My mother, my grandmother, and probably every other woman in my family tree before them, all knew how to sew. As the only girl growing up with five brothers, there was an unspoken expectation that I, too, would learn to sew.
Here’s the thing about that; my mother was an ama-a-a-azing seamstress, and the bar was set extremely high for yours truly.
Every Easter, she would make us matching dresses to wear to church. The first time I ever went on an airplane, she made us matching outfits. I can still picture them in my mind; they were the cutest little Laura Petry-style capri pants and top. Come to think of it, that was probably the first time I was ever allowed to wear pants. She did this not because she was one of those warm and fuzzy moms who did fun, bonding things with her daughter. She was too stinkin’ busy trying to keep six kids alive. No, she did it because “back in the day” they manufactured matching patterns for mothers and daughters. Once you made one, the second one was a no-brainer for someone with my mom’s level of skill.
Because we were a solidly entrenched, middle-class family, we didn’t have a lot of disposable income, so she also made most of my school clothes. She would pick a couple of patterns then make them in about three or four different fabrics. Some had a flourish added; cleverly placed brick-a-brack, a stylish little bow, cute buttons.
No matter how much I loved them, or how adorable they may have looked on me, I remember being a little embarrassed because they didn’t have tags in them like everyone else’s store-bought clothes. Kids can be such selfish little a-holes. In hindsight, I realize now that the quality of the things she made me was heads and tails above all the mass-produced crap my contemporaries wore.
When I was planning my wedding and didn’t have a bunch of money to spend, I naturally asked her if she would make my dress. Without hesitation, she responded with, “Sure.” Let me tell you, the pattern I ended up choosing was not your basic dress either. When I first showed her what I wanted, she looked at it like, What the hell have I committed to? But she simply said, “Okay, we’ll go look at fabric next time you come over.” In other words, challenge accepted. The dress turned out amazing and only cost me $38 for the fabric.
But I digress …
I often think back to the day she tried to teach me, her only daughter, the art of sewing. And it truly was an art. I was probably about ten or eleven. I remember stepping into the laundry/guest/sewing room and staring across the room at her blue Singer sewing machine. There it sat, under its own special hanging lamp, lit like an exhibit in an art gallery. She had pulled up a folding chair next to her “sewing chair” and I remember instantly feeling special. None of the boys would ever get to sit next to her in that chair.
Anyway, we sat down and she pointed out all the dials, knobs, foot pedal, the big round thing on the end that you turn to back up or whatever (I have no idea what it’s called), etc. She showed me the weird bobbin thingy, how to thread the needle, she warned me about keeping my fingertips away from said needle, to take my time, pay attention, and not “push down on the foot pedal like I’m trying to win the Indy 500” (her words).
My first project was going to be a simple blanket for the baby doll that “slept” in the cradle my grandpa made for me. So, basically, hemming the edges of a rectangular piece of fabric. Easy, right? Not so fast …
We folded down the edges and pinned them in place, I flipped the little lever thingy to raise the needle, slid the fabric underneath, and dropped the needle into place. “Okay,” she said, “remember to take it slow.”
I distinctly remember holding my breath as I gingerly pressed my foot to the pedal and voilá, the needle slowly bobbed up and down and … HOLY CRAP, I WAS SEWING! That’s when things turned ugly. The adrenaline of my success shot straight to my foot and, next thing I knew, the fabric was yanked from my hand, and the straight line I was supposed to be creating turned into one continual squiggly line until the fabric twisted and bunched together. It was not pretty, y’all.
My mother shouted, “Stop!”, which startled me and made me press down on the foot pedal even harder. Oh my gosh! She was right, I was trying to win the Indy 500!! She reached over with her foot and not-so-gently nudged the “gas pedal” out from under my leaden foot.
My breaths sawed in and out and my heart tried to pound its way out of my chest. My poor mother let loose one of her infamous sighs and set about trying to free the failed project from the clutches of the machine. We tried a couple more times with the same result. Which, if I remember correctly is the definition of insanity.
Out of fabric, and definitely at the end of her patience, my sewing lessons started and ended that day. As much as I wanted to have that special time with my mom, I realized I had zero interest in sewing, not to mention zero talent for it, and would’ve preferred to be outside playing.
Even though it turned out to be a massively failed experiment, my memories of those few hours (yes, it was hours) with her are incredibly special to me. And that night, I fell asleep to the distinctive, comforting sound of her trusty sewing machine whirring, the snip of scissors cutting thread, the creak of her “sewing chair” as she shifted with each movement.
When I woke up the next morning, folded at the ended of my bed, was the baby blanket I had tried and failed, miserably, to make the day before. Always thinking one step ahead, perhaps having known about my disinterest the entire time, she had set aside extra fabric. The edges were perfectly straight and even and the stitching was perfection.
All these years later, I still have that blanket. Because, in her own way, with each perfect stitch, my mother was telling me she loved me in the best way she knew how. Even after I almost killed her beloved Singer sewing machine.
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