Mama tells me to raise my arms. She slides a lacy full petticoat over my head. The lace is scratchy, and I am not happy, wiggling and struggling as she follows the slip with a dress. She implores me to stand still while she pulls the slip down and straightens it. Small buttons march up the back of the dress, but her nimble fingers make short work of fastening them. The true challenge is the sash, which must be tied into a perfect bow, both loops matching, neither drooping. Mama struggles and pulls and jerks me about in frustration compounded by the clock. We mustn’t be late to Sunday school.
This is my earliest memory of a creation sewn by my mother. It was forest green, full-skirted, and gathered at the waist, with that miraculous bow in the back. The memory is clear, enhanced by a photograph in which I am standing at the front of the church with a group of preschoolers, ready to sing our hearts out for the Lord. I was the star vocalist, all puffed up in crinoline and lace, rocking from heel to toe. We were singing “I’ll Fly Away,” three verses and three choruses:
I’ll fly away, oh glory,
I’ll fly away, in the morning.
When I die, hallelujah, by and by,
I’ll fly away.
When we sang the chorus, I noticed that the grown-ups were grinning. Some were laughing. During each chorus, they laughed at in the morning. By the third chorus it dawned on me that I was the only one singing that line. It was the bass line. I wanted to fly away. In the green dress.
Mama says she really doesn’t like to sew. I don’t believe her. During my childhood, she compiled the repertoire of an accomplished seamstress. My sister is three years younger than I am, and Mama made us matching dresses until I was eight or nine years old. She used deep blue velveteen, white dotted swiss with baby blue dots, rusty orange wide-wale corduroy, gingham, and plaids. Enthusiastic compliments were given to her for the way she dressed her girls. Every stitch of our church dresses zipped through the needle of Mama’s Kenmore.
When I was 12 years old, Mama tended my self-esteem with her skills. She sat on the floor when she pinned up the hem of a dress. It was an exacting task, one that required a tape measure and a good eye. One day as she was pinning, she was at her wit’s end because she could not get the hem of my dress straight. One side of the dress was lower than the other. She stood up and had me bend over and touch my toes, so she could examine my back. She gave me a mother’s diagnosis of scoliosis, curvature of the spine.
We saw an orthopedist who ended up putting me in a Milwaukee brace to straighten my spine. The brace was a monstrosity, and I wore it for 23 hours a day for two years. It had nuts, bolts, and metal bars that ate my clothes. Mama came up with the ingenious idea of putting moleskin over the protruding bolts. She found patterns with high necks, which she could adjust to accommodate the bulky brace. I was a distressed adolescent, self-centered and self-conscious. Mama’s concern for me went right over my head.
I wasn’t interested in sewing until I had a daughter. I remembered the work of a virtuous woman who taught me about the feel of fabric; the Butterick, McCall, and Simplicity patterns; buttons and zippers, needle and thread, ruffles and rick-rack, zig-zag and straight stitch, bias tape and bobbin, facing and basting—a hem and a turkey.
I took the tools of her trade and fashioned dresses with sashes and pinafores. Sometimes the midnight oil burned as I stitched towards a morning deadline for a costume or Easter dress.
It dawns on me. Sewing is an art—and hard work. Mama’s portfolio is graced with color, pattern, and attention to detail. I plan to tell Mama that I am paying attention through remembering. And I will ask her to finish the seams.
This post is a modified reprint that originally appeared at Light in My Inkwell.