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THE SEWING ROOM
I have taken over a basement room in which someone who lived here before left a Ping-Pong table. It is now my sewing room. The table is just the right height for me, and I can spread out the fabric on its expanse of dark green when I cut things out. It's cool there in the summer, and quiet. I listen to the radio and work away, and a flat piece of cloth takes on shape as I work, grows breast- shaped curves and hips, gathers itself into a waistband, to which I have added an inch because I am fatter than I wish I were.
This activity uses resources seldom called upon in the rest of my life. Beyond basic decisions about color, style, and fabric, there is little thought involved in sewing. Clothing construction follows the same rules whatever the garment. You sew a seam and finish the edges. Right sides go together unless it says otherwise. You press seams open, and darts toward the center or down. You do not argue with the seams about the degree of their openness, nor do you seek a dart consensus about which way they want to be pressed. There are virtually no moral ambiguities in sewing.
The outcome of a sewing project is never uncertain. I know in advance exactly what I will get, and I control all phases of production. When I finish, I can point to what I have made. In fact, I can wear what I have made, or put it on my granddaughter and watch her parade in it. I can imagine my image of myself, or of her, and then I can make it real.
None of this bears much resemblance to the way I earn my living, which is by having meetings and deciding about things and evaluating things. And compromising about things, acting in situations in which I know in advance I won't get all I want. And talking to people on the phone. And listening patiently as people tell me things I already know.
After a week of this, I am ready for a change. I go down the basement stairs, feeling the earthen coolness coming up to meet me as I descend. And there in the sewing room is my brand-new machine, gleaming white in the dark. Hello. Tough week? Never mind—let's make something, shall we?
I learned to sew on an ancestor of this sleek white beauty. She was black enameled steel. She had beautiful gold filigree decorations, and an iron treadle attached to her balance wheel, which you ran with alternating feet instead of with a motor. She sewed forward and backward, period. She lived in a mahogany cabinet built just for her, and she was anything but portable.
The sewing machine was upstairs in my grandmother's sewing room, one of the attic rooms in the gable-crazed house we lived in when I was a girl. Bits of fabric, rickrack, short pieces of lace, and spools of thread were everywhere. The linoleum was gray with yellow and pink flowers; here and there, a dropped straight pin gleamed against it. Here my grandmother sat and made beautiful things. And she taught me.
Back and forth I would sew, struggling to get the rhythm of the pedals right so the wheel would turn smoothly. Learning to pivot. Learning to sew a curved line. Learning to make a dart. Learning to insert a zipper—two ways. Making mistakes and showing them to her. Ripping them out and redoing the work. And getting it right. My grandmother's eyes, with their crinkle at the sides. Her smile at my intentness, a smile whose dimple was still beguiling even though she was old. And her stories, while we worked, about the Swedish people in Minnesota where we came from, about her brothers and sisters. About my mother when she was little. The attic room must have been hot in those pre-air-conditioned days, but I don't remember it so. I remember it as a place of beauty and peace.
After my grandmother died and we moved, my parents bought me a sewing machine of my very own. She was electric. Though her body was also steel, it was not black with filigree but tan. Where her forerunner had feminine curves, she was streamlined, like the cars of her era. She sewed forward and backward, of course, but she also made zigzags, large ones or small ones, fine enough to finish a buttonhole. She could blind hem, catching up just a thread of a skirt and keeping the visible work on the underside where nobody could see. She was portable if one were young and strong.
In the new house we had no sewing room. I sat in my bedroom and made rebellious clothes. Bell-bottom trousers with plate-size flowers in red, white, and blue. Hip-hugger miniskirts with wide belts. Granny dresses, with high waists and necks, in which I hoped to look like I was from London. No more summer stories about Scandinavian people in the Midwest: now the needle thump-thumped to the Beatles, to the Rolling Stones, to the Supremes, to the Beach Boys. Yeah.
But I didn't just sew for myself. I also sewed for my mother. It skips a generation, my grandmother used to say, and in our family that was true. When she grew too old to sew for my mother, I was old enough to start. My mother never learned. And so the bell-bottoms and granny dresses were interspersed with other things: a bottle-green silk suit with lime-green lapels and a blouse to match. A pink silk nightgown with lace trim, which she left in a hotel once and mourned as long as she lived. A gray shirtdress with silver buttons. A white cape with gold ones. And later my daughters joined the sorority: a christening dress with twenty yards of embroidered ruffles. A green corduroy jumper with mushroom appliqués. A lavender gingham sundress with embroidered butterflies. A velvet Christmas dress with red cherry trim. Corduroy overalls with giant rickrack around the neck and waist, the inner legs closed with snaps for quick diaper changes.
