When I was just a toddler, I sat on the bare boards of the living room floor for hours at Mama’s feet, playing with scraps of fabric that she cut from whatever quilt she was making at the moment. The patterns and colors fascinated me, as well as the textures. I’ve always appreciated textures and often today I walk through a store feeling of various fabrics. I played with them as Mama pedaled that old-style sewing machine, making those quilts to keep us warm on cold winter nights or to sell to other people for extra money.
As I grew older, Mama took the time to teach me how to sew on that old machine. First, she taught me safety. The needle was vicious. I must at all costs keep my fingers away from it. She didn’t have to say much about that though because I’d seen it go through her finger, biting deeply into her flesh and nail, making her face blanche as white as paper. I would be careful. Then she saved quilt scraps for me to turn into fashionable clothing for my dolls. I made pants, skirts and dresses, even booties and caps for them.
Later, I moved from doll clothes to my own clothes. Mama and I shopped on Saturday afternoons for fabric, patterns, and notions. I wasn’t allowed to sew on Sundays of course; Sunday was a day of rest and worship. We spent Sundays in church for morning and evening services, and afternoons visiting grandparents. Come Monday though, I’d start my new outfit as soon as I got home from school. First, the pattern had to be trimmed and pinned to the fabric. I commandeered the big dining room table for that activity. When I finished cutting, I was ready to sew.
I spent untold hours on that old machine. It still works, believe it or not. It’s hard to find needles for it, but this old National sewing machine that Mama ordered from the mail-order catalogue in the ‘30s still works while my Singer sits here in need of repair.
I’d sew to my heart’s content until I hit a snag and had to consult Mama, who was usually ironing in the living room. She did laundry for other people and spent a lot of time with an iron in her hand, but she’d stop long enough to teach me some fine point of sewing.
How well I remember the day she taught me to make a buttonhole by hand. Sewing machines didn’t do finishing work back then. She demonstrated first how to cut the hole, making certain that it wasn’t too big or too little. Then she carefully whipped her thread around the edges so it wouldn’t rip with frequent use. I thought I’d never get the knack of that, but I did. I even learned to make it look good. I put in my first zipper under her watchful eye, and soon conquered that hurdle, too. I never learned to like it though.
Mama even taught me how to make biscuits the old fashioned way. I can still feel that cold sticky dough on my hands as under her tutelage I mixed up my first batch.
“You can’t make a really good biscuit without buttermilk,” she told me, “and I’m convinced that lard makes a biscuit better than shortening.”
My first biscuits were misshapen and bigger than cat heads, but Daddy ate three to show his approval. I’ve appreciated his vote of confidence ever since and I’ve made many a biscuit since then, many of them for him and Mama.
As an adult, I spent hours making clothes for Mama. I still sewed for myself and my children, but her careful, meticulous teaching paid off well for both of us. I took over the cooking of the big family get-togethers as Mama aged and her health failed. I was happy to do so. I took what she taught me and added to it.
I don’t remember too much about the things my parents bought me, but I cherish the time they spent on me. Therein lies the best of my youthful memories.