“I haven’t lived an exciting life, but I’ve had beautiful things to think about,” said Rita Laforce, seated kitty corner from the espresso machine at her preferred coffee shop.
Steaming milk notwithstanding, it’s easy to accidentally overhear bits of conversation in the close quarters of a cafe, yet there was an elegance in Laforce’s voice that compelled me to beg her pardon: Would she mind telling me what she and her conversation partner found so engaging?
“Doll clothes,” said Laforce. “I sew them and it brings me such joy.”
Now there’s some of that old world San Francisco whimsy, I thought (fearing it had all been lost, ever since the rush to disrupt everything overtook us). Confronted with this tiny woman, not-so-coincidentally named Laforce, I sensed we’d have more than doll clothes to talk about.
“I feel for people who haven’t had the advantages of my life or way of looking at things.
Whatever their state of mind or health, they should try to do something for themselves to feel proud,” said Laforce who will be 77 in September.
Born and adopted in San Francisco by a family who gave her an idyllic upbringing in San Mateo, she was schooled at Crystal Springs and Convent of the Sacred Heart, “When the nuns still wore those vulture headpieces and the black habits,” she said, noting she was not Catholic.
“I learned there is this life and there is eternity and there is beauty and it’s up to you to seek it. I’m sure the nuns would be shocked, because that’s not Catholicism at all,” she smiled, though they managed to instill in her a certain appreciation of small things.
“I had a French teacher who had been the mayor of Versailles during the Nazi Occupation,” she said. “She would talk to us about her life…the story was she was the last lawyer in France to apply the guillotine. She taught us how to write in our exercise books so beautifully,” she said.
“I’ve forgotten every word, but it was this glorious feeling of the order and the beauty of a place like Versailles and the idea of creating it through the way we lived, through the way we made our beds in a pattern every morning. To the way we did dishes. To the way we did laundry,” she said. “An orderly, French way of doing things. This stayed with me.”
She went on to study English, costume design and theater at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas with theatrical innovator Paul Baker whose art exercises deeply impacted her.
“There is no such thing as an inanimate object. Everything has life and energy and movement and you must have the ultimate respect for your materials. If that doesn’t make you an artist, nothing will,” she said.
Returning to San Francisco, “I went on to do office work, of all things,” she said. “I couldn’t make it as an artist,” though she attributes her present joie de vivre to drawing, creating patterns, and sewing tiny, delicate doll clothes with her hands.
She credits her stepfather (Laforce) and his mother (who migrated from Canada to Kentucky in a covered wagon) for other invaluable life skills.
“She was American Indian, First Nation. Back when you didn’t talk about it,” she said. “She had a beautiful way of doing things, so respectful of the natural world. I have to say that helped me with my art later,” said Laforce, as did duck hunting with her stepdad.
“He didn’t kill for sport. You only kill what you need. You obey the hunting rules. You don’t leave anything wounded,” she explained. “I learned a deep unsentimental love of nature and the natural world. He taught me about our natural place in the order of the universe.”
She remembered a particular night at a cabin in the Central Valley.
“My mother and I were doing dishes and my stepfather said, ‘Come outside and don’t make any noise.’ There was a flock of wild geese migrating and you don’t see that very often. It was spectacular and I felt so connected to everything in the world that was beautiful,” she said.
Twenty years ago, at age 57 and without prior experience, she bought some patterns and picked up a needle and thread to sew.
“I remembered geometry, from the convent, making shapes. And I could sense this wonderful French woman, teaching us how to be French,” she said. “When I sew, I am in the presence of everyone who I have ever loved and who has ever loved me.”
As for the doll clothes, “They are Victorian style,” said Laforce. “Some are little girl style from the 1950s.”
“I met Rita here,” said Katherine Layton, Laforce’s friend who frequents the same cafe. “Everyone here knows her and loves her and brings her scraps of fabric.”
Laforce said the exuberance she feels sewing is available to everyone. “If they think of something beautiful they can do on their own, whether it’s writing or drawing or painting or singing. Everyone has a gift,” she said.
“I sit in my apartment and I stitch, and the stitches are small, but what I’ve taken in from the universe is larger than I am,” she said. “What I’m putting back out into the universe is a sense of beauty and respect, larger than the small stitches.”
Denise Sullivan is an author, cultural worker and editor of “Your Golden Sun Still Shines: San Francisco Personal Histories & Small Fictions.” Follow her at www.denisesullivan.com and on Twitter @4DeniseSullivan.