But gradually my production slowed to a trickle, and then stopped. The pursuit of professional competence and my desire to succeed left many gentle nourishments in the dust. Marriage was one. Sewing was another. The tan streamlined beauty whose hum had accompanied so many parts of my life lay, unoiled and unused, on the closet floor. I didn't have time. And I didn't want to have time. My feminist politics seemed to put her in a new and unflattering light. She seemed to abet the embroidering of unnecessary tasks that were better bought than performed. I was a thinker, a leader, and a doer. I unconsciously billed myself by the hour for everything I did, computing the "real" cost of everything. I was too busy to cook—we ate out a lot. We moved to a condominium, where someone else would do the maintenance while I did my important work. It no longer seemed a wise use of my time to sew. And so one day I put my friend out with the trash.
How could I have done that to the partner of my youth? I was busy. I was tired. I was full of the demand that I do well in a career that had been, for a long time, a men-only one. I was able, in the energetic and rewarding pursuit of my profession, to avoid my disappointment at my own failures. And so I didn't want to be around my old friend. She knew too much.
But years pass again, and life changes. Love comes again. Marriage. My youngest child is almost grown, and I am astonished at how brief this era, almost past, has been. How brief my life has been. I am aware that the decades left to me will seem even briefer, so they had better be sweet. If I do not capture and celebrate what art I have, it will die. If I do not nourish myself, I will yearn for nourishment. If I do not connect myself with my own past in the things I do now, I will remain adrift from it. Those whom I have loved in the past cannot catch hold of me, for they are dead. It is I who must catch them.
My love works in the garden, pulling up maple saplings and planting roses. He comes inside, smelling like dirt and sweat and seeds, and he is all smiles from his digging in the earth. Coming down into the cool darkness of the basement, he finds me at my new machine. She has a free arm for cuffs and collars, a self-winding bobbin, fourteen different kinds of stitches, and a built-in buttonholer. She can sew with two needles at the same time. She is high-tech white, and most of her is plastic, the kind they use to make telephones. I can lift her with one hand.
I am working on a madras sundress for my granddaughter. I have cut it long so she can grow into it. I have a length of cotton for a dress for myself that I'll cut out when I finish Rosie's dress. One daughter sits on a heap of pillows in the corner, and we are talking quietly about nothing much. I come to the end of a seam, raise the needle, and automatically reach around to the back, where the presser bar lifter was on my grandmother's machine. I stop for a moment, missing her.
THE QUICK AND THE DEAD
We are at a conference at a hotel in Philadelphia. As we register, we get the traditional welcome kit for conference participants: little odds and ends by which to remember the city. A key ring. A pen from Elverson National Bank. A where-to-eat-in-Philadelphia map. And a packet of Kleenex. At this annual conference, there are always facial tissues in the welcome kit. The participants all cry a lot.
It is the annual conference of The Compassionate Friends, an organization of people whose children have died. There are two thousand people here: mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, grandparents. A sprinkling of clergy and others in the helping professions. I fit several of these categories. I am a priest. I am a mother of a dead child and the stepmother of another. I never knew the young man my husband misses so mightily. It wasn't until after he died that I met his dad. But I have dreamed of him. My own dead child never saw my face; he was too small to see, too small to cry, too small to live. But I saw him. Sixteen years later, I see him still. And in a dozen years of ordained ministry, I have watched at the bedsides and prayed at the gravesides of many young people. Too many. But then, even one would have been too many.
Outside the meeting room are the photo boards. I remember them from last time: six or eight free-standing bulletin boards, upon which people have thumbtacked their treasured photographs. Most are mounted on paper, and most have an accompanying written message.
Our Doug, Always remembered, Always loved, Always missed. All our love, Mom, Dad, Betsy
The photographs and their legends are a magnet to us. As the conference proceeds, we return to them again and again. We stand before them, looking at the young faces looking back at us with their hopeful eyes. Unlined faces, each full of a future that was not to be. Girls in cheerleading outfits and ballet costumes, boys in soccer uniforms, couples in prom clothes, babies in sweaters and bonnets. Big grins. Shy little smiles.
A lovely little girl smiles from two pictures on a cardboard mat. In one she waves tentatively from a carousel horse. In the other, she poses more formally, wearing a special dress and a bracelet and a ring. The message reads:
Our precious little girl died of leukemia. She tried very bravely to live. We continue to try and live without her.
We search the young faces, we who once attended PTA meetings and basketball games. We read the brief attempts of other parents to sum up the unthinkable:
Born July 24, 1964, in Knoxville, Tennessee
Died July 6, 1987, in Richmond, Virginia
Killed by a drunken driver
College student, United States Marine, musician
Pilot, kind and loving human being
She was pursuing a career in nursing because she wanted to help people. She would have been excellent.
He was impossible. He was delightful.
Matt committed suicide.
Kevin 17 years old 1968-1985
A mother points out her child's picture to another who stands beside her. Quietly, for the thousandth time, she recounts the story of the hospitalizations and the surgeries, using technical medical terms as she describes the cancer that savaged her only child. As her story breaks off in a sob, the other woman takes her hand without a word. They stand quietly for a long time, holding on to each other. Quiet tears trace familiar paths down their cheeks.
