Our childhood memories are always present in our lives as we become adults. Whether they were good or bad, that childhood environment is often at the core of how we perceive ourselves, it certainly influences who we are.
There were items in our home during my childhood that were visual anchors when I was a inquisitive kid. Ever comforting, always present, like a good friend, these items helped me feel safer and happier just by the fact that I saw them every single day. I am still, to this day, a person who feels better if I am around familiar things.These items were always there during family holidays, boring “regular” days, summer time break and special celebration days. Their presence brought me comfort and a sense of security. With any changes that occurred during my life, these items consistently stood the passages of time, sadness, childhood crisis and in my mind, helped me stay grounded due to their existence in our home and a place in my heart.
One of those items that comes to mind was Mom’s portable sewing machine. She had it as far back as I can remember but it always seemed “new” to me. It was a Singer sewing machine and it was always sitting close by, waiting to be used.
It’s clunky beige case, so immense, so enormous that when I picked it up, it would crash into my leg as I attempted to lift it and help Mom haul it onto our tiny kitchen table, she would scold me and tell me not to pick up something that heavy. The corners of that sewing case became tattered and beaten over time from all the clunking and banging we instilled on it. The leather-like textured beige vinyl exterior became dull and dirty over time. The gold-toned enormous latches that kept the actual machine locked inside the case so that the it didn’t fall out and hit the floor like a brick were loud and hurt my ears when unlatched. They seemed like overkill for such a timid machine. Kind of like too big of a lock on a high school locker. These latches beckoned me to release them and view the intriguing device beneath. I have always been a curious Soul and begged my Mom to let me face this sewing machine Dragon head on. “We’ll see.” she said. That was one of her favorite things to say. “We’ll see” meant that I was going to get my way, eventually. If she said, “We’ll wait until your Father gets home”, usually meant that there was NO WAY that I was going to have my request granted. Funny how these words from my Mom had a unspoken language all their own.
I used to secretly fantasize about owning one of those expensive, gleaming white sewing machines (ours, dull beige just like it’s case), with all the fancy knobs and latest gadget attachments, one that was actually recessed in it’s own separate “sewing table” where it was hidden from view by a panel of wood which you lifted up, which then raised the behemoth unit up from inside the bowels of that table. It emerged like magic from the underworld, ready to create some fabulous costume or sequined dress at the hands of a master seamstress who pushed on the foot pedal skillfully. I wanted that fabulous kind of sewing machine that they gave away on Queen for a Day or Let’s Make A Deal. Not a clunky beige anvil that sat in a bulky matching case gathering dust that never gleamed or created any fancy stitching.
But alas, our sewing machine WAS dull. It sat by itself, alone. It wasn’t recessed in anything but the corner of our dark narrow hallway. It observed everything from it’s hidden nook, waiting patiently for someone to give it some well-needed attention. Sometimes Mom would move it to a new lookout point and there it would remain, again, in solitary stillness. Never complaining, simply observing the lives of our whole family.
As a curious child, I always wanted to unsnap the noisy gold brackets by myself and snoop at what lurked beneath that case. I had seen the machine when Mom had removed it occasionally, but I wanted to experience the unveiling for myself. To me it was exciting, a challenge and a thrill. Let me at it, so that I can release the beast within it and myself taming it to obey my commands!
The funny thing was that Mom rarely, if ever, even used this magnificent machine. That’s right, you heard me. My Mom NEVER sewed anything on that amazing unit except to practice making running stitches on scraps of old white (used) sheets that had been relegated from the rag-bag.
My Auntie Dorothy, one of Mom’s older sisters who was one of my favorite Aunts, was the Craft-queen of our large Portuguese family. She sewed, she baked, she knit, she crocheted. She made matching dresses and shirts for herself and Uncle Joe all of my life (Hawaiian print fabric, of course). But the Craft Fairy seemed to have passed over my Mom without ever looking back. The extent of Mom’s creativity never went beyond stamp collecting. I mean, how creative do you need to be to glue stamps, using a pair of tweezers and magnifier, into a stamp album? That, I will never understand. No offense Mom, but stamp collecting is a far cry from the words craft and creative and all that they entail.
