Chubby, awkward fingers – mine – playing with empty wooden spools, stringing them on bits of yarn, rolling them along the floor and underfoot, stacking them into castles of imagination.
Patterns strewn across the table, fabric stacked on the futon-like bed where my sister and I were to sleep, checking the same bed for needles and pins before rolling out our sleeping bags.
Instructions issued around a mouthful of pins. “Stand still, and I won’t prick you.” Standing still was never possible, not in half-finished dresses, shorts, or tops masquerading as porcupines.
Spreading buttons across the table, feeling them bump and clink beneath the pads of my fingers, sifting them like erratic sand into piles of wonder.
Hours in fabric stores, wandering the aisles of notions, sliding between bolts of fabric, sighing at aching legs and dreams of ice cream.
“Tiny stitches. Take tiny stitches.” Patiently exasperated fingers, picking apart my rebellious work – stitches grown longer, no tail left to secure the end. “Tiny, even stitches are stronger.”
Sewing badge tossed in the tray of my lime, plastic sewing box – defiantly unattached to the green sash.
Weakening arms, holding my son, my second child – on a couch in the wrong house. “When can you take the sewing cabinet back with you? I want you to have it.” A toddler and an infant underfoot – what would I do with a faded, mid-century, laminate cabinet in my Craftsman house?
Knitting needles shaping squares and rectangles – something to do with yet another child at the breast. A memory of buttons, perfect for this purse! Pushing through cobwebs in the garage, climbing the detritus of cast-off stages of childrearing. Pulling open a drawer – packed with tangles of thread and elastic; the plastic anchor buttons from my long-ago sailor suit. A knotted handkerchief is bundled in the jumble of bits and pieces. The handkerchief is heavy; it clicks and bubbles. Knots untied reveal the missing pearl necklace.
Moving away from failure – smaller house, more compact life. The sewing cabinet has to come inside. Covered with a bright scarf, it becomes the “Nature Table” – layers of feathers, leaves, and pinecones mill about the surface.
“Why don’t you just use your sewing machine?” “Too much trouble.”
Clothes too worn to donate. Something of her Depression-induced frugality enters my bones. A shirt with sentimental value becomes a pillow. A silk top and old slacks, a purse. Slowly patching together new from the fragments of the past.
Piles of clothing and fabric creep across the living room. I run out of thread and turn to the cabinet. No more pearls, but strands of silk, cotton, and nylon in hues beyond the rainbow.
Cleaning out the shelves of the cabinet, slowly claiming ownership. Faces and fashions of an increasingly distant past gleam from still glossy pages stuck with scraps of tweed and knits. Pillbox hats and cap-sleeves enthrall my children. “That’s in style again,” says the thirteen year old. “The miniskirt freed women,” remarks the fifth grade boy. “Sissy would like that dress; wouldn’t you?” asks the youngest. We sit, cross-legged, pouring through the old Vogue fashion books, my memory teased by the albums of my childhood. Finally, the tears come.
“When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years” – attributed to Mark Twain
I didn’t want to learn to sew. Along with cooking, cleaning, ironing, crocheting, and making babies, I relegated sewing to that pile of “Things you’re supposed to do if you’re a girl.” But I was a girl of the ‘70’s, a child of feminism raised on the saying “Anything boys can do, girls can do better.” Anything, obviously, did not include sewing.
I loved the outfits my mother and grandmother sewed, knitted, and crocheted for me as a child. Even during the height of my pre-teen anti-domestic arts campaign, I adored the knickers my grandmother made for me one Christmas. They were a gorgeous, rich russet brown sateen corduroy with brass buttons at the knees – hey, it was the early ‘80’s; what do you expect?
I even loved trips to the fabric store as a child (when they didn’t take too long). I loved the endless rows of shimmering colors and textures, the glitter of buttons, the candy-like spools of thread.
When I was small, before I determined that such things were a path to domestic servitude, I learned to piece together square fabric scraps, making endless quilts and small pillows. As I got older, I progressed to dresses for the dolls in my dollhouse (muslin, of course.)
But, when Grandma wanted to teach me to use the sewing machine, and started espousing the economic and style benefits of making my own clothes, I put my foot down. No way. No how.
I love food, so I had learned to cook – but, in true form, I became an adherent of the wing-it, recipes are only guidelines, throw in a little of this and a little of that culinary style espoused by the male members of my family. No leveling the flour with the edge of a knife for me! Cooking was an expression of creativity, not a job.
Life shifts. I believed my grandmother hopelessly outdated when she spoke with concern about the difficulties of juggling career and children, when she said things like “children really need their mother.” I believed she was being condescending when she praised my mother for “even though she works, she’s always at home when you kids are.” I wasn’t going to have kids anyway, and even if I did, I certainly wasn’t going to compromise my career.
Life shifts. I married a man who negotiated me from my position of never having kids to agreeing to two (don’t ask about the third.) I put down my paintbrushes and sketch pads sometime after school – too much trouble with work and a new child. But, I began to find that mending the loose buttons and torn seams of life gave my fingers something to do.
My grandmother lived to see two of my three children. She saw me ask for and receive my first sewing machine when Caitlin was a toddler. The first Easter without her, my kids wore outfits that I made myself – with pain and swearing and many, many phone calls to my mother.
It is amazing how wise my grandmother became in the years approaching and since her death. Cooking and sewing became for me, as they had been for her, art, expression, and necessity. I’ve learned to make career shifts and compromise to balance family and work. And, the sewing cabinet is finally in our living room.
I finally got around to organizing the drawers and making the cabinet my own this last weekend – roughly a decade since my grandmother’s death. Time allows us to sort through conflict, guilt, and loss to make the memories our own.
Making room in the bottom shelves for some of my own materials, I ran across stacks of Vogue fashion magazines – the kind with pattern numbers and fabric swatches. The kids and I spent close to an hour, cross-legged on the carpet, pouring through one season after another.
As my sister and I had once been, my kids were willing helpers in the tasks of freeing the tangled threads and corralling scraps and bundles of trim and elastic into plastic bins, sorting safety pins and buttons into glass jars. Watching Sierra earnestly wind separate bits of rickrack around individual strips of cardboard brought smiles and a tear or two. Grandma was a true product of the Great Depression. She never threw away anything that could be reused. I found tails of thread that I would have tossed, neatly coiled around folded cardstock that had once been a card of snaps. As I appliqué patches cut from an old top onto a pair of cut-off shorts made from tired jeans, I think that somewhere my Grandma is smiling. And, possibly saying a little “I told you so.” I wouldn’t put it past her.