It always struck me as a curious expression and one my mother always used when she caught me in a moment of idle day-dreaming, a gift I own to this day: woolgathering. More so since the veterinarian in my small home town did raise sheep and did shear sheep and sent us out with bags to gather bits of wool that had been shed by sheep and caught on bushes and barbed wire fences. I’m unsure whether it was profitable or just an aimless kind of activity, looking about here and there across the vistas of his pastures while one’s thoughts or wits wandered aimlessly, confusing wool with milkweed cotton. Whether our minds are “nourished and invisibly repaired” is also questionable, but then who am I to with Wordsworth, or Coleridge or some of those German philosophers, too.


Fingering the palm of my left hand today I still feel the smallish lump. I remember the day in his barn shearing sheep. I had helped flip that big buck over and then lost my balance. I can see it still today, that nail, sticking out on the side of the board fence, and then entering the palm of my left hand to stick out the other side, the veterinarian helping me pull my hand away but muttering, and then triple strength animal antiseptic and a gauze bandage wrapped around my hand. Painful later and oddly all of this on Good Friday afternoon.

The same barn where a bit later in time and where that two-headed cow was born and I found myself witness to, well, witness to what I came to understand only when I took boilgy and in a closet next to the classroom in the darkness jars of preserved anomalies, if that’s the right word….The way is to the destructive element, and a metaphorical standard of understanding…and the secret in a quite good novel and a book by Stephen Spender. And that two-headed calf, like something God made before He made light.

Those Wordsworth poems may be an antidote to jaded feeling or even therapy for some; woolgathering does seem to shift into place a different if not more serene mood. Wordsworth argued that such was neither supernatural nor mystical but grounded in this earth, as grounded as one can get. What’s the song? “Groovin on a Sunday afternoon….” The Rascals, 1967, which must also have been a beautiful morning doing anything we like to do. There are birds chirping around the lyrics of that song.

Sheep, by the way, are not pure as snow; they smell and the wool is greasy. 

Like some memories.

But are the woolgathering moments, those spots of time, wise? Critical points, eternity compressed into one moment or all things merging into one as Norman Maclean called it and when the “whole world is a fish and the fish is gone.” Sainthood at at the river goes the old country song but not what Nietzsche meant by untimely meditations, eternal recurrences, self-similar forms.

Not that…. Even if time is an arbitrarily small neighborhood.

But that was then, decades ago, the 1950s. And before that my mother’s own life and her own desires. I have a picture, black and white, two inches by three inches, and she’s young, late teens with some fullness to her face, lovely eyes. It’s been sent somewhere because on the back she’s written, “Please return if not considered.”

Fine penmanship, cursive….

I’m guessing but I believe it was about the time she was aspiring to become a radio actress, and a good dream it was but not to be fulfilled, not to be had, not to be, “… not considered.”

January of 2014 was “now” and I had meandered from my office to the faculty meeting room for a semester opening faculty meeting, one of many in my “career” spots of time and good for woolgathering. They are, those meetings, wonderful times for aimless reverie. Coffee in hand and a blue berry muffin, I found my place at the back of the room, my own countryside, an imaginative pasture where the sheep were allowed to gambol about, and fish swim and surface, brown trout sipping gnats like that one day on the Au Sable, Holy Waters….

The day was brilliantly blue and with crisp and fluffy new snow on the ground and bushes and pine trees. It was lovely to see it slip off the branches in a snowy dusty cloud with no sound. I was there but I was also out and about in places from a while ago. I could have been “under the harrow,” I suppose, but on scale I’ve never suffered great affliction or oppression, although I may have to rethink that proposition.

Did you know my mother never owned an affection for a clothes-drier, one to stand side-by-side with her washing machine? There was rather something aesthetic in how she pinned laundry to the clothesline, and even on a bright blue January Minnesota day she would slip her small feet into my galoshes and carry her clothes-basket out to the lines and with artistic pleasure pin sheets and shirts and such to those lines and then stand back, satisfied. Woolgathering, I would guess, dilly-dallying maybe, or as some I knew in the 1960s might say, “zoned out.” The sheets and shirts would be pinned to the outside lines and tidy whites on the inside lines, my small jockey shorts next to my father’s much larger jockey shorts, sons and fathers. The reason I suppose was the fear that anything else might stir the prurient interest of neighbors just to the other side of those clothes lines.

