Tuesday, September 22, 2015

A life in patterns

Cleaning out my mom's house this past summer, it surprised me how unsentimental I felt, even though it was the last time I was going to be there. Instead, it was a hurried effort in efficiency--quilts and coverlets in one pile, pillows in another, kitchenware stacked into boxes.

In the closets and cabinets in all her rooms, I found nothing that bore witness to her life beyond what she had purchased and placed there. Yet I wanted to find something that was uniquely hers, and/or that reminded me of my childhood with her.

And then I came across the patterns for dresses she had sewn for me when I was a little girl.  I imagined the hours she had spent at her Singer sewing machine, adding bric-a-brac to the edges of sleeves, embellishing fresh-pressed collars with machine-stitched embroidery. It was an act of love, unseen by me as I played in the woods near our home, unrecognized as I wore out the products of her labor.

I realized this had been how she had expressed herself and began to sob. Nothing else in that house affected me this way--not being back in the bedroom where she had died in February, not the photo albums showing our family as it once was, not my grandmother's frayed tablecloths my mom had saved because, according to a note in the box, she "couldn't bear to throw them away."

Among the patterns, I found the first outfit she had sewn for me. Sadly, it is the only one she saved.

Often I go with my daughter to the store or spend hours on the Internet trying to find a dress or outfit that I am too impatient to make myself. I don't want to stay at a sewing machine, yet I spend hours trying to find something that fits her and doesn't look awful, made by a worker in China or India who has cranked them out, piece by piece. I tell myself that American women have the freedom to be more creative now than they did in the 1950s, when they were mere housewives, without recognizing that I am often a mere consumer, wearing or buying outfits worn by hundreds of others.

Sewing was my mother's craft. The stitches were her story.

The note reads: "First dress I made for Beth after Bret bought my sewing machine."

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