Monday, October 10, 2011

Mother's Stitches


Everyone laughs, remembering my maternal grandmother for her TV dinners and needlework. Never one in love with housework or cooking, she reduced demands on her time by keeping a house free of knick-knacks and buying frozen meals to heat. If they had made frozen breakfasts then, I’m sure she would have served food on a tin plate round the clock.

Needlework, on the other hand, was time well spent in her opinion. She embroidered three Trees of Life, one hanging now in my mother’s home, my own, and my sister’s. The colors have grown out of fashion; after all, she embroidered these decades ago, but the beauty of the stitches—uniform in size, shapely and precise—make it art.

Grandmother was also a genius at the sewing machine. She specialized in dolls’ clothes: tiny sleeves, delicate lace at the neckline, wedding gowns of net and satin, bonnets, and coats of corduroy with small, perfect button holes. These required patience and precision, the same talents she used as a bookkeeper.

Mother inherited her mother’s talent. Mother mended our clothes so well that the flaw became invisible—as invisible as her hand stitch, the truest testament to her sewing skill. She could mend a seam without a machine, the stitches so small, so tight, so perfect, that it held better than one executed on a machine. She hemmed garments with such a light touch that no trace appeared on the outside.

I remember her, head bent to the cloth, a bright light showing her the way, picking up a thread, pulling it tight, dipping the needle into the weave again. She seemed to take great satisfaction in such a perfect, tiny stitch, the kind that quilters of old strove to achieve.

Once, as a new bride, several hundred miles from her family, making a home in a Colorado oil town, she set out to sew a button on her husband’s suit coat. She wanted it to be perfectly secure; she wanted to complete the task so that she and he would be proud. She struck upon sewing it in place using the small needle holes, then making a perfect circle around it by extending the thread from the inside holes over the outside edge of the button to the inside below, up through the holes, over the edge, again and again until that button was absolutely stationary, covered in thread. She smiled, I imagine, when she was through, pleased at the perfectly spaced threads. Only when Dad tried to put on his coat and button it in place did she and he realize her error. In her quest to correct the errant button, she had overworked the problem and overworked the thread until she created a brand new problem.

Many years later, she laughs as she tells this story and so do I as I remember it, but I also see that it is a parable for her life. She once had intensity and focus. Now that Alzheimer’s has taken those, I like to remember Mother’s stitches because they endure.