Lutheran, she was….

Her clotheslines were always taut and with lag bolts in the cross arms. My father would at times tighten the lines by tightening the lag bolts. I don’t remember the gauge of the wires but they were maybe a sixteenth of an inch. I was told never to stick my tongue on those wires on cold winter days but I did and just so my tongue was held fast, frozen to that wire one cold January day. My mother came out with a cup of warm water and there we were, the two of us, while she slowly poured warm water over the wire and my tongue and I was once again free but chagrined, and such stays with me to this day, that word,

Silly to remember it; but she had a picture taken from her kitchen window and I have it somewhere, black and white, hands by my sides, my tongue stuck to that wire. I suspect one day my wife will browse my boxes of pictures and come across that black and white photo and will arrange it just so at a memorial service and folks will stand there with glasses of wine and munchies and wonder, gathering wool, me with my tongue stuck to that wire, a Doctor of Philosophy in the making. “He must have been chagrined,” they will say.

As I sat in that faculty gathering room that day, dilly-dallying, a colleague asked if she could join me. Sure, and so I moved over a chair. She said I seemed lost in thought. “Woolgathering,” I said. I was remembering things. One was my mother standing at her kitchen window, coffee cup in hand, and looking out at her fresh laundry pinned to the lines, bright and white, and lightly lifting in the soft breezes.

“How quaint, how droll,” she said as she unbuttoned her leather gloves and slipped them from her hands finger-by-finger before laying them in her lap. I suppose it is quaint, like a small old house or an odd sense of humor or like a needle point cover for a tea cozy. She was a note-taker my colleague and all that meeting took copious notes. Bless her and her kind. Someone needs to keep records. Stored in notebooks.

I gathered more wool, remembering another time when I was much older and my mother had aged and it was time. I had come back home to visit and in the kitchen sink was a butter knife with crusty dried peanut butter the length of the blade. It should not have been there. A sign that she was slipping, that and little in the pantry except bags of Snickers. We were moving her to a care facility and she was frightened. I took her for a long drive that day out and away and west of town just to pass the time while my sisters and brothers-in-law did some house clearing and bringing homey stuff to her new home.

We drove out to the old family farm and I stopped on the roadway to gather more wool. I pointed out the farm house we lived in after the war and after I was born and the place where I gathered my first sentient memories and then about a fifth of a mile away the old Red, White, and Blue Schoolhouse, fallen into disrepair but still there, weeds and junk trees abounding, a metal frame for the decayed wooden teeter-totter, the swings with chains.

Falling into disrepair, history…. Time in need of rehabilitation….

I said to my mother that day that I believed one of my first memories had to have been watching her and my older sister Rebecca walking down that gravel country road to that schoolhouse where my mother taught, grades one through eight, all in that one room, a replacement of sorts for not having become a radio actress, “not considered.” I said I could see it in my mind’s eye, the two of them, walking hand-in-hand down that country road vista and then into the school house and the bell would ring and the country children from that little township area would gather in that room seated behind their desks and how that whole memory is to this day a hunger in my mind, my heart, and my soul. How I wished to be in that room and behind a desk and ready and poised with my pencil box near at hand.

I said that I also remembered the kitchen in that farm house, the linoleum flooring and the perspective. I said I remember rolling marbles along that floor but in one corner where the kitchen cabinets came to together there was a little triangular shaped hole and how I remember one marble, a cat-eye, rolling along that floor and as if fate had decreed right through that triangular shaped hole and gone, gone and then gone again into the darkness. Such leads one to consider Freud on dreams.

Truly my first existential experience, though, and proof that I know how to read Proust although I’m not about to write a treatise the same length as Remembrance of Things Past, In Search of Lost Time.

As for cookies: chocolate chip, toll house, buttery….

Spots of time and I’m right now a far remove from and only half-listening in that faculty meeting droning along and she next to me taking notes, copiously.

My mother and I rolling along and for just a moment a visit to the Westbrook Cemetery, her parents, Roy and Anna, Aunt Luella, her daughter Linda dead from leukemia late 1946 and a mere few weeks before her husband, a drinker, also dead and in another spot, her son Olaf Lee, and just a bit catty-corner her sister Juanita and husband Herman.

