Threads of Memory

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I have forgotten birthdays, anniversaries, and tax bills. I have forgotten my phone, shoes, and hair appointments. I’ve forgotten to unplug the iron and I’ve forgotten where I’ve parked. I’ve completely forgotten people’s names, where I met them and why I’ve disliked them. Don’t even get me started on hours spent hunting car keys, lost earrings or important papers. I’ve picked up an exquisite Limoges milk pitcher from the sideboard in my own dining room and wondered where it came from. Thank goodness my old horse Bonnie had a real barn lust or there would have been many afternoons out trail riding that might have ended in hysterical phone calls because I forgot how the trail went. I accumulated almost fifteen pounds of brown sugar over time, because I could never remember – while at the grocery store – whether I had it in the pantry. I’ve walked into rooms, forgetting why I went in. I’ve forgotten to close gates in the pasture and doors on the barn, leading to many many domestic episodes. I’ve forgotten how to spell “predicament” and how much 35 minus 17 is.

In fact, while I was writing this, several times I have forgotten what I was doing and wandered off to do something else.

My point is … Dear Daughter-In-Law (DIL) Ripper brought an ancient Singer Sewing Machine in from the barn (don’t remember where we got it, how long it’s been there or why I brought it home in the first place) and said, plaintively and with much rolling of her doe like eyes, “I wish I knew how to use this.”

I have not touched a sewing machine in many, many years. My mother was and is a Seamstress Supreme, and sewing was an activity, much like reading or playing an instrument, that was a huge part of my childhood. She made all of our clothes, and going to the Fabric District in Philadelphia to pick out fabric for dancing school costumes or prom dresses was a very special occasion to be shared just between us. We would stand together in front of the pattern books, turning the large pages, and she would say – I can take that sleeve, and put it on that top, and we can match it with that skirt and make it out of this fabric – and outfits and evenings and girlish dreams would form, and out of the scraps, my Barbie and Chatty Cathy would have the best, most fashionable doll clothes In our neighborhood – sorry Gail, but I still think so!

She had a Necchi Sewing Machine that did zig zag stitches and scalloped and serged and ruffled. The arrival of this machine when I was little meant that my sisters and I got her old machine just for us to use. It went into the basement on its own table, next to the “toy” iron, which heated up enough to really iron clothes, and the “toy” oven, which got hot enough to bake cookies. We had real scissors, boxes of straight pins and needles, and all these appliances used electricity.

All the little girls in the neighborhood had similar little kitchens and laundries in their basements, which we played in when we weren’t sledding down hills without helmets and riding our bikes in traffic. Or walking over a mile to the candy store with our quarter allowance. It was a different world. It’s not that we didn’t burn ourselves or cut ourselves or sew our fingers into the hems of little doll pants – it’s just that unless you were REALLY hurt – requiring treatment by a doctor – it was just child’s play.

But, where was I? Oh, yes. Ripper, with a dusty, chicken poo encrusted ancient Singer Sewing Machine.

I’m staring at the machine which she is wiping down with a cloth. It’s so pretty – shiny black, with gold scroll work. She’s holding an equally old spool of thread. Apparently, in the same pile of junk in the barn that held the machine, there was a sewing box full of balls of lace, little papers of needles and pins, LA MODE buttons, and that is also now on my kitchen table.

“I could make stuff with this.” Ripper is now unrolling lace across the table. “Why would someone have so much lace?” (I’m assuming she means the original owners of the box and the machine, not us – because I still can’t actually remember bringing this stuff home.)

I say, “Well, women used to sew the lace on the hems of their skirts, to make it pretty, or longer, if there wasn’t enough fabric.”

“I could make something on this machine, if I knew how to put this thread on it.” She’s trying the spool out on various places.

I know how to thread it.

Of all the things I have forgotten in my life – important things, unimportant things, objects and thoughts and occasions and feelings – I remember how to thread this machine.

I remember my sister sitting next to me and saying, “I’ll show you – just ONCE, though.” I remember where to put the thread spool, I remember the way you hook it through the arm (I remember it’s called “the arm”), I remember looping it around the tension knob. I remember that you have to be careful not to screw with THIS too much. I hand her the thread and tell her to thread the needle – because my eyes just cannot do that.

Once the needle is threaded, there is the matter of the bobbin. I show DIL how to use the wheel to move the needle down down into the sole to loop around the bobbin thread and pull it up. I remember all of this. I remember that the bobbin is a pain in the ass.

We start sewing all the junk mail. About every three inches, the bobbin thread breaks. Apparently the long deceased owner of this bobbin kept adding different colored thread to the already filled bobbin and it is a mess. Ripper gets tired of sewing the junk mail and rushes off to the fabric store to buy fabric to “make something.” I insist she take a picture of the machine with her camera, so she can show the people at the fabric store what she is using. I don’t really know why I think this is a good idea, but there is just something about US buying fabric that seems to require some kind of validation.

In about an hour, she’s back with batting and fabric and a BIG IDEA. She’s going to make pillows.

Now, in addition to making all my clothes and my doll clothes, my mother made slip covers and curtains and I remember that it was a major activity that involved piping and fabric on rolls, moving furniture to get areas big enough to cut the fabric, rows and rows of straight pins, and zippers longer and more problematic than the Mexican American border. The whole family talked of nothing else for weeks, and even my father the engineer used to get in on the cutting and pattern making.

DIL is unfettered by any need other than to get that Singer chewing up yards of fabric, so she cuts two squares, sews them together and stuffs them. Every once in a while the bobbin thread breaks, or the machine comes unthreaded, or I offer technical advice like – “Reverse at the end of each row, to secure your stitches.” Voila, pillows! Less than three hours after she dug that little machine out of a pile of hay in the barn she has a stack of pillows and a whole bunch of creative pride.

Then she says it: “You are like a real mom. You taught me to sew.”

With affection.

Along with threading a machine, I will never ever forget how I felt when she said that.

I make her promise that at my funeral she will tell my sisters and my mother (assuming I go first), and anyone else that will listen, that I taught her to sew. On a machine. That I remembered how to thread.