It tickles me that my mom’s tidy, quilted sewing basket is latched with a giant paper clip. My mom liked things pristine, but in a pinch, economy trumped decor. “I’m a Depression child,” she liked to tell people. Taking care of her in her last days, I found cut-up pajamas from my childhood in her laundry room rag bag, next to the handmade cloth sausage for storing plastic bags.
I’m delving into her sewing basket, fueled with pandemic zeal to make bathroom curtains. Here are the very definition of sundries: tweezers and chalk and seam bindings and Velcro, huge hooked needles scary as scimitars “for sewing up sacks and cocoa-nut matting.” Thimbles, once jiggly on my fingers, are snug now. Labels on paper cards of Dritz fasteners introduced me to a wider world: elsewhere people were holding themselves together with boutons-pression (snaps), and agrafes/corchetes (hooks and eyes).
Mom would kneel on our apricot wall-to-wall carpeting, surrounded by a jigsaw of tissue-paper pattern pieces. She’d whip up custom slipcovers, Vogue pattern coats, and matching outfits for me and my sister: Dotted Swiss dresses with wraparound sashes, demure sky-blue cotton frocks with fake flowers pinned to white pique collars.
I didn’t aspire to step into my mom’s stylish pumps. I was a dreamy, impractical kid, propped on the velour couch wearing glasses and a sloppy ponytail, nose buried in a Classics Illustrated comic book. I did tackle sewing a pair of groovy purple slacks in my early teens (it was the ‘60s), though my mom put in the zipper. But even as a teen, I knew I’d never share Mom’s ideals of acquiring a garbage disposal and Mantovani records. I grew up and left Pittsburgh, and didn’t look back.
It wasn’t until I became a mother myself that the snow globe flipped upside down on everything I knew. When my firstborn started crawling, I started scrubbing floors on my knees the way my mom had. I even hand-stitched baby outfits from a Dutch pattern book.
After the kids started school, my mother came for a visit once and made me curtains on her old sewing machine that I’d inherited. Then she made a duvet cover for the guy downstairs, and more curtains for another neighbor. Then she asked innocently, “What do you all do without a mother here?”
Excavating now, I find the exact off-white thread I need in my mom’s sewing basket. I’m still not crazy about the color or fabric I’ve gotten for the curtains. I share a palette with my 6-year-old granddaughter who once confided, “My favorite color is sparkle.” I’d wanted something more rainbow iridescent, dreading the tones I call “greige.” I’d trekked everywhere but returned empty-handed to the fabric store where the owner told me her off-white linen was the perfect choice. My mom would have liked it. Classic, she might have said.
The sewing machine I’ve borrowed from my neighbor (Mom’s ancient relic is long gone) says “Sew Fun” in raspberry and orange jouncy letters, a mismatch for the angst I feel about winding the bobbin and threading the machine. YouTube videos can only help so much. Somewhere I hear my mother’s voice saying “selvage edge,” so I pull threads to get a straight edge to cut and fold and stitch. I get a semblance of control over the foot pedal so its frenetic zizz-ing doesn’t terrify me. Eventually I hang up something that looks like curtains.
Through the un-gauzy new curtains, I can’t see the outside as well: the big maple tree, the small traffic of birds. But there’s morning sunlight, and just last night, coming up the stairs, I saw a full moon glowing through with a linen-weave nimbus all around. It comforted me to see the soft light through the new curtains and it came to me — I’d done my best without a mother here.
Cathie Desjardins is a writer, teacher, and poet in Arlington. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. Tell your story. Email your 650-word essay on a relationship to email@example.com. Please note: We do not respond to submissions we won’t pursue.