Family, gone to be with God….

“Oh Danny,” my mother whispered; “She had a hard life.” My Aunt Luella that is. More about her if I have time.

On the eastern side, a newish grave and a name and I asked do you remember him, and she did as a youngster in that little Red, White, and Blue schoolhouse who grew to become a man and a football player who had a try-out with the Packers and in the second week of camp injured his knee terribly and thus no citation on the town water tower, Home of, such and such, Green Bay
Packers, All-Pro.

Wishful, though…. And wistful.

It would have been nice for that little town with its need for heroes. Home of Leo Thorsness, Medal of Honor, and about whom also more a bit later if I have time.

And rolling along through Westbrook itself, her father’s print shop still there but the family home having been jacked up and moved to the outskirts of that little town. We rolled along and stopped on that street and she pointed out a window on the top floor saying “That was Buddy’s room.” His name wasn’t Buddy; it was Raoul Delmar and, well, better to be called Buddy, my uncle, now like my mother gone to be with God.

And also called “Yank.” And the reason being, if you will for the moment permit a digression, you who are reading this with so much patience and for which I offer you early in this narrative my thanks.

The story is:

And dated many decades ago….Raoul was just a boy and it would have been late winter early spring in Westbrook. He had a paper route and the day was warming so the snow had turned to slush. Raoul came into Grandfather Roy’s print shop, wet and a bit cold. Roy told him to get out of those wet clothes and Raoul was out of his over-alls and slipping off those union johns when he lost his balance.

Grandfather Roy had a smallish stove in the front office of that print shop, a Yankee Stove with those two words on the top plate. And so, the story is, Uncle Bud, Raoul, stumbled a bit and his boyish naked butt landed on the hot top plate of that stove, and on his soft cheeks mirrored backward YANK. A print shop, you see.

It could be true but if not, I would like it to be true and there is this empirical side to me about not believing a thing until I have seen the evidence; but in my life, well, in my life I never dared to ask my Uncle Buddy if I could see the evidence. His wife, though, she called him Yank, and, well, it’s still not the same. You agree, I’m sure.

But he was my favorite, second to Uncle Earnest. About whom another time and if I again have time. In truth they are all gone, Anna and Roy, Luella, Juanita, Raoul, Carol, Leona, my mother, she the last to go, gone to be with God or so I pray each morning.

Woolgathering then:

Did you know that I have this pair of silver backed combs and brushes? An inheritance, which is a good word for woolgathering.

There was this gorgeous lilac bush in the back of that family home with a sizable back yard between that home and the print shop. In their later years, Anna would sit in a straight back chair by the lilac bushes and Roy would stand behind her and lovingly comb and brush her hair, gray of course in those later years. It’s peaceful this woolgathering spot of time. He with his proverbial cigar in his mouth, Walter Whitman gray slouch hat, trousers hitched.

Did I mention that as I sat there in the faculty meeting that day I was wearing a professorial suit, three piece, and with a pocket watch, my father’s father’s watch, and a pocket fob. From the fob to the watch was a three-strand chain from braided hair, my grandmother’s hair. She had on her dressing table a little jar with a silver top and she would clean her combs and brushes and place the hair in that jar and later braid that hair. It’s a Victorian notion, I’ve come to understand, a watch chain made from braided hair and sometimes called a “mourning” chain.

They are often attached to lockets as well as watches and some are bracelets and attached to the bracelet proper, a cross often times. If I’m not mistaken there’s another example in the family somewhere, owned by my cousin, Raoul’s son, a braided wrist watch bracelet for a lady’s watch and a cross, too, proper and often times.

“Quaint” my colleague said, “droll.”

But I seem to have lost the thread of this narrative….

Or maybe I am in gathering wool simply in search of lost time and one more unfinished hybrid of a philosophical essay and story, the role of memory, voluntary and then in woolgathering involuntary even. How can one seize the warm liquid of memory, that intimate friend to all of us, regardless of how “quaint” and “droll.”

Simply in search…. Yearning and like pulling something from a river and hoping that what comes up is not some kind of nuisance but sleek and beautiful.

Is a poet God’s hired hand? One more gleaner around the edges?

Daniel James Sundahl is Emeritus Professor in English and American Studies at Hillsdale College where he taught for 35 years.