Sunday, June 07, 2009

Stitching and the Art of Love

The dressing rooms on the second floor of Minkovitz Department Store were poorly lit and small, just big enough for a narrow stool and the floor space for one person to dress and undress. To get a full view of whatever it was that one was trying on, one had to leave the dressing room and walk out onto the sales floor where God and the sales ladies and, worst of all, possibly somebody popular who was also shopping could see how tight the skirt was through the hips or how inadequately the bodice was filled.

I was subjected to this torture only a few times as, for all the hours I spent in a Minkovitz dressing room, we – Mama and I – never had any serious intention of actually buying anything.I take that back: Mama never had any intention; I was always hopeful.

From the day Mama and Daddy brought me home from the old red brick hospital on Grady Street, whatever I wore was homemade, floating forth from under the presser foot of Mama’s Singer sewing machine in a froth of soft cotton batiste, crisp gingham and velvety corduroy. The Peter Pan collars on my church dresses were finished in double-stitched scallops and the tiniest of pin tucks framed rows of shiny pearl buttons down the fronts.

Somewhere around second grade I figured out that not everyone dressed the way that I did. Some of them had skirts that looked exactly alike. They had small satin tags sewn into their necklines and, occasionally, some writing or an animal on the outside. And, because the need to be "like" and "liked" arises early in girls, it was somewhere around second grade that I began to resent the fact that none of my clothes came from Minkovitz or Belk or – Be still, my heart. – The Children’s Shop.

By the time I got to junior high, Mama, who just couldn’t justify spending money on clothes that were not as well-made as the ones she sewed, and I had reached a compromise: We went shopping, just like all my friends, dragging an armload of skirts and blouses and dresses into the dressing room, plastic hangers clicking and getting tangled together. I tried each outfit on and stood very still while Mama, pulling out her little Blue Horse top-bound spiral notebook, drew detailed pictures of what I was wearing.

She made notes like "grosgrain ribbon trim" and drew arrows to the place on the dress where said trim would be placed. She rubbed the fabric between her knowledgeable hands and then wrote, "polyester and cotton" or "100% wool." She drew every detail – square pockets and notched collars and 2" cuffs.

After closing the notebook, dropping it back down into her patent leather purse that closed with a loud click and gathering up all the clearly not-up-to-snuff garments, Mama would walk out to meet the sales ladies while I dressed. Through the heavy fabric curtain at the dressing room door I could hear her say, "No, we didn’t find anything today."

An hour later we would be leaving the fabric store weighted down with a Simplicity or Butterick pattern, a couple of yards of fabric folded into a nice square with a paper tag pinned to the top, thread, zipper, buttons, sometimes elastic, all of which would go into the magician’s hat that was Mama’s creativity and be transformed into an infinitely better version of what I had been craving since the moment I saw it on the rack at the department store.

I was not so wise at 13 to recognize the gift of a mother who could work this magic. I did not always have the most pleasant attitude as I sat on the stool at the counter flipping through the pages of the pattern books to find the one that most closely resembled what I’d just tried on.

I did not, as I recall, one single time ever tell Mama that I appreciated what she did. I didn’t because I didn’t. I didn’t tell her because I didn’t appreciate it. I had not the capacity yet to understand love in its tangible forms. I have it now. Because she taught me.

So, in case I haven’t said it in a while, thank you, Mama.

Copyright 2009

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