Like many young girls, I took great delight in watching my mother do things. I remember sitting on the toilet seat, watching her apply her make-up and curl her hair. I scrutinized details she was probably completely unaware of: the fingers she’d use to hold her hot rollers in place; the number of brush strokes she’d use to apply rouge on her cheeks; the way she’d steady her lips, curling them ever-so-slightly over her teeth as she applied her lipstick. I mimicked these motions silently as I sat and studied her.
I treated her grooming habits, her cooking skills, and the way she twirled the phone cord when she talked with her friends as though they were spectator sports. But I’m not sure any were as magically soothing to me as the hours I’d spend watching her sew.
Suffice it to say, all of my clothes were homemade when I was growing up. I loved it. I had prairie skirts and long dresses. Knit pants and matching vests. Dresses with little umbrella trim around the collars and hem; tailored blouses with cat face buttons. All of them in fabulous fabrics that my mother had chosen specially for me.
We spent plenty of time at the fabric stores, looking through patterns and choosing prints and colors. I was amazed every time the staff worker cut off a 3-yard rectangle of material and then later watched my mother turn that nondescript polygon into something stylish to wear.
Just as I did when I watched her apply make-up, I sat and watched her hold pins between her straight-lipped smile and deftly secure the crinkly tissue-paper patterns pieces into place. I listened to the rasp of the scissors slicing through fabric and noticed her long, sure cuts – a skill I would later try to develop.
After she removed the jigsaw-shaped pieces of material, she let me have the oddly-shaped scraps of material that had fallen to the floor. To me, these were little pieces of possibility and I wondered what I might make from them. Doll clothes? A quilt? A new fashion design of my own?
As I fingered the cloth and imagined the possibilities, I listened to her sew. I heard the whip of the spool of thread as she winded it through the myriad of nooks and hooks on the Singer machine. I heard her drop the heavy presser foot into place and close the bobbin plate. Then she’d wind the dial just enough that the thread and needle were started. Then, always barefoot, she pressed down on the plastic pedal beneath the cabinet and the machine whirred to a slogging start. The electric sound of effort started each project, followed by a slow crescendo of chugging needle and thread as the machine accelerated, sending the presser foot on a ski trip down a precarious path. Could she race along the fabric and keep a straight line along the seams? Or would the bobbing foot veer off course? I didn’t have to watch her to know when this happened. I’d hear a quiet curse under her breath and an aggravated flip of the switch in the back of the machine to release the presser foot. She’d tug the fabric away from the needle and the thread whined as it stretched. With a quick snip, she’d released the project and quietly undo the tangle of threads before setting the process into motion again.
These sounds, these sewing projects, are forever woven into my favorite childhood memories. I’m not sure my mother knows how much I loved these quiet afternoons in the sewing room, when I could sit and listen and dream. I’m not sure she knew what a gift it was just to watch her.