All in the Family

SewingI imagine my mother at my age. A little older. Maybe 36.

It’s all she has left, she tells herself. And then she flips the switch. The motor hums. And she leans into the sharp light at her sewing machine and plows another seam.

One woman mattered to my mother more than any other: her maternal grandmother. Grandma Parks raised nine children during the Depression, mostly by the resources of her wit, her faith, and her sewing machine. And when her granddaughter, Deborah, was born just down the road? Two peas in a pod.

It was Grandma Parks who taught my mother how to lick the tip of thread and tuck it into the eye of a needle. Grandma Parks who eased my mother’s hands under her own and showed her how to guide cloth through a sewing machine. My great-grandmother taught my mother how to sew and how to mend what was torn. And she taught my mother her Bible verses.

When Great-Grandma died, I was six years old. I had only known her pressed wool slacks, the ceramic candy dish of M&M’s, and the goldfish circling the fountain outside her apartment.

But for my mother, the grief knocked the wind right out of her. It must have been the kind of grief that can’t stand to be seen. Private in its all-shattering power. She didn’t go to her grandmother’s funeral—she sent my father instead. He went. Patient and gentle, not yet knowing the illness would last years. A decade passed in bed. I asked to go, too. But he left me behind to keep an eye on my mother.

And so I stood there in her doorway. And while somewhere, over a grave we never visited, the pastor promised the return to ashes and dust, my mother lay in bed, the drapes drawn at the window, drapes she had sewn at the machine her grandma gave her. It was my first glimpse of grief there in the darkness, a woman powerful with rage and determination reduced to some broken thing, some dead thing.

All because she hadn’t said goodbye.

The next ten years proved my mother’s most prolific as a seamstress. She sewed Halloween costumes, church dresses, school clothes, and even ballet costumes for Cornish College of the Arts. I came home from school to find her sewing. Went to bed to the sound of the sewing machine. I knew it made her happy.

But it took me years to understand why.

When she flipped the switch, and the gears, wheels, rotors chugged to life, nothing else mattered because she entered into what was left of her deepest love. She swam through the old memory of it. No sound but that motor and the chatter of the needle as it punched through fabric, up and down, up and down, seaming the pieces together, stitching up the gash of a tear, compelling loose cloth into straight edges, into order. And if she let go enough, lost herself in the work, listened close, she was with her grandmother then. The old woman nodded just outside the gleam of the machine’s light, her hand on her granddaughter’s shoulder—“Yes, Debby, that’s right. Just like that”—just like they used to. And my mother, with her foot on the pedal, eased cloth across the panel. Formless, it emerged stitched together, healed, whole. And by this slow process, pleat by pleat, seam by seam, my mother came to know the world was orderly and God was good and life continued.

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