maybe that’s a bit much, but you know what I mean. When Steve made those paddles, he brought three generations.
Lori: Behind every handmade gift is an expression of love. It takes a lot of time and it takes intention -- and especially in today’s click-and-buy world -- it takes commitment to make something for someone else.
Lori: Today, you’ll hear from a woman who encapsulated her relationship with and love for her dad in a hand-stitched t-shirt. she brought it with her to my house one sunny Sunday afternoon last winter.
Karen: I'm Karen Krolak. I'm an interdisciplinary artist, and most recently I've been working on a project called The Dictionary of Negative Space that looks at where we don't have words for things that relate to mourning and loss and healing after trauma.
Karen: I've come with a periwinkle blue T-shirt that has in it a hand-stitched eagle that's been reverse appliquéd.
Lori:Karen found the shirt as a do-it-yourself kit on a clothing designer’s website.
Karen: It dawned on me that it was something I could make for my dad that he would actually wear. Originally the kit was made with a white overall shirt, and the background you would kind of choose the color on. But when I called the company to say, “I'm making this for my dad, and my dad spills things constantly on his shirts. Is it possible to do this in a darker color?” They had actually suggested that I do it in in blues.
Karen: It's the first thing that I ever had sewed the entire garment.
Karen: I first began on the appliqué part of just sewing around all the pieces of the eagle. And I was really aware of how many stitches each little section took. And I began thinking as I was putting in each of the stitches of memories of my dad and time that we spent together and both things that kind of drive me crazy about him and things that I had not thought about in a while that we did together.
Karen: You know it has all of these little knots that are the talons. And I had decided that that's what it was going to do for the foot there because I figured that would be a good place to place all the things that kind of drove me crazy about him, was to be like I’ll just knot those up and put them in there.
Karen: And I really kind of made a conscious choice to make sure that when I was stitching on it that I would be thinking about him and thinking about our relationship.
Lori:Karen was drawn to the eagle design because eagles are sort of a Krolak family insignia.
Karen: I made it an eagle actually because when we were kids my younger brother had been asked in school what religion our family was. And he had told the teacher he didn't know what religion meant.
Karen: So she had said, “Well, where do you go on either Sunday or Saturday every week?” And his answer was, “The cheese store?” Because there is a really great cheese counter that my dad would spend a lot of his Saturday afternoons at.
Karen: And so she had sent him with the assignment to go home and find out overnight.
Karen: And then the next morning at the bus stop with my dad -- my dad was a very, very bright man who was a computer scientist, and he had this ability to kind of see worlds that we can't even begin to imagine. And my younger brother looked up and said, you know, “Dad what religion are we?” And he looked at him and he said, “Son you're an eagle!”
Karen: And he got on the bus totally happy, having no idea that eagle was not on anybody's list of world religions, and went into the school. And when the teacher asked him, he was so excited, you know, “We're eagles!”
Karen: And then he wound up in the principal's office, and my mom got this crazy phone call. When she got there, and he was talking about eagles, she had no idea what he was talking about, and it became kind of a big family joke that whenever anyone asked what we were, we were eagles.
Lori: But when Karen gave the shirt to her dad…
Karen: The first thing that he said when he looked at it was, “Oh, it's a crow, for Krolak!”
Karen:It was typical of the way that my father and I know that there is kind of a code to what we've done but just aren't connecting.
Lori: Karen’s dad was unique in many ways.For example, he was a pioneer in computer science, and he was one of the first computer science teachers.
Karen: He was a tenured professor by the time he was 27, and trained many of the people who went off to go work for NASA and for Microsoft and for Apple. His fingerprints go everywhere within the tech industry.
Lori: He was wicked smaht, but that doesn’t paint the full picture. From how he showed up for the first date with Karen’s mom, two hours late ….
Karen: … wearing two different shoes―one was a sneaker, one was a dress shoe―two different socks. A pair of cutoff camouflage pants that were way too big for him that he had belted with a piece of rope, and he had put on his best dress shirt. He had just mis-buttoned it.
Lori: … to his interpretation of religion …
Karen: You’re an eagle!
Lori: … to his quirky household collections …`
Karen: …24 snapping turtles, a pink alligator, a bird, two snakes, and this kayak
Lori: Pat Krolak marched to his own beat, and family life reflected that.
Karen: There were three of us. My older brother Patrick, who was about 18 months older than I am. And then my younger brother, who is five years younger than I am and seven years younger than Patrick.
Karen: My dad was a very playful person in a lot of ways. So as a little kid, he was fantastic because his imagination was going all directions. He also didn't seem to have a lot of the same understandings of what should be possible for kids to do or not do. And was someone who enjoyed getting messy. Like, at a time when a lot of dads didn't get on the ground with their kids and do things, he was always the type who would be in his suit, in the sandbox with us and, you know, running around the backyard.
Karen: And our dinner table was constantly filled with people talking about ideas. And my dad loved to argue, so he would always take kind of a contrarian point of view to get people thinking out of the box.
