Thursday, February 18, 2010

Sew Easy

My mother could sew anything. In fact, she even sewed my sister and me homemade underwear when we were little girls. I can still feel the slippery pink nylon, the soft elastic around the legs, the little strawberry appliqué at the hip. When I told my mother once that it must have been awful to be so poor that she had to make homemade underwear, she said, “Well, we weren’t that poor!”

But they were. I think.

But maybe it’s more complicated than that. Maybe for her sewing was more than just a financial necessity. Maybe it was her own artistic alchemy, a way to spin something beautiful and lovely out of an otherwise difficult and threadbare life. All I know is that the click and hum of her sewing machine used fill the dining room, where she’d set up shop with her little boom box next to her playing Elvis or Jim Croce. A tape measure slung around her neck, pins held between her teeth, she’d occasionally mutter, “Ah, shit!” then begin ripping up the stitches to start from scratch.

She could sew anything.

She made my first prom dress: a peach gauzy floral, off-the-shoulder with satin ribbon trim. She expertly constructed my black box-pleat cheerleading skirts. My wedding dress became a year-long enterprise. She found the Simplicity pattern she’d used to make her own wedding dress in 1963, then revised it into my own knee-length ivory challis with long narrow sleeves, some 1920s beads stitched in loops around the neck, and 100 cloth-covered buttons down the back. When each of my children was born, she knit them tiny hats, made them cross-stitch samplers, sewed them flannel burp cloths, then, later, classic button-up pajamas with teddy bear & candy heart buttons.

To say that I miss receiving these treasures in the mail, to say what a loss it is, well. I can’t even say.

* * *

The other day I found myself in Goodwill, even though I shouldn’t have been. I’d been overwhelmed with teaching preparation, including a three-hour night class that was looming. All day I’d been glued to my desk, reading, planning, organizing. I had to get out, so I drove to UPS to return a sweater, then found myself unable to resist stopping at Goodwill on the way home. Oddly, there was nothing much that caught my eye. I tried on a suede jacket: too cowboy. I found a teal sweater with an asymmetrical neckline: too 80s. Very rarely do I leave the Goodwill empty-handed, but I thought, Well, good for me, and made my way to the door.

But then I saw it. A bright pink box tucked in with the Households. Sew Easy Sewing Machine. It was marked $4.99. “It’s a real working sewing machine!” it said. A red-haired girl smiled on the front. I opened up the box. There was a tiny yellow foot petal that hummed to life when I pressed it. The needle pumped up and down with thin white thread, and I thought, I have to have this! But then I thought: no. I didn’t know how to sew. When I lost a button, I had a hard time sewing it back on properly. I had stacks of fabric I'd inherited from my mother stuffed in my closet, and not a clue as to what I would ever do with them.

I walked out of the store. I sat in my car, looked up at the white winter sky, then leaned my forehead against the steering wheel. I knew myself and I knew thrift stores well enough to know that if you want something, don’t wait or it will be gone later. I went back in. I took the little pink machine out of the box again and studied it. Maybe I could give it to my daughter, Lily, for Christmas. She was five. Maybe by the time Christmas rolled around I could learn how to use it and teach her. Maybe even my son, Hudson, would get a kick out of it. He was detail-oriented and creative. Still. I couldn’t decide.

* * *

When I was a child, I had a toy sewing machine that worked not with thread and needle but with glue. It was pink and white with a little chamber where you loaded the glue cartridges, which smelled exactly like old-fashioned paste. How excited my mother must have been to give it to me. Where had she gotten it? And how did she afford it? She must have thrown her budget out the window and thought: who cares! My daughter is going to learn to sew! Which of course I never did. For years I’d harbored the fantasy that later, once things weren’t so busy, I’d have my mom teach me to sew. It would be a fun project for the two of us some summer, and I’d fly out to Minnesota, ready to learn. We’d laugh at how bad I was at it and drink iced tea on the front porch and talk about everybody in our hometown that drove past on Main Street.

Of course I was too late.

* * *

I grab the pink sewing machine and buy it. It rides home with me buckled into Lily's car seat for safekeeping.