Linda C. Wisniewski
In the thirty years after I left my mother’s house, I never missed her. Yet it pleases me now, in my sixth decade, to find a connecting thread.
Mom was an excellent seamstress. She made her living at a sewing machine, and came home to sew most of our clothes in the evening. She had decidedly mixed feelings, proud of her skill but trapped in a life of manual labor. I remember her frequent complaints—her thread broke, there was a mistake in the pattern, she couldn’t find her scissors.
“Goldarn it!” she’d mutter.
Though she seemed to take little joy in it, she always produced a beautiful garment. The prom dress she made me had a white lace fitted bodice, apple green slim skirt, and thin shoulder straps. The other girls wore dresses from Holzheimer and Shaul, the local department store, and two of them showed up at the dance wearing identical models. Mine was an original, custom made for me.
‘Why did you tell them it was homemade?” Mom scolded. “They’ll think you can’t afford a dress from Holzheimer’s.”
“But they liked it,” I said. “No one else can get one anywhere.” She hadn’t thought of it this way, and I could see that she wasn’t sure what to believe. Her philosophy was to work hard, not enjoy it and never take credit for what you’ve done.
My mother’s fingers cracked and bled from long hours in the factory, feeding parts of men’s work pants into industrial machines. For a few years, she worked on basketballs; I can’t imagine how she did it. She welcomed the occasional layoffs, though we needed the money. I was with her one day when she left the unemployment office with a job offer.
“Goldarn it!” she muttered as she grabbed my hand and marched out the door.
At home, Mom sewed in the tiny bedroom she and Dad shared. Her old Singer machine stood at the front window, looking out on the street. She slid a small padded bench Into the two-foot space between her machine and the foot of the bed. In the weeks before every major holiday, she’d make new clothes for herself, my sister, Judy and me.
“Linda, come and try your dress on!”
Uh oh. Time for another endless fitting. Mom dropped the dress over my head. I tried not to move as she tucked here and folded there, pinned the darts and removed the pins and did it all again, shaking her head in frustration. A curvature of the spine made my left shoulder lower than the right, my left hip higher, eliminated my waistline and condemned every sewing project to countless alterations. I grew bored and impatient. Unable to resist squirming, I got stuck with a pin.
“Goldarn it! I told you not to move!”
I tried not to wet the dress with my tears.
“Just go. ” Mom lifted the dress over my head and turned away. I barely glanced at the back of her head covered with short, dark curls. Both of us tried so hard and failed. She couldn’t make the perfectly tailored dress. I couldn’t be the perfectly quiet little girl. I turned the glass doorknob, pulled it toward me and ran out.
Where was the picture of a happy mother and daughter sewing together? I’d seen them in McCall’s magazine, and on the poster in the fabric store window. I wanted to be the little girl in that picture. I wanted a different mother. Maybe Betsy McCall’s mother, the one that came with my paper dolls. Betsy and her mother were always having fun.
At the time, I thought that both sewing and I were a huge pain in the neck. Mom tried to teach me, but I never got the hang of it. I suspect it felt too close to being her. I didn’t want to be so harried, so trapped in a difficult job.
Years passed without my sewing more than a loose button. I had a career, two children and a husband, and a house in the country. We needed new window treatments, but the cost was so shocking, I decided to make them myself. And that is how, shopping for drapery fabric, I fell in love with a computerized sewing machine. It threaded itself, came with six presser feet, and remembered your monograms. It did everything but make coffee.
I wished that Mom could see it; other memories came flooding back. The smell of sizing from the aisles filled with colorful bolts of cloth. The filing cabinets filled with patterns in paper envelopes. The huge catalogs on tables with high stools to sit and browse from, turning the pages, dreaming up a new dress… I remembered her then, leading me through the store, and I knew I was not my mother. I would not become her by learning to sew. And I had found something we shared, something about her I wanted to keep.
When I sew, each sound, each item I touch, becomes a memory that connects me to her. The feel of the tissue paper pattern, the placement of the pins attaching it to fabric just the way I watched her do it. The chop, chop of the scissors taking me back to the kitchen table that was her cutting board. The soft whir of the machine as my foot presses down on the pedal. The way I focus on my work, snipping loose threads and letting them fall..
I love all my tools—the rotary cutter and mat, the spools and bobbins, the snips and scissors, my stash of fabrics. I have some things from Mom’s old sewing cabinet—patterns in her size, bindings and trims, her paper cutter. I like to see them nestled among the notions I bought for myself. Because my mother was so skilled, I believe I, too, can be good at this, and I want to be.
When I’m sewing, I feel like I’m standing on her shoulders, as she stood on the shoulders of women who sewed through the ages, making clothes, making art, making memories. And if only by a thread, I finally feel connected to my mother.
“My work has been published in the Christian Science Monitor, the Philadelphia Inquirer, Mindprints, the Rose and Thorn, the Green Tricycle and other print and online publications. I was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2003. I am a former librarian living with my family in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. I also teach workshops in memoir writing for adults at Bucks County Community College.” E-mail: lindawis[at]comcast.net.