Ann has found the heart of her story: what it is to miss your dead mother.
The day following the service, my father and I cleared out her closet and dresser drawers. He put clothes too worn to pass along in one bag. The others he wanted me to take, beautiful blouses in soft satins and wool sweaters he’d bought to bring her pleasure over the years of caring for her. He kept only her wedding bands. Everything else he wanted gone, and I brought this small part of his grief home with me.
Her clothes sat folded in bags in the corner of the extra bedroom to go through later when there was time. Weeks passed and they remained in the corner still smelling of her favorite scent. I would press a blouse to my nose and breathe in its faint aroma of lavender soap. Dipping in, putting them back where they stayed until there was time. Until her scent was gone.
The day after planting tulip bulbs on her birthday in the raw October wind on the back hillside, I took a silk blouse out of one of the bags. It was the last blouse my father bought her and she wore it last Christmas, a soft fawn color textured along the top with lace netting, overlaid with crisscrossed satin bias. I hadn’t sewn in over thirty years, but I had decided to make a purse for my daughter using this blouse. I thought a purse would be easy, a simple clutch with straight seams. Something small that would go together in time to put under the Christmas tree. I washed it in cold water and mild soap watching the color brighten and the fabric turn crisp. My hands ached in the water as I gently wrung it out and wrapped it in a towel before hanging it on the rack to dry. Then I took the blouse to the store to find a pattern, but I was nothing like my mother in a fabric store.
I used to sew dresses with her when I was young. Sitting on tall stools, we flipped through the big Simplicity and McCall’s books, found a pattern we liked, then picked out material and notions listed on the back. My mother worked her way around the fabric store efficiently and with occasional extravagance, quickly matching fabric to thread, hem tape and zipper, but pausing over colorful buttons, eyelet lace and ribbon. I would follow behind her, already seeing myself in that red plaid dress with a wide white lace collar, the ends of the bow tied at my back streaming behind me as I pumped higher and higher on the swing hanging from the maple in our back yard.
My nine-year-old patience wore thin as my mother carefully laid out the fabric and pattern pieces. She said the first part of dress making took more time than actually sewing it together, folding the fabric with selvages even, lining up the plaid with arrows on pattern pieces, marking dart lines with carbon paper and tracing wheel. I helped fill in with straight pins securing the pattern pieces to the fabric and cut along the straight edges working carefully around notches and corners. With a final snip of the scissors I ran outside to swing as my mother continued, straight pins held between smiling lips.
Back inside, I watched her as she pinned the front bodice piece to the back, right sides together, and stitched up the side seam. “Now you do the other side,” she told me. It was the moment I knew was coming, but dreaded. At times it seemed the machine had a mind of its own, chug-chugging along slowly then zipping ahead like a thing possessed. I cautiously slipped the edge of the fabric under the presser foot, pushed my toe down on the foot pedal, and heard the slow whir of the motor. Forward, then reverse, to secure the ends, the 5/8 inch line marking my seam width. I fought to keep my foot steady on the pedal, holding my breath until I reached the end of the seam. I snipped the threads and turned the sewing machine stool back over to my mother with a sense of relief that I tried to hide, but suspected she knew. The process of sewing seemed endless to me. Every step had to be completed in the correct order. No short cuts, no skipping steps. It tried my patience to the point of sulking, but one look from my mother out of the corner of her eye put me back in my place. With a heavy sigh, I pressed the seams open with the steam iron, turned the sash right-side out using a safety pin to tease out the corners, sewed pearl buttons on the cuffs and hemmed the dress by hand.
I never really enjoyed sewing. It required more patience than I had to offer. I would rather be curled up in a chair reading about mustangs and Chincoteague ponies. When I was seventeen, I should have been sewing the peach satin bridesmaid dress for my brother’s wedding while my mother was at work. Instead, I made a quick pincushion out of a burgundy velveteen print with white lace around it. Exasperated she asked, “Whatever possessed you to make a pincushion?” I had nothing to say for myself except that the slippery peach fabric was no fun to work with. She turned and left me with my pincushion, biting back words of frustration.
The summer I was pregnant with our first daughter my mother sewed two sleeveless cotton dresses for me. One in soft lavender, the other a cornflower blue. They slipped easily over my head and felt crisp and cool with their loose-fitting waists and hems falling just above the knee. Perfect seams lay flat around the arm holes, fitting comfortably without pulling.
When my daughters were four and six she made them identical cat dresses, white kitten faces on hot pink jersey with ribbed knit collars and cuffs on the short sleeves. They loved the sway of the skirts as they ran around the yard. It was my mother who taught them how to use the sewing machine. They would come home with their projects, blankets for dolls and eventually quilts for their own beds.
My mother took up knitting about the same time she taught the girls to sew, and as the years passed it became a full-time endeavor. Her work baskets overflowed with yarns and half-finished projects. On our visits she pulled out woolly sweaters, sleeveless tops in cashmere merino silk, and miles of scarves. The yarns were soft, earthy tones blended with variegated tapestries of the blues and greens found in stained glass. Blends too beautiful to leave behind on the shelves of her favorite yarn shop. These gifts of love she crafted over the last years of her life, despite the bony knots that formed in her finger joints. Another lesson I learned, like the sewing, but not fully realized until she was gone.
Thanksgiving weekend, struggling over making that first cut in the fawn silk fabric that would take me back in time to a task that tried my patience to the point of tears, I sat down at the Singer 500 sewing machine that had originally been my grandmother’s. She had handed it down to my mother, and it was the same one I had used as a nine-year-old. It was a workhorse of a machine. The 1961 manual praised its fabulous features and intricate stitching abilities.
From the moment you see the new SLANT-O-MATIC, you’ll know it’s excitingly different. You’ll marvel at its truly remarkable sewing … its almost unbelievable ease of operation. It outsews all other machines in both straight and fancy. And remember … it’s made entirely in America.
As I sewed, my mother was there—in the pinning and the stitching and the craft. Gifts of love. The simple clutch was wrapped and under the tree in time for Christmas. And a second purse joined it, a jaunty seersucker plaid in turquoise and teal made from my mother’s cool summer blouse. A gift for the daughter who now knits like the grandmother she learned from, with both the skill and keen eye for exquisite colors and textures. And my other daughter, who I could see going out in a cocktail dress with her elegant clutch, picked up a second-hand sewing machine the other day to work on curtains for her new apartment. I heard the excitement in her voice over the phone as she described the machine that was just like ours and about bold-patterned fabric she’d picked up on sale. I smiled to myself as she talked about threads, needles, and the new bobbin to go with her machine, and wished I could give her a hug. Because I could see where this was headed. The poor girl’s patience runs like mine.