Sewing Notions: Remembering Mom
It was, perhaps, a lame act of desperation to clandestinely whisk away Mom’s sewing basket into my car during a visit to my parents’ house; I suppose I was afraid to ask my father if I could take it with me, for fear he’d turn me down.
It seemed as though everything that had belonged to my mother had now become sacred to him. And after all, I had my own sewing basket—an efficient plastic see-through box with a removable tray that Mom had bought for me years ago. Somehow, however, Mom’s was better. And so it was, in relative anonymity (with a sweater draped over it), Mom’s sewing basket was spirited away.
As I approached another anniversary without Mom, I was faced daily with the feeling that I was not someone’s “little girl” any more. A constant ray of unconditional love in all our lives, Mom brought a quality of grace, innocence, domesticity and maternal “religion” difficult to match by any woman, least of all me.
Of course, it was all so overwhelming --the idea that I would ever have to face any segment of my life without her. Even though common sense dictates that we will eventually lose our parents to old age or illness (my dad left us seven years later), no one in my family could even imagine the thought of Mom just not being there any more. My natural instinct at the time was to capture as many memories and details or her life on paper as I could from my singular, daughterly perspective. So, within the first few months following her death, I spent hours burning up the keys of my computer. I proceeded to purge, express, celebrate, and create her legacy -- an act of therapy as well as a form of mourning. I reasoned that somewhere in these pages, my daughter (her only grandchild) and my daughter’s daughter may someday understand the stock of women that came before them.
In truth, however, it will never be printed words or flowery expressions of memory that will provide a meaningful link to Mom’s existence. It will be the simple items she left behind that will remind us of her love for us.
Safely sheltered in the darkness of the closet of the spare bedroom at my parents’ home, the sewing baskets’ ostensible need, created by my father’s simple request to hem some trousers, left me both flattered and honored with the transference of maternal duty from mother to daughter. My war generation mother had been the person upon which Pop had relied for such domestic chores for fifty years, when women largely defined themselves by the care they took of their families. Since her passing, I tried to clean and straighten their home when visiting, attempting to sound and act practical and mature, while the overwhelming presence of my mother wafted from each room full of knick-knacks and specially placed furniture.
As I carefully opened the blue wicker basket, its crevices seasoned with dust from years of service, I am first impressed by its orderliness. Under the calico patterned and pin-cushioned lid, a plastic tray sits atop its cache of contents, the crackled edges lovingly mended with duct tape. The usual sewing scissors and seam rippers lay untouched since Mom’s departure, and it suddenly occurs to me that some of these items are the very ones I used as a teenager during my sewing classes, at a time when “Home Economics” was required of junior high school girls. I am amazed now that I actually made clothes for myself at one time. Admiring handmade clothing sewn by teenagers—or even adults, for that matter— seems nowadays an activity relegated to state fairs, where these creations are displayed for throngs of city dwellers. We are fascinated by this dying art and awed by the time, concentration, and planning it must take to accomplish a fully completed handmade article, let alone the skill required to make garments appear “store-bought.”
Touching these elementary sewing implements somehow transported me to that awkward age. Mom was always there to compliment and mildly critique my handiwork. I could never determine whether her flattery on the speed with which I threw together an A-line skirt was merely an attempt to make me feel good about myself, or a prediction on how long it would take for my hastily-sewn clothes to fall apart. My creations were never made with the attention to detail and time it took for Mom to turn out her own masterpieces. Her seams were straighter, her garments fit the wearer better, and the unmatched concentration she displayed seemed to result in a thing of beauty every time. Why was this always true? “It’s because it was made with so much love,” she would say, her eyes glistening. Of course, the depth of this statement was lost on a 14 year old, to be left unappreciated until I was a mother in my own right. But would I teach my own daughter all things domestic? I doubt it. I resented having to perform tasks my brothers did not have to learn. Instead, I vowed I would hire a housekeeper someday. And I did.
I search further into the basket’s depths. A box originally made for straight pins efficiently holds a collection of buttons gleaned from years of discarded dress shirts worn by the men in my family. An unopened supply of safety pins, price tag still attached, sits next to an almost depleted card of Velcro fasteners, a vague comment on the progress of human ingenuity. Various sewing machine screwdrivers and zipper attachments are hidden among thimbles and small boxes of machine needles.
As I lift up the tray to reveal a recess of valuable sewing notions, my nostrils are filled with the faint fragrance of mothballs, an aroma that instantly causes me to remember my immigrant grandmother’s apartment. I’d swear I hadn’t smelled that since I was a child, and now it was here to validate another grandmother’s existence. As I peer into the brightly lined basket, an entire collection of colored threads dares me to choose from its assortment. Naturally, the perfect color spool of cotton for repairing Pop’s trousers is contained there. Beneath it lies a thrifty little Ziploc bag, boasting another collection of salvaged buttons. This time, however, the buttons are still attached to scraps of fabric, as if Mom’s time had become more precious to her in later years.
At the very bottom of the basket are two items that have no real reason to be there except for sheer sentimentality. Mom hadn’t used these items in years, but both looked as if they might have been brand new. One was an army-issued sewing box; a palm-sized cloth-covered container of army uniform-colored threads and buttons my dad must have carried with him during his years in the service. Mom had married Dad at the tender age of eighteen, the first boy she had ever been allowed to date. The pictures we have of our parents at the altar reveal my father in full World War II regalia. I’ll never forget my mother’s stories of how she blushingly presented her dashing lieutenant to her array of bobby-soxed girl friends.
The remaining item was mine, and mine alone. A red velvet pincushion I had stuffed and made when I was around age eight (with the help of someone else’s mother to surprise my own) lay there, reminding me that I was indeed someone’s little girl. Its heart-shaped softness and white tulle edges stared up at me, and Mom’s smile appeared in my mind. I could almost hear her, “overdoing” it with unmitigated praise of my creation, making me feel almost “icky” inside for presenting her with such a mundane gift on Valentine’s Day.
In an odd way, I think she must have known I would discover each and every item there, but I doubt she would have predicted that I would attach so much meaning to each one. Secretively slipping a simple sewing basket into my possession now seems to make more sense. Sometimes it is the little, perhaps at first unnoticed, articles of daily family life which give us the most strength.