Going to Aunt Dorothy and Uncle Joe’s house in the country was heaven because going to Auntie’s was the equivalent of going to Disneyland. She baked cookies, cakes, letting you eat however much you wanted, let you dig through all her drawers in the whole house, took you shopping and bought you whatever toys you wanted, took you out for to junk food restaurants (which we rarely did under our roof) and she could make incredible Faloush (Portuguese donuts) which were to die for, including fingerfuls of raw warm Faloush dough. All that being said, ironically, Auntie never taught me to sew. Crocheting, yes, but sewing was never an option. Maybe she felt that she was overstepping into Mom’s maternal territory at that point, who knows.
When Mom got brave, she would attempt to thread the machine and “practice” sewing, meticulously following the written instructions and diagram on how to do the steps. She would carefully weave that skinny white thread through all of the nooks and crannies that lead to the actual needle itself. This process created the path of tension which made the stitches “even” both above and below that piece of supposed fabric. She diligently wet the end of that thread with her lips, aiming the thread through the needle, from front to back as directed, through it’s narrow and impossible head. I remember hearing her curse under her breath (well, her idea of cursing was words she made up that SOUNDED like cursing because she never cursed in her whole life) during this very tedious process and I observed how soggy that thread would become as time after time, she would again, salivate on the end of that thread and fail to get it to go through that impossible hole. One day she magically found a needle threader in her box of sewing machine attachments. To the relief of us all who witnessed her painful ritual, this little gizmo eased some of her frustrations and saved us from watching her terrible suffering. As she got older, she would call me over and make me do the honors of threading the dreaded needle as her eyes got older. Once it was all set up and ready to go, all she would do is practice those running stitches on those old dreary sheet scraps and glow with pride at her incredible results.
I don’t ever remember us purchasing any kind of material or fabric, ever, during my whole childhood, up until I took my sewing class in Junior High. Mom wasn’t one of those Mother’s who easily sewed matching dresses for herself, my sister and I (like her infamous sister, Dorothy could), on her nifty Singer machine. For that, I am actually grateful because then we weren’t mocked for wearing matching dresses in public. Early on, she actually purchased store bought matching dresses for my sister and I, with us being nearly seven years apart in age, we both looked ridiculous. My sister appeared dressed too young, I appeared dressed too old. If you don’t believe me, just find that picture and look at the expressions on mine and my sister’s faces. Mortified.
Mom would begin her quest by cut those pieces of sheet into manageable smaller sizes on which she could practice sewing more effectively. She would lift the foot release on the machine, slide the old white sheet under the foot, lower it back down and step on the foot pedal that commanded the machine to make the unit come to life. That foot pedal always had a mind of it’s own. It appeared to have a “delay” system built into it like a sticky gas pedal. Attempting to push gently on that pedal to ease into first gear and it would kick in like a high-powered motor in a hot rod. Suddenly that needle was flying through that old sheet and nobody’s hands were on the wheel driving the thing. It always worked that way, no matter HOW gently you pushed on that damned foot pedal.
My Mom always had quirky stuff that she did. God I loved her, but she really had some strange routines that she followed throughout our time as Mother and daughter. One of those quirks was that if there ever WAS anything that needed sewing, she would do it by hand. That’s right, complete with tiny, even stitches all sewn with a regular needle and tread. This process included sewing all of the “runs” in her nylon support stockings. This made for very strange looking scars on her legs when she wore them in public after being repaired (yes, she recycled her support stockings, they were expensive you know) that looked like Frankenstein stitches running up and down her legs. People often thought she had been seriously disfigured due to an accident or trauma but in reality, she was tight with money and didn’t want to spend for another pair of her support hose (Depression-era mentality). Darning is the actual term for the type of sewing Mom did. She would sew anything and everything that had a hole, a tear or rip using this technique. Whether it was large or small, I never once, ever, saw her repair any article of clothing or fabric using that portable sewing machine. She would stick an unused light bulb inside the sock or article of clothing that needed repair (the light bulb technique, I still use to this day) and quickly and quietly thread that needle and patiently sit and sew that thing all by hand for however long it took. Go figure.
