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Tag: sewing

sewing for college

the question came late, of course, as i was tiptoeing off to bed, the house–except for one last bedroom–finally dark, lit by the few scant rays of moon that crept around the clouds.

“mom,” he said, coming to the door wearing white oxford and shorts, “some of these buttons are coming loose. can you get these?”

truth be told, it was 1 in the morning when this loose-button truth erupted. “not now!” i shot back, or maybe all i did was mutter, the details now are fuzzy. i’d been up late making a movie–oh goodness, doesn’t that sound all hollywood; fear not, it’s not something i do too often, in fact have never done before, but geez, it sure sounds fine in that there sentence. anyway, i was dragging my movie-making self to bed. the manchild was packing for his quick trip to college. (oh lord, that too was a test sentence: to see how it feels to write that he was packing for college.)

it is all, really, something of a test these days, this dabbing of big toe in college water, this slow unspooling process of a whole family absorbing the knowledge, through and through, that what we’ve been these past eight years–the whole of his little brother’s life–a family of four who wake up and go to sleep under the same roof, who know each others’ quirks and oddities, who leave red peppers off a certain plate, or stock up on slow-churn ice cream, who have memorized each other’s coughs and sputters and sloppy habits, we will soon be only three. there will be a bed that’s never tousled. there will be a bathroom sink that’s polished, unspattered, no vanity of goops and creams for me to rearrange most mornings. there will be no clothes flung on backs of chair, on floor, a dropped-and-heaped trajectory of just where he has disrobed.

ah, but like all of us these days, i am getting ahead of the story. i am peeking round the corner, trying hard as i can some days to imagine, just how quiet it will sound when he doesn’t bound in the door, fling his messenger bag, kick off his shoes, drop the headphones, dash up the stairs.

all he’d asked was if i could thread a needle, knot the thread, pull it through the oxford cloth, get those buttons cinched, taut where they belong.

and so, next morn, before the clock struck six, i sewed for college, sewed for the boy who was boarding the plane with his papa, flying off for that rare chance to sit down with a dean of admissions, say who he is, have someone listen.

i of course have visions of the dean picking up the phone, calling me, saying, where did you get this kid? he is magnificent, isn’t he?

but then, i’m his mama. i’ve been his ace no. 1 believer since the day i took his chubby just-born thighs into my hungry long-waiting arms, marveled over the whole of him, breathed promise into him and over him and through him, through and through.

i sewed those buttons taut, all right. whispered secret vespers with the tug of every thread. prayed for those buttons to hold it all together, straight through the interview–and far beyond.

it’s the least a mama can do. she can do so little by that point. her work, so much of it, has come before, in all those hours in the kitchen, the talking place so often in our house. her work’s been done in the worries and the hopes and the love notes tucked under pillows, in lunch boxes, sleeping bags and suitcases. her work’s been done in the driving and the shopping, and the riding, once, in the ambulance, and the checking of the mailbox for the letters from summer camp that rarely came. it’s unmeasurable really, the work that’s been done since that long-ago moment when the doctor called, said “blood work’s back; you’re pregnant, dearie.”

but at least, on the dawn of the day when he flew off to college, the sewing gave me purpose. gave me a string of stitches to pull through cloth, to knot, to carry to his room, to lay on his suitcase.

not too many nights before, as i was tucking the little one in bed, he looked up at me, a somber face suddenly washing over his sunburned cheeks. “can i ask you something i’ve wanted to ask for a long time?” he started, not waiting for my “of course.”

“is willie really going to go away next year? i don’t want him to go away ever!”

and then the tears came. to both of us. down our cheeks and soaking into sheets, a sloppy mess of gaping-open sadness, we were.

i thought of that as i sewed those buttons tight. i thought how much the sounds and rhythms of this house will change. i thought of the empty aching heart of his little brother, his brother who has only known life with a big brother always in the wings.

there’s a lot of shifting, looking round the bend, that’s going on here.

and all i could do was sew those buttons tight. and pray they lasted through the college interview.

we’ve got a year to stitch together all the rest. or get tangled in so many floppy threads.

i have a sense this will be but one in an occasional series of captured moments as we all try to wrap our heads around the change that’s coming, how the world as we know it will not be. we’ve all weathered–and worried about–such ebbs and flows in life. we’ve sent a kid to camp, to college. we’ve lost a spouse, a mother, a father, a child. we are here a table of folks who pay attention to the stirrings and the comings and the goings. we’re allowed to say here how much it hurts, when it hurts. mostly we’re allowed to sift through the messiness of the human heart. that’s why there is a chair at the table for each and every one of you. because here we understand that the most glorious side of being human is the one that’s tied to the heart, and to ignore it, to shove it under the table, well that’s to miss out on a whole book of beauty.
have you tightened buttons for a leave-taker? how have you readied. steadied yourself for a major shift in your life’s river? or were you taken wholly by surprise?

darn it!

unsuspecting, i pulled back the doors to the linen closet the other afternoon. a closet that holds, besides pillow cases and old quilts and sheets, a stash of bandages and alongside those the means for mending holes in tattered clothes.

piled just to the north of the so-called sewing basket, an ancient relic, practically, i spied what could only be a not-so-subtle hint that perhaps i ought to resuscitate the ol’ relic.

there, waiting, suggesting thread make way through eye of needle, a turtleneck with cuff in shreds, a pair of jeans with missing knee, a pair of socks with holey toes. seems my mother, who on grammy tuesdays makes it her job to deliver undelivered laundry, eyed the clothes en route to drawers and ruled them unfit for wear.

without a stop at the sewing basket, that is.

and so, there i found them. there i got the message.

