A lifetime's worth of stitches

A bag's strands stretch from a girl to an elder.

Published May 29, 2007


She started it in the summer of 1920, when she was 5.

Every young lady needs a beaded evening bag, Aunt Harriet told her. If you start stitching now, she said, your bag will be ready to go out on the town by the time you are.

Marian Roosa wasn't interested in beading, or in being a young lady. She wanted to ride bikes and climb trees.

Aunt Harriet insisted. She sat Marian on the porch swing of her Pittsburgh home and told her not to rock. Your hands have to stay steady, she said. She gave Marian a wide piece of ribbon. Real satin. A skein of invisible thread, a silver needle as thin as a strand of hair, six bottles filled with tiny glass beads.

She showed Marian how to loop small stitches through single seed beads, tracing the intricate flowers on the ribbon.

By the end of her week's visit, Marian had finished a 4-inch square. She loved how the little beads winked in the light.

When she got back to her home near Buffalo, N.Y., she tucked the piece of purse into a cigar box and stowed the box in her dresser, second drawer from the top.

* * *

She beaded from time to time - until she discovered boys. After all, it was the Roaring '20s.

By the time Marian was ready to go out on the town, her bag was only one-fourth done.

It waited, buried beneath forgotten blouses.

* * *

She didn't take the cigar box when she went to Cornell University. "Didn't even think about it, " she said.

After college, she taught high school science. She married a football hero from her high school at the beginning of World War II. She had a son, then a daughter.

"Toward the end of the war, I started getting nervous about the purse, " Marian said. "We all thought we were going to be bombed."

She didn't want to die without finishing it, even if it was only a beaded evening bag. So at night, she would take out the cigar box and sit in her rocking chair, stitching behind blacked-out windows.

* * *

Marian taught for 24 years.

When she and her husband retired to Venice, they brought the maple dresser Marian had used since she was a girl. In the second drawer from the top was that half-finished purse.

She never talked about it - until one afternoon in 1995.

"I was at this alumni meeting for my sorority, Kappa Delta, and we were talking about crafts we had in our closets, things left unfinished, so I told them about the purse, " Marian said. "Big mistake. They started giving me the raspberry. 'You've got to finish it, ' they said.

"I was 80 years old. They didn't think I had much time."

Marian needed that challenge - she called it her "dead" line.

* * *

Within a year, she had finished it - a masterpiece smaller than a piece of notebook paper, 75 years in the making.

Others might have felt sentimental after tying that last knot. For Marian, it was more like, "mission accomplished." She showed her husband and a few friends, then tucked the bag back into the drawer.

It sat there, untouched, for 12 years.

* * *

Marian lives in an assisted living facility in Venice now. She turned 92 this month. Her husband and son have died, and her daughter is sick with liver cancer. Marian still teaches watercolors in the community room, catches a ride to church every Sunday.

Just before her birthday, the women of Venice Presbyterian hosted a dinner and fashion show. Everyone was asked to bring a family heirloom.

While she sipped sweet tea, Marian watched the front table, where two dozen women crowded over the centerpiece, exclaiming: "Isn't it exquisite?"

An index card beside the purse bore these words, written in Sharpie with a shaky hand: "Started when 5 yrs. old on French silk ribbon. Finished when 80 yrs. old! An antique now. Marian Roosa."

Marian told her friends, "Aunt Harriet would be so proud." After 87 years, she and her purse were finally out on the town.

Lane DeGregory can be reached at degregory@sptimes.com or 727 893-8488.


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Encounters is dedicated to small but meaningful stories. Sometimes they will play out far from the tumult of the daily news; sometimes they may be part of the news. To comment or suggest an idea for a story, contact editor Mike Wilson at mike@sptimes.com or (727)892-2924.