By seventh grade I had decided to be brave and sign up for a sewing class. I reasoned, what the heck, we’ve got a sewing machine without a life and somebody should be using it. I had been allowed, once I was at a “certain age” to practice patterns of nothingness on those thin old sheets, over and over again. I learned how to thread the machine, set the tension wheel, wind a bobbin (my favorite part), and handle that out of control foot pedal with the ease of a winning race car driver. I really loved that sewing machine although it never really “spoke” to me like some other crafting skills I learned as I grew older. It was one of the first creative outlets I ever had and besides, it filled many hours of otherwise boring time while growing up in the ’60’s before we had the Internet, Cable TV or cell phones to keep our brains busy.
I truly believe that Mom was completely intimidated by that machine from day one. She never participated in any of the sewing classes they offered for free where she bought it (Sears, I believe). I think it overwhelmed her and somehow she felt less-than and scared of the unknown. Two feelings that followed her for the rest of her life.
I remember the project I chose to make for sewing class, a sleeveless “shift” dress, stylish at the time. I picked out a fabric that was so busy and bright it could have lit up New York. Hot pink, crinkly fabric with green, white and yellow floral accents. Ugh. By the time I cut out the pattern pieces, traced the pattern onto the fabric, cut it out, basted it, pinned all the pieces together, sweat bullets sewing it, hemmed it, ironed it and got my descent grade for making it, I HATED that dress. Never did wear it. Think I put it on one time only to show Mom and Dad what I had accomplished and that was it. I knew at that point in my life, that I, too, would never be a seamstress.
What I also learned from that whole experience, is that I was just as frustrated running that silly sewing machine even more than Mom had been. Even with a sewing teacher and a couple of more simple projects I created, I knew that the sewing machine and I would always just be playmates and nothing more. No run-way worthy designer dresses, no costumes, no evening gowns would I produce. Just some squiggly circular designs on old sheets and a one-time fluorescent pink dress would ever emerge from these hands in collaboration with that machine. As time passed, I would discover that the curiosity and creative thoughts that the sewing machine stirred within me, would rise up in Junior High and High School in other creative forms like acting, art, keyboard, singing, gymnastics and dance. And at a much later time in my life, jewelry making, wire face sculpting and coffee filter roses, writing blogs…
During a takeover by other family members in my Mom’s family, the ugly beige sewing machine and it’s bulking case disappeared. I had had it prior to that for many years, letting it sit in a corner of my house, just as it had in the house where I grew up. Mom had kindly loaned it to me until I returned it to her with a smile, when I purchased my own newer model in hopes that a newer unit would spark an interest again in sewing (it never did). But when that old beige machine lived with me I kept it close, let it watch us as the clock ticked and we all grew up and aged and some of us passed. It never has been recovered since it’s disappearance and many other memory-filled items have vanished as well. If I had known, I would have kept it safe in a dark corner of my hallway along with all the other items filled with my memories of Mom, my Daddy and my Sis. Kept it safe from the evil folks lurking within our family domain. People I couldn’t protect her from either.
Interestingly, I never really use my newer more-modern sewing machine much at all, even to this day. But that’s OK. What is symbolizes for me is worth every penny I spent on it and worth every dark corner of space that it has taken up, an honor handed off to my machine by Mom’s reliable beige standby.
I miss your quirks, Mom. I miss your little-used beige sewing machine. Thank you for being who you were and sparking my creativeness with being brave enough to face that beige sewing machine that you never really used or connected with. Thank you for letting me make mistakes on it, wasting spools of thread and messing up the bobbin, thanks for letting me sew circles on the old white sheets, race the foot pedal for no reason and for just letting me create messes and work through that messes with your help. And thank you most of all because I’ve been able to darn and repair clothing by hand my whole life…
Much love, until I see you again, D