I can see my mother’s strong back, head down, long dark hair, shoulders rounded, sitting at her sewing table in the basement. My memory is not the best, but that image is frozen, she spent so much time there her silhouette is firm in my mind. I would sit next to her or find something to do in the room. My father built out the entire basement of our post-war ranch house. In one corner he made a long sewing table out of plywood and painted it white, it was always a bit rough, with an entire wall of peg board above it for thread and tools. Her sewing machine sat to the right side of the table. She sat in a folding chair.
I have begun sewing again. I made masks for my family and a few friends and then the neighbors. Something to do with my hands during the pandemic, get out of my head for a while. And then I found I liked it, so I made a skirt. My mother taught me how to sew when I was a girl, the ins and outs of dealing with a pattern that they don’t put in the instructions, tricky fabrics, knotted bobbin thread. I can see her with straight pins sticking out of her mouth, the tape measure around her neck, as she worked on pinning a pattern or a hem. I still have some pieces of clothing I wear that she made for me over thirty years ago: a brocade jacket, and a flowing shirt with French cuffs and a ruffled collar. She made my prom dress, a rust-colored sheath that my oldest daughter wore to her prom. My mother was a gifted seamstress. She took it for granted. It is something most women learned in her day, but she elevated it to the art of a craftsperson, a fine tailor. When I was a kid it was often cheaper than buying clothes, especially if you needed a special dress.
Now it is more expensive to sew a summer dress than buy one, but I’m doing it. I found a pattern online and went into Manhattan for the first time in weeks to a big fabric store. I love walking down row after row of stacked up bolts of fabric, it’s simultaneously overwhelming and comforting, too many choices, but the right fabric is here somewhere.
Yesterday I began the process of fitting the pattern, laying it out and making sure I was taking everything into account before I started cutting. You can’t rush it, it’s a mistake to not give it your full concentration, and it’s difficult for me, nothing is second nature about sewing. I had left my writing for the day, a play I am struggling to get down, a first draft, and it was a relief to be away from that and doing something that would yield results soon, and is frankly easier than writing. I sat at my kitchen table with the pattern and fabric spread out in front of me thinking about how I needed to move along so I could get to the grocery store before it was time to make dinner, and I was caught up short by the domestic scene I had created, not my usual version of myself. And suddenly my mother’s presence grew exponentially. She was in the room. I’ve not been able to get close to her or feel any connection for a long, long time. She married my abusive stepfather when I was a kid and since then she’s been elusive to me. We’ve spent time together in my adult years, but it was like she left my world and entered his, and there was no crossing over for me. I would always stand apart, curious, angry, not sure what had happened.
It’s hot in my kitchen. I’m hunching over, my upper back hurts. My hands remind me of my mother’s, veins popping our more, my nails are short and unpolished, working hands. I’m concentrating on not making a mistake cutting the fabric, and the craving to be sitting with her is overpowering, something that hasn't happened to me in forever. Time. She’s doing the sewing and I’m the girl watching, and I want to talk to her. I want to know all the details of her . . . I assume I know, but I don’t.
My father just left, like that, no money, no help. She had all these domestic skills, but she didn’t have any professional ones. Of course she married my stepfather. She was up against it. I’ve known this, but as I sat there flattening the tissue paper pattern pieces against the fabric with the tape measure around my neck I knew . . . that I barely knew. Mom. She was trying, as I am now, to get through her days, to make a life. How old do you have to be to truly understand your parents are just people?
My mother and I didn’t share many interests, but this task, this skill, is one very concrete thing she gave me. (And I taught to my oldest daughter.) I am grateful to her for it. I have always loved beautiful, finely tailored clothes. Why have I not taken it upon myself to make more of them before now? Am I sewing now because I can no longer speak to her? She lies in bed at an assisted living facility across the country, with Alzheimer’s swimming in her brain.
Perhaps my mother is my other half, my other self that I have lost. She’s the one I’ve been in love with all my life and longing for. Is sewing a way back to her . . . probably not, there is no way back anywhere. Can the empathy I am feeling travel across the warm summer air, head west, fly over the beautiful greens and blues, and dry prairies, and land in her room, calmly nestle next to her bed, and whisper in her ear, I understand so many things now mom and I miss you so.
Every part of the sewing ritual reminds me of her.