Karen: And he was notorious for bringing home anyone who needed a meal on campus. They could be a visiting professor. They could be a student. They could just be somebody who was taking a tour on the campus. They would be at our house at the dinner table.
Karen: And as kids we were invited to the table, and as long as we had something related to what was going on to say, we were encouraged to share.
Lori: And there were family vacations, too.
Karen: My mom would name them the great American pottery tour or the great American yarn tour.
Lori: In August of 2012, Karen’s older brother Patrick joined their parents for one more vacation.
Karen: And because Patrick had gotten really interested in genealogy that year, they had gone on the great American cemetery tour.
Lori: Karen and her husband had sold their condo and were living temporarily with their friend Nicole. One evening, they were driving in Boston, headed to a party, when Nicole called.
Karen: And Nicole said, “There are some policemen that are here that want to talk to you.” And she said, “They won't get on the phone. You need to come back.”
Karen: And then my younger brother called. And I said, “Has something happened to dad?”
Karen: And I figured, of anyone, you know my dad was 72 and wasn't in the best of health, something had happened to him,
Karen: And he said, “They're all gone.
Karen: All of them.”
Lori: Karen’s parents and brother Patrick were killed in a head-on collision when an SUV crossed into their lane.
Karen: You see television shows where people just begin screaming, and you don't realize, like, that's there because you just begin screaming. I just remember having this moment of hearing this screaming and thinking, “Well who's doing that?” And realizing it's me.
Karen: They just left on what seemed like a reasonable trip and then we never saw them again.
Karen: We now have three bodies that need to be transported back to two different places where families are going to be gathering. There are now literally hundreds of people that need to be notified.
Karen: And I don't know how any of this works. Like, we don't have a religion, we don't have a funeral home, we don't have cemetery plots, we don't have anything.
Karen: But I also know that the first thing that I thought of was, like, my dad had better not be wearing that shirt. Because I really want that shirt now. Like, I really … I really couldn't focus on anything else. And when I finally got to my younger brother's house that night, the first thing that I said to him was, like, “Do you know what they were wearing? Do you have any idea, like, what they packed with them to go?” ‘cause …
Karen: I want that shirt.
Lori: Karen’s father wasn’t wearing the t-shirt the day of the accident. Her aunt found it in the laundry at her parents’ house. Karen and her husband’s new home purchase was put on hold. So they were a bit nomadic for a while.
Karen: We kept kind moving around, and, like, the only thing that would move with me that was constant was this shirt. You know, it's still … it still smelled like my dad. It still had all of the, like, coded memories of all the things that I had thought about while making it for him.
Karen: And you know, I would run my hand over the, like, knotted part at the bottom and think, you know, this is just one more of those knots. This is just one more of those, those challenges that we face.
Karen: And I wasn't sure at first that I could, that I could wear it. But about two years after the accident, we were heading out to the Mayo Clinic because I have a very weird chronic health condition. And I was feeling very nervous about going to see the doctors there. And so I took it with me just to have it with me. And it wound up with me going into anaphylaxis in the middle of the night in a snowstorm in Upstate New York.
Karen: And we got into the hospital and ended up staying the night overnight there. When I got up the next morning, I finally put it on. And it felt like this, this hug at a time when you really want to hug from your dad.
Karen: And so oftentimes now when I wear it, it's on days when I know I just could use reassurance from my dad.
Karen: I keep thinking it has to make it through the rest of my life with me. So I try and save it for days when, like, I know I'm doing something that is really challenging or that I need some extra belief in myself for. Or even just on days where, like, my health has been driving me nuts and I feel like I'm really broken and can't do things.
Karen: It's almost like a kid's security blanket. And if you take it away, you know, just passing them some other blanket isn't going to have the same magic to it.
Karen: It makes me laugh, like, whenever I look in the mirror and see the eagle and hear my dad say, “Oh, it's a crow for Krolak!”
Karen:You know, it still has that ability to make me smile and that our differences instead of being something that are like ARRGGHH are now at a stage where, like, I'd give anything for a conversation where the two of us weren't seeing eye to eye again.
Lori: I’d like to send Karen Krolak a huge thank you for sharing her story with us. She has been doing amazing work at The Dictionary of Negative Space, which encourage you to check out at dictionary of negative space dot com.
Lori: Music by Blue Dot Sessions and FJX via Looperman.com.
Lori:I’ve heard from a lot of people who took a few minutes out of their day to listen to the first episode, and I want to thank you for listening and for letting me know that you liked what you heard.
Lori: It’s hard to build an audience for a podcast, so if you’re in a sharing mood, please do let friends and family and coworkers and even strangers on the street that this podcast is out there. You can send them to mementospodcast.com, and there they can listen or subscribe via their favorite podcast app.
Lori: And if you’re feeling extra spicy, please leave a review and rating at Apple Podcasts. For whatever reason, Apple reviews still make a huge difference. They help a podcast move up in rankings and get discovered by more listeners.
Lori:Thanks for listening. We’ll see you next time on Mementos.