Thursday, April 30, 2009

Stitched Together

I've been thinking lately of the ways in which women bond with one another over different pursuits. Obviously horses have been on my mind, but so has cooking and writing and...sewing.

On one of the many childhood trips to my grandmother Baumie's farm, there were three sewing boxes waiting for us, one for each of my two sisters and one for me. Though it was the smallest, I thought mine was the best. I still have it. It's a little wooden box, 6x6 inches, covered in fading wallpaper with pink roses and green ivy. There is a heart-shaped cut-out, maybe from an old Valentine, glued to the front with a tiny farm scene in the center. The box is lined with light green fabric, gone dull with age. When I open it, the smell of musty cloth and old wood is the same as it was when I first opened it as a little girl. I still have the small tomato pincushion that came with it, but the other supplies are long gone.

The sewing boxes were a surprise as far as I knew, an activity that Baumie thought would be fun and edifying for us over the long weekend visit. I remember learning some simple hand stitches and the pride I felt at the accomplishment. My sisters probably got busy on a sewing machine trying out more advanced things. Both of them learned to sew quite well-- me, not so much. When you're the youngest, you tend to dabble in things and then off you run. Adults indulge you, or else they're busy working with the older kids and don't mind if you get lost.

My mother knew how to sew and she helped teach my sisters, too. They layed the tissue paper patterns out on the living room floor, pinning fabric to the pieces and painstakingly cutting the pattern out just right. I played with the tools--I loved the rotary marker that made an indentation of a dotted line on any giving surface (including the dining room table).

In high school, I took typing class in lieu of Home-Ec. (So that I could become a secretary instead of a seamstress!) Mom had passed away in my freshman year, and my sisters were off at college. I'm sure that Baumie would have taught me to sew if I had asked, but it seemed to me that there were more important things to think about at the time, as you might imagine.

After I graduated and got married, it warmed my heart that my oldest step-daughter assumed that I knew how to sew and brought me small things to fix--a missing button here, a ripped seam there. I could handle the small repairs, so there was no need to tell her that, no, I don't really know how to sew. She was so grateful and so awed, I just decided to bask, surreptitiously, in the power that accompanies great sewing ability.

But I knew who to ask when the big guns were needed. Not long into my married life, we had a couch and chair and ottoman that needed to be recovered. Enter the queen seamstress, Baumie. I made her tea, cleaned up the scraps and sewed the piping. She taught me how to sew piping.

I always feel a little out of place at fabric stores, but I call upon my minimal reserve of sewing knowledge and that allows me to put up a good enough front. Good enough I guess to cause the woman cutting my yardage at a JoAnn's recently to strike up a conversation. "These look like little girl's dresses," she said as she measured out the blue searsucker and floral print. "They are!" I exclaimed. "Or, well, they are for a skirt that I'm making for my granddaughter."

"I'm making pajamas for my granddaughter," she said. And then she sighed a confession: "All I want to do is sew. I wish that I could just stay home and do only that. I sewed all of my children's clothes when they were little. I'd have them playing on the floor nearby and I would just sew all day. Now that they are grown, I don't have any time at all it seems!" Her wistfulness over that time in her life was palpable. And though I didn't have memories of sewing with little children underfoot, I could still feel nostalgia for my own memories of making it through young motherhood with whatever pluck I could muster. I nodded and murmured in genuine sympathy with her, my spotty sewing background still a safe secret.

Earlier this week, my friend MJ told me that she had something to give me from her mother, who passed away recently. MJ was telling her mother about me and how I was taking up sewing (later in life!;) Her mother said, "Oh, I have something for her then." It is a book, a basic sewing book. And a thimble, too.

I am so touched at this gesture. I think it is an extreme example of the easy generosity, both material and spiritual, that flows in and around this, I'm going to call it female art form. MJ's mother didn't know me personally, but I am her daughter's friend and I am taking up sewing, so...she has a book I might find helpful, "and give her a thimble, while you're at it!"

I think that I will always feel like an imposter in the world of sewing. It is hard to attain the same expertise of women who have been doing it since age four. But, I will tag along at their heels and accept their gifts of knowledge, supplies, and belief that "why of course you can do this!" gladly.

I am closing with a poem that MJ wrote that is, like all good poems about a lot of things, including this time, sewing and mothers and love...
Please enjoy, and special thanks to MJ for permission to reprint it here.

*My Mother's Jumpers*

In her bedroom
my mother sewed jumpers
encircled us with her yellow tape
mended our pants.
We grew up amid doll quilts,
Tammy clothes that matched our own,
ric-rac trim and searches
for her thimble.
Snips of thread ran through our rugs
like lost veins.

While her machine gathered our sleeves into cuffs
traced our middles to make a dress
of a bodice and a skirt,
I lolled on her high bed with the cherry posts,
keeping her company
as the venetian blinds striped the wall,
the stale smells of passion safe
beneath the white chenille spread.

She never told us she loved us
not straight out.
I grew up thinking those were words
for when the bedspread lay folded back—
love for children was assumed
like the cup of water I boiled for my father
as soon as I got up.
How could she know we’d search our childhoods
for a single phrase?

I think about her
when I draw the covers about my son,
practice telling him I love him
while he is too small to know
I am still trying out the phrase
tugging its seams
searching its pockets.

--- MJ Abell


mamawhatthe said...

Ohh....that's a wonderful poem. Yes, I think alot of women will relate to that.

Meg dear, an imposter? Imposter-shmoster. I think there's a difference between being a competent sewer and being a seamstress. I consider a seamstress to be one who, whether actually being paid or not, has made a career of sewing. In the world of competent sewers, skills tend to vary considerable. We learn skills as we require them. And the more accomplished sewers always have stories of the projects they ripped out three times- which might be the key, as three is one time more than I will rip out a project and I'm only a so-so sewer. But it's not my passion, so that's okay with me. The work you have posted here looks pretty darn good to me. Not the work of an imposter at all...

Heather said...

A very sweet story, Meg...

Anonymous said...

Loved that. I also feel like a sewing imposter. I'm sure you can imagine why, what with Rose's abilities. I never learned to sew like the rest of my older sisters did - sitting at our neighbor's house on Wednesday nights studying the tricks of the trade. No, I had TV to watch. Starsky and Hutch and Trapper John, M.D. What ? xo, Col

Meg said...

Maggie--aw, thanks. I should print your words off and paste them to my sewing machine : )

Thank you, Heather!

Colly: Starsky & Hutch were hot and we knew it.