The discussion groups at the conference are breathtaking in the anguish they reveal. "Suicide." "Multiple Losses at Different Times." "Murder." "Only Children or All Children." "AIDS." Something for everyone in this buffet of pain and loss. But there is more: workshops aimed at finding meaning in the lives that remain after death has claimed a beloved child. "Dealing with Family." "What Can I Say to You?" "Telling the World How I Really Feel." Help in making life possible again. Although the two thousand people who have come here live with pain every day, the purpose of their fellowship is not simply to experience their pain. It is to support one another by sharing it, to find hope in the midst of suffering that seems unendurable but which must be endured.
At dinner we sit with a couple who lost their eighteen-year-old son less than a year ago. The wife is a tightly coiled spring of rage. The boy driving the car, she says, walked away without a scratch. He has never even said he was sorry. If she had a gun, she would kill him with great pleasure. She looks at me defiantly as she says this, as if daring me to temporize with her. Anger arcs from her like an electrical current. Her husband looks apologetically at my husband and changes the subject. How long has it been since your son died, he asks. Five years. The man looks at my husband and tries to imagine himself surviving five years of this. He can't. He asks if it gets any easier. It gets different, my husband answers. Not exactly easier. It's hard to explain.
I remember my own behavior when my third child was born too early to survive. How I paced the floor in the hospital late that night, as if I were looking for something. How I cried at home in my own bed the next night, and then never cried about it again. How proud I was of myself for getting back to normal so quickly, and of my husband of those days for doing the same. Does he remember, I wonder. I suppose he does. The marriage did not endure. Odd that it has not occurred to me until now that this loss and our stoic approach to it might have had something to do with that. An undeclared little life. An undeclared little death.
A waiter carries a tray of coffee cups down the hallway where the photographs are. He stops for a minute and studies them, moving from face to face, reading the messages of love and longing. I know that he is thinking what everyone here once thought: I could not survive if this happened to my child.
I think of the toy iron I saw in the Catacomb of Saint Callistus outside Rome. It was plastered between the stones in a catacomb wall, marking the tomb of a small girl. Her parents were too poor to afford an incised stone marking her tomb, and they placed the little iron there so they would be able to find her. They visited again and again, feeling along the cold stones until their fingers found the handle, and then they stood in the silent dark, touching the slab behind which their child lay. They remembered her, bustling along behind her mother, ironing with her little iron as the big iron glided back and forth in her mother's practiced hand. And then, one day ... what? Something terrible happened. The toy iron, two thousand years old now, speaks silently of what her life and her death meant to the two people who loved her beyond all else. I remember the little iron as I stare at the pictures on the board. It is in little things that we know what it is to love a child, and so it is in little things that we feel what it is to lose one.
The facial tissues from my souvenir packet are all used up. I have used them to dry my own tears and the tears of other people here. I think I have even dried the two-thousand-year-old tears of the couple in the catacomb, coming from my own eyes. I don't begrudge a single one of those tears, my own or anyone else's. They are precious. They mark the spot, the important spot, a child held and still holds in our hearts, whether he was full of strength and wit like my husband's son or tiny and still like my own. We want to mark the spot where they lie. They deserve to be remembered by the world they left too soon.
A young man is pictured receiving a college diploma. Both he and the college president are beaming with happiness. He walks with two crutches, and has the barrel chest of someone who's been doing that all his life.
Born with spina bifida. He never gave up!
We are proud of his accomplishments.
I'll bet. I'm proud of him, and I didn't even know him. I walk and look, and I marvel at how brave ordinary people can be. Incredibly brave, both the dead and the living. To embrace a life that has ended too soon is brave. To experience the hurt through which such a life must be seen is brave. To be honest about loss and sorrow and terrible anger is brave. But through that bravery the children in the photographs live still. And always will.
Excerpted from THE SEWING ROOM by Barbara Cawthorne Crafton. Copyright © 1997 Barbara Cawthorne Crafton. Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated.
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1 The Sewing Room
2 The Quick and the Dead
3 Snakes of Three Generations
5 Original Sin
6 Working the Waterfront
7 My Mother and I Have Gotten Along Really Well Since She Died
8 The New Math
9 Ada Goes Home
10 To Be or Not to Be
11 If I Should Die Before I Wake
12 The Saint of Lost Things
13 The Things Kids Say
14 The Quiet Hour Club
15 Our Lady
16 The Second Time Around
17 Closing Down Home
18 The Back Stairs
19 Never Tell a Kid She's Tired
20 The Girls
21 Father's Day
22 Up to Whitby
23 A Kind and Gentle Man
24 I Brag to My Friend about Baking My Own Bread
25 Men Are Very Delicate
26 Showing Off
27 The Tombs of the Medici
28 Le Hameau
29 The Pearl
30 Trouble Love
31 Some of Us Are Not Allowed to Die
32 Rachel and Her Mother
33 Feet of Clay
34 Ted Who Has AIDS
35 Lies in the City
36 You Look Terrific
37 Before the Last War
38 Love Me Tender, Aura Lee