in the same way i once got lessons in how to iron, i long ago sat at mother’s knee and took in tutorials on how to do the sewing basics. darn it, i know how to darn. or at least i did. it’s not a skill i claim to exercise with any regularity.

it is the humblest of the needle works, nothing showy, not at all. to darn is to weave back and forth, and then to stuff what once was torn but now is whole down the mouth of some old shoe. or, just as hidden, just as shy, tucked out of sight, in the shadow of a folded hem. it is, by intent, done best when undetectable. it is, by design, yet another invisible art–or labor, you decide.

but is it lost, the darning needle?

stumbling on the shameful pile made me grab for sewing basket. i rummaged through. found gingham squares and corduroy, a quarter yard; indeed i found, in bits and pieces, more material for our now running series: the care and tending of our cloth, laundry art reconsidered.

installment one: the iron. door-stop versus zen.

installment two: the sewing basket. what’s the darn thing destined to these days?

it can only be considered quaint, the basket modestly equipped. it holds the essentials (and mind you, the one who stocked it is one and the same as one who long ago was known to safety pin her schoolgirl hems when threads on the loose threatened to make a scallop of a crisp clean line).

there is the see-through sleeve of needles, a progression from insanely tiny to industrial strength that reminds me of pipe organ pipes. spools of thread in basic colors, and the occasional odd shock from some weird-colored frock that simply had to be hemmed (in matching thread, for once). teeny scissors for snipping threads. and a small round tin that holds a living catalog of all the clothes i must have buttoned over the last, hmm, 30 years.

there’s the laura ashley calico-covered button from my first, best-loved maternity dress. there are button placards with names like villager, and talbots, liz claiborne and j. jill. the other j.– j. peterman, remember him? from not so long ago, ann taylor. the litany of my dressing-up years, the years now pretty much behind me. there’s the little golden coin of a button from my faux chanel. but there is not a button from my audrey hepburn wedding gown, nor a single one from prom, oh, 100 years ago. there is, though, a snap from baby gap, and a little teddy bear from when i found collecting for my unborn teddy rather irresistible.

they are relics i might riffle through, if i ever did what the basket’s begging: sew holes in socks, return a blouse’s missing closure, how ‘bout a patch on that sweater’s elbow?

where went the art of darning? why in this age of disposability have we done away with means of mending? at what exit on the high-speed highway of these modern times did thread and needle pull off, park themselves in some rest station?

i remember sitting at my mother’s side, and my grandmother’s too, watching thread be spun by fingers, looping through, ending, bravo, in a knot.

i remember piercing eye of needle with the serpent head of thread. (back when i could see close-up, and not be stabbing, literally, in the dark of blurry, might-as-well-be-blindness…)

i remember sewing hems, cinching holes in toes of socks.

i remember what it was to repair, to fix, to mend, to darn, gosh darn it.

once upon a time an educated girl embarked upon a course of sewing. once upon a time it was a woman’s plight to sew, to tend the cloth, to keep the apron, the stockings, the overalls in working order. the patch was not some affectation but pragmatic in its very nature.

as wagons rolled across this country, thread and needle were chief among the armaments of pioneers who barred cold winds or blazing sun by keeping holes in check. and farm women, north and south, could give you chapter and verse on how to make a tablecloth, or a sensible set of napkins, from emptied sacks of flour.

now, though, it is nearly revolutionary to pluck hole-pocked sock from dryer, pierce toe with thread, put reconnected cloth back in play. now, though, is it waste of time, or time of waste?

not so many years ago, i discovered a charming set of books, the mary frances series, written by jane eayre fryer, first published in 1913 as “instructional/story books,” so the frontispiece tells us. from cooking, to housekeeping, to gardening, to sewing, the post-victorian-era books were designed to teach “useful things in an entertaining way.”

one of the books, “the mary frances sewing book: adventures among the thimble people,” was reprinted by berkeley, california-based lacis publications (a fine textile arts publishing house) in 1997, “with the hope of capturing the imagination of every little girl who discovers the pleasures and rewards of working with fabric and thread.”

it stars a sewing bird, mr. silver thimble, tomato pin cushion, and a fairy lady, among the storied cast. all intent on teaching mary frances how to make her way through the sewing room.

and so, the heirloom pages, all 280 plus 10 fold-out patterns, brought back instructions, lessons and exercises of another age, beginning with how to “outfit a work basket,” moving on to “making a knot,” merrily dashing through basting, running stitch, french seam, whipped ruffle, and finally, the spider’s web, that ornamental lace stitch (or so the sewing bird says). there are two separate darning lessons: darning stockings, and darning woolen goods.

so quaint, i grabbed a copy. that was back before i knew i would be the mother only of boys. not that i don’t think a boy should thread a needle. just that the boys i’ve got barely know how to make their way to the laundry chute. (yes yes, it was the first thing i loved about this old house; it has a sheet-metal drop straight from upstairs to basement floor, complete with little elfin door, just like the one my grandma had, just like the one we used to use–still do–for dropping the occasional something besides the clothes.)

all this makes me wonder just how it is that we’ve decided we don’t need to tend our clothes. got a hole in your sock? toss it. at best, make it into a cleaning rag.

need a hem in your pants? take ‘em to the cleaner.

why the lost art of self-sufficiency? of making something last? i don’t have answers. only questions.

and the questions prick me. just like the pins in the porcupine cushion up above. one given to me, ages ago, by my grandma lucille, a woman who knew her way around a thread and needle. a woman who would shake her head at the sorry basket on my shelf, the one that rarely sees the light of day, barely ever gets an honest stab at exercise…

your thoughts?