When I was about seven, I was presented with some beautifully crafted wooden marionettes. I can’t remember exactly how many, perhaps three. Although I never mastered the puppeteer’s art, they gave me many hours of pleasure (and simultaneously exercised my subtle motor skills and hand-eye coordination) as I tried to work out how to make them sit, or walk, or interact with each other, one in each hand. But what I remember most of all is the untangling.
As many hours as I spent performing delicate operations with my loose-limbed dancers, I spent far more simply untangling and disentangling them; for not only did the strings attached to each marionette’s arms and legs get into horrible snarls, but the puppets also got tied up with one another, until setting them to rights seemed like one of those impossible trials from a Grimm’s fairy tale, a recipe for temper tantrums and the tearing of hair. Yet I found it strangely satisfying.
Then as now, patience was not my strong suit. And yet, somehow, no matter how high my level of frustration and despair when I was first faced with the mass of strings and jointed wooden limbs, I was soon intently focused on it, getting into the flow, my fingers almost instinctively knowing the intricate moves to make. It forced me to sit still, slow down, and apply myself single-mindedly to the task. Not only did I experience the pleasure of fulfillment when order was finally restored, but I found myself thoroughly enjoying the process itself.
Untangling puppet strings was a solitary pleasure, while winding wool was a shared one. My mother knitted most of our woollens with her characteristic elan. Once she started knitting something for one of us, she had to get it finished as soon as possible, and everything, including meals, would be put on hold as she worked like a fury at breakneck speed, needles clicking, fingers flying. (Once, when I was about to go off to boarding school in the mountains, she knitted a beautiful sweater for me, but the first time it was washed it ballooned to twice its size. So as fast as she had made it, Mum proceeded to unmake it, unraveling it, rolling the wool back into a big ball, and starting all over again. I wore that sweater for years.) But before she began she always had to wind her wool, and for that she needed me. Hands out, palms open and facing each other, I would hold the untwisted skein, while Mum would wind the wool into a ball. Sometimes we would perform the task in reverse: as Mum unraveled a garment, I would wind the wool into a ball. It was an ordinary, everyday task performed by mothers and daughters from time immemorial, requiring a modicum of skill and attention, but allowing for conversation, song, or simply quiet communion.
Don’t let me overstate the domestic skills passed down from mother to daughter: I was too impatient and inattentive to become a knitter, and in school, as fast as I knit my squares for blankets to be sent to “the poor”, talking all the while, the teacher made me unravel them due to the dropped stitches or uneven tension. To this day I have never managed to produce a completed garment, though I have started many a sleeve or scarf. Nevertheless, the ritual of winding has always been calming.
Another mother-daughter ritual was anything but calming: the morning combing, parting, and plaiting of hair. Between the ages of two and four my hair had grown long, and though I don’t remember that, I do remember the tantrums that attended the daily ordeal when I started school at four. Every time the comb would hit a snarl I would scream, until my mother’s patience wore thin, and at last she insisted on cutting my hair short until I could untangle it myself. We had just returned to India from England, and I think the heat and the prevalence of head lice were also factors in her decision, but wilful as I was as a girl, being shorn against my will was a blow to my pride. At seven, soon after we moved to Greece, I started growing my hair again, and haven’t stopped since. No doubt there were still battles as my mother plaited my hair in the mornings, but it was my responsibility now to get the snarls out of my hair, a task which I would put off as long as I could, until it was a tangled mass and I contemplated in despair the prospect of having it all cut off again. This was the point at which I would have no choice but to sit down and tackle it, knot by knot.
As with untangling the marionette strings, untangling my hair turned out to be an unexpected pleasure. It was a task that took the time it took—a long time—and required patience and attention. It was invariably on a Sunday afternoon that I finally had to put all my other plans aside and sit down alone with a comb and my bare fingers, my head bent first to one side, then to the other, working slowly and methodically from one knot to the next. And as with the marionette strings, I found myself enjoying the process, as seemingly intractable tangles gave way, and allowed me to tease out the separate strands without splitting or tearing them. At last it was done, and I could run the comb smoothly all the way through my hair from top to bottom. Today, while my hair is much thinner than it was in my girlhood, I can put it up and out of the way in a bun, postponing the painstaking task for a day or two, but eventually having to stop everything and sit down alone, one Sunday afternoon, with a comb and my bare fingers, and allow myself to take as long as it takes.
When I was a child I had a persistent delirious nightmare almost every time I ran a high temperature: that of a smooth ball, rolling freely along a smooth surface, suddenly finding itself in a tangled mess, caught up in a ferocious snarl. (See TMA 27. Rumpelstiltskin.) The uncontrollable feeling of dis-ease it produced is indescribable and, while those childhood fevers are long gone, their dreadful memory persists. Untangling, the perfect antidote to a fevered brain, unfailingly produces the opposite effect.