Nov 062012

A few days ago, several hundred people gathered on the grounds of the Ornamental Metal Museum to remember Papatya Curtis, whose abrupt death several weeks ago has left a lot of us reeling. A memorial organized by friends was conducted under a large white tent, the Mississippi river visible through its clear plastic walls. Traffic on the bridge competed with the voices of several speakers, who recited poems for the mostly standing crowd. I turned the mike on when I got up to the podium. I wanted to make sure Papatya heard me. Death is usually difficult but this one has been particularly so. Papatya mattered to me in many incalculable ways. She’s irreplaceable. People who seem to feel residency in Memphis requires justification or clarification often ask what its appeal is for me. I spent the time since Papatya’s death trying to put my thoughts down about her, knowing that she’s a big part of the answer to that question, and that I would regret not verbalizing the things I’d felt about her and the way she’d made the place I live worthwhile.

I’d like to put something together for the family, a record of Papatya’s reach. If after reading my thoughts from the memorial you’d be willing to offer your own memories about Papatya, I’d appreciate it, and I imagine others might too. If comments on the blog are turned off, email me your impressions at

Eulogy for Papatya Curtis – Sunday, November 4, 2012

About six or seven years ago, my sister was in town, and we went over to the Yarn Studio for some needles. She’d started knitting and offered to make me a scarf. I wanted to learn myself, so I went back to the Studio, a few months later, and started trying to figure out how. I’d heard that Rosey Grier was a knitter, but I don’t have his build, so I was a little self-conscious. I’m generally self conscious about a lot of things, so I felt lucky that I met Papatya at such a formative stage. She was a great teacher – patient and slightly self-deprecating, with a unique ability to make you feel that, whatever the rules, your choices were valid. The Yarn Studio was a warm place – full of her energy, even in her absence, though I preferred it when she was there. She was there a lot, and within the year I’d knitted blankets, sweaters, several misshapen scarves, and exactly one sock.

I know I wouldn’t be knitting now if it hadn’t been for Papatya. You make a lot of mistakes when you first start. I did, and I’ve tried and failed to teach others who go through that process of trial and error. Others helped me in the beginning, and generally knitters encourage each other and rescue where they can, but it’s a rare person who’s able to help the way Papatya could, and without that kind of tireless encouragement, many people give up early into their first scarf. Because of Papatya, I never felt stupid. I felt I was making mistakes anyone could and had. The Yarn Studio was a block away from my house, and knowing Papatya would help me so graciously and enthusiastically allowed me to take risks and develop more quickly than I would have without that kind of supportive instruction. I knew she was busy, that I was taking up time from her own stresses and problems. It probably won’t surprise anybody who knew her to hear that she never seemed put out by my desperation. She always made me feel she was happy to see me, with or without the added pressure of a problem to solve or a store to keep afloat. I was ambitious in my knitting but messy with my yarn, and it often got tangled. Papatya untangled it, assuring me she found it relaxing. Whenever I drove up to the store I checked for her car in the lot. Like a lot of people, I became dependent on her guidance, her approval, and her presence in general.

There were always people at the Studio, particularly the one night a week designated as a sort of knitting pow wow. It took me years to realize that it wasn’t just that a place had been provided for these people, and like water they filled it. It took me a long time to realize that Papatya was really the glue holding a variety of personalities together long enough for them to figure out what they might have in common and to form lasting bonds. When the store closed, the knitting night continued at Cafe Eclectic. I met a lot of people there and there are moments I remember, but my most vivid memory is Papatya’s presence, with all the unique, inexplicable qualities that make one presence profoundly different from another. I’m not sure I can describe how or why, but Papatya’s presence made everyone else in attendance seem that much more interesting. Her interest in other people made me interested too. It catalyzed something that made that time together feel more important than anywhere else you could be. She was a proficient interpreter of the complex lexicon of knitting. If you’re not a knitter and that means nothing to you, consider that people often knit in groups, and in those groups there’s the possibility for real connection to slip in. To know that lexicon is to preside over a unique arena of intimacy, facilitating real moments of meaning and exchange.

