It’s strange. Whenever I sit down at the sewing machine, I feel like my mom, the same flick of the wrist when I drop the foot lever down, the snip, snip, sound of my scissors cutting the thread. I haven’t been sewing long, but each time but each time I do, I learn something new about mom and understand why she has wanted me to learn all these years.
You see, like most women, I have resisted being like my mom, even though I know very well that I sound like her, laugh loud like her, and I have a bit of that wild woman in me like her too, and even though sewing is how she makes her living today, I have always associated using a sewing machine with those dark days in high school, her in her full-blown addiction behind the sewing machine all day and all night for two or three days in a row, and me doing everything I could to get away from it all.
Though, my first memory of sewing is a good one. I am sitting in the back yard of our house in Menlo Park with my mom. She is teaching me to hand sew. I am working on my lap, the sun is warm on my head, and I am happy. Then I lift the fabric to show my mom my work and my whole skirt comes with it. I have sewn the hem of my pillow case project right to the skirt that I happened to be wearing – my favorite skirt. I start to cry immediately.
“Don’t cry; we can get that out.” She leans my way and smiles, then digs in her tin of sewing supplies and pulls out a seam ripper.
I sit in my blouse and underwear while she pulls each seam one by one, freeing my favorite skirt from the pillow fabric.
Being taught to hand sew at the age of four is something that I have always cherished, and it came in handy many times over the years, but even though I knew it would be convenient to know how to sew on a machine, and even though I have always had one in my house, I was too afraid to learn. I have owned a number of sewing machines given to me by mom, sewing machines that I never used. Sewing machines that my mom thought were as necessary as a plunger or vacuum were to own, sewing machines that I feared, that collected dust, that were only used when my mom came to visit and I needed something hemmed: a pair of jeans, a second-hand dress. I left the cute blue one, which she claimed was easy to use, behind in the attic of a house I rented in my twenties. She took back the heavy black Singer because I had complained it smelled like it was on fire and because she knew it was too complicated to ever operate on my own. It was tricky to thread and then there’s the thing with the bobbin casing, requiring a mechanic’s know-how, sewing machine oil, and screwdrivers. Then two years ago, the stakes higher than ever before, with me, her oldest daughter now in her forties, she bought me a new current model machine. She never gave up on the idea of passing this craft on to one of her children; she never gave up the idea of me, the family academic (good with my brain but not with my hands), learning to operate a machine, learning to sew.
It wasn’t until I learned to embroider that I got the courage to sew on the new machine. I had run out of the hemmed tea towels that I like to use for embroidery, and I was in the middle of a project. A few months previous, my mom had hemmed several for me using the machine she bought, even showing me how to do it myself. She did the first few for me, and I did a few on my own with her standing over my shoulder, teaching me how to guide the fabric through without the screw from the needle casing slamming down on my finger. And now, months later, I was in the middle of a project; I was all out of the towels we had hemmed together. There wasn’t time to wait for my mommy to come down and do it for me, or to show me how again, so I gathered the courage and did it myself.
I ironed the towels and hems first like she showed me, glad not to have to sit down at the machine straight away, but as I fished the bobbin thread out of the body of the machine or reversed the machine at the end of the fabric to secure the stitches of the first towel, I was surprised myself by how much I really knew. In my teens, I had after refused to sit with my mom at the sewing machine, preferring to be anywhere but home with her, preferring to play drums in my punk band, and run around with my friends, preferring not to have my fingers sewn shut by a machine needle. I guess, since I had seen my mom at her sewing machine so often over a ten- year period before moving away from home and listened to her talk out loud about what she was working on that I had by osmosis drawn some of the knowledge into my own body where it lay dormant but ready for access when needed.
When I finished hemming several tea towels, I called my mom on the phone to tell her what I had done all by myself without her help. I was, at forty-two, finally ready to learn to sew and not afraid of the sewing machine. She was as happy as she was the day I told her I was pregnant ten years before.
Lately, I have found myself going to my sewing machine more often. And when I sew, I get to know better how she sees the world, how it looks from over the top of a sewing machine, the details she sees when she eyes beautiful fabric and imagines how it might look on an apron, the cut of a dress, a delicate lace hem. I see her as I reach up to roll the wheel forward by hand to back the needle up and out of the thread so I can cut it and move onto the next area in need of stitching. I can feel her in my breath when exhale and flick the foot lever down so it will hold the fabric in place as I send the needle through it. I know what it’s like to feel the hum of the sewing machine motor under my hands, the rush of excitement for the moment I can pull the work from the machine and see how it turned out, knowing whether my mom would approve or disapprove, her standards for good work as my guide.
And I know what it feels like to create something tangible with my own hands, to take many parts and pieces and put them together and the ways in which creating in this way is not unlike writing, crafting living documents of our lives.
Our relationship has changed a lot of over the years, but I know my mom has sometimes has a hard time relating to me, and I know she feels I haven’t always seen her the way that she sees herself. She didn’t finish high school and she had me when she was only eighteen. I graduated high school, went to college, traveled, seen places she’s only dreamed of seeing, waited until I was in my thirties to have a child, and I only had one. Still, mothers want to pass something on and like all mothers, my mom wants to be understood. And I have always thought I could understand her and why she did the hard things that she did all those years, but maybe she was right. I hadn’t really known her, not in the way she wanted to be known, because I didn’t practice, or worse, didn’t care to practice the craft, the art form that that defines her, the thing that distinguishes her from others, the thing that she is best at, the thing in which she excels. But I’m beginning to understand it now, how what she does feels, how it works, the time it takes, the patience (something she is not often associated with), and the practice and the talent that it takes to be really, really good. I won’t ever get there, and that’s not my aim, but I do love feeling closer to her for learning to sew, and I know now that’s all she ever wanted.