Papatya was an exceptional person. Everyone makes a difference to someone. Few make a difference as regularly and widely as she did. Few make you feel as singled out for praise. The other night, a few of us got together. Talking about Papatya, I said I’d always felt she was my biggest cheerleader, that I was special to her, one of her favorite people. The others looked at me with a certain kind of pity reserved for clueless men, because the truth is, Papatya did this for many people, and many people received as much sustenance from it as I did. At a time when your fondest birthday wishes are more likely to be issued on your facebook page than in person, Papatya’s gift for real time sincerity and engagement was a rare reminder that deeper, more lasting connection is still possible. In a cluttered, hyper-transient social landscape of detachment and once removed communication, where anybody can say anything now and figure out whether they actually mean it later, she stood out as proof that nothing substitutes for direct eye contact and face to face interaction; that no amount of “liking” amounts to love. She said what she meant and did what she promised, qualities that have become practically extinct in friendship, if not altogether fictitious. Her opinions were always her own and they were always grounded in common sense and hard earned experience. She was a discerning judge of character and knew very quickly where to focus her attention. She knew where not to waste her time, and seemed to avoid it. If she didn’t much seem to care for you, that was as sure a sign as any that you might have room for improvement. She made things happen, for herself and many others. She made you feel that anything might happen if you had half the dedication, tenacity, and perseverance she did.

I believe that there are certain people who come into our lives and alter our brain chemistry permanently, rerouting the way we think, the way we feel about ourselves and the world. Those are the hardest people to lose. On her blog, Papatya once said that like all knitters, she knitted on to calm her fears. It always works, she wrote. I picked up my needles last week and started knitting obsessively. At the end I had another scarf, but no Papatya. There are times you need it to work and it doesn’t. I don’t know why I thought it should be any different for her than it is for me. You knit with a pattern, knowing that if you follow the instructions things will turn out the way you expect – for a change, for once, or just for the time being. I resisted putting my thoughts down about Papatya. I don’t want to sum up my friend. I don’t want to draw conclusions. I want to keep her open and active in my life. I wanted to see how the trailer in her back yard turned out. I wanted to see what she’d come up with next, and how she’d get it off the ground. She was always doing or making something, extending her possibilities of self-expression, and it made me want to accomplish more. I wanted to keep watching and learning from her. My thoughts keep tunneling through what if scenarios. The inevitable feeling is that somehow I failed a friend. Maybe I took her for granted. I must have assumed she’d always be there. I must have assumed that she was as strong and resilient as I wanted to believe, that she always knew the pattern at hand better than I did. I guess I assumed that the capricious laws of nature didn’t apply to someone who could knit while she drove.

Over the last week, people have told me she’s in a better place. Being an armchair agnostic, I’m not sure what that place is, and I resent this sense of enforced closure. For days it’s been one of the many unanswered questions I’ve anguished over. Where, exactly, is she now? What is this place and how is it possibly better than her physical presence, her inimitable laugh, the tangible warmth of her personality? I’m heartbroken and angry at a universe that would take her away, one that would allow her to vanish so abruptly, with such finality. How can I trust there’s a better place when such errors of judgment exist in this one? It’s a hard cold truth that she’s gone and nothing will bring her back, but I’ve decided to believe that the place she is now, for lack of a more reassuring answer, is in the hearts and minds of the people who loved her. I want to make sure my heart and mind truly are a better place, a proper, suitable vessel for such an exceptional person. I have no idea what the metaphysical make up of the mind and heart and soul is – what part regret, what part memory or hope. But I want to commit to making mine the best possible combination they can be, a safe place for housing my memories of Papatya and what she said about life and people and this city for me.

I don’t know what I could have done differently. I hope to make the most of what I can do differently now.  I want to make sure that I remember Papatya by demonstrating real friendship and support for the people in my life. I feel like that’s the best way to demonstrate for the people I come into contact with the real time benefits of having known and been so deeply touched by her extraordinary character. I want the people I know to understand her kind of warmth and engagement. I want to feel I can make the kind of impact in their lives she made in mine. Most of all, maybe, I want to feel that if I try hard enough, I can understand the people I care about on a deeper, more thoughtful level, better than I’d like to think I do, that I can help untangle things for them when nothing is calming their fears and they need it most. Papatya meant a great deal to me. She mattered. She was loved by many as much as me. My heart goes out to everyone else who was touched by her generosity of spirit and energy. The world’s gone a little dimmer without her.

 Posted by on November 6, 2012