My mother’s old sewing machine sits in its dilapidated state in my back bedroom. The back layer of wood of the cabinet has started to peel from age. The old black pedal is worn silver where feet worked on it so many times. But if I open the top, pull the head out of its resting place, and sit before it, it purrs as it sews along like a cat when his fur is stroked. It’s timeless except we can no longer buy needles for it or belts or other replacement parts. Mama bought that sewing machine from Sears and Roebuck with money she earned stringing tobacco. A part of my mother’s belongings since 1938, it has long since outlasted its owner.
The old singer sewing machine served my family well as I grew up. Mama pedaled it so fast that it could sew as fast as any electric motor I’ve ever encountered. Her right leg pedaling like a speed demon, her hand guiding the fabric under the needle, she created warm corduroy jackets lined with flannel for my sister and me. We wore homemade dresses and pajamas year-round.
I learned a major life lesson one year on a cold winter’s day close to Christmas; I was curled under my quilt, reading in my room. The smell of field peas cooking on the stove permeated the house, and Daddy would be home soon for dinner, the noonday meal. About 30 minutes after she put the peas on to cook, Mama returned to the sewing machine and guided not only the fabric but her thumb under the point of that needle. No screams came; no hysteria erupted. Stoically, she called me.
“Mary Ann, bring the pliers and come here. Hurry! They’re in the cabinet drawer in the dining room.”
When I got there, I almost fainted at the sight. The bright metallic needle had entered the thumb nail and protruded on the bottom side of the flesh, flashing silver amid the red blood. It had broken off in her thumb.
I need you to grab the needle with the pliers and pull it out. I can’t do it myself,” she said calmly.
“Mama, you need a doctor. I’ll call Daddy.”
“No, we can’t wait. It hurts too bad. You can do it. Just grip the underside tight and jerk it. Don’t let the pliers slip.”
She held her hand out toward me as if she were passing me a dish at the table. Her calm demeanor calmed me. Carefully I closed the jaws of the pliers on the needle and gripped with both hands. Without a word, I jerked the foreign object from my mother’s flesh. She gasped, turned white as the underbelly of a fish, and collapsed on the chair behind her.
“Go bring me the alcohol,” she whispered, grimacing with pain. “I don’t want it to get infected.”
She poured alcohol over the wound and went to the kitchen to cook lunch. Later as I sat on my bed trying to read, the image of the needle among the blood intruded. I couldn’t see the words for the blood and needle. Nausea rolled over me, and the room lurched. What if the thumb rotted off? What if I’d broken the needle in her flesh? What if the pliers had slipped and I’d had to try a second time?
“Mary Ann,” Mama called from the kitchen. “Come wash the dishes as I cook. Then there won’t be so many after dinner.”
When I walked into the kitchen, Mama looked at me and grabbed a chair. “What on earth’s the matter with you,” she asked. You’re green as a frog.”
I steadied myself with the chair, looked at the band aid on her thumb, and the walls closed in on me. I woke up on the floor with Mama fanning me.
“What on earth’s wrong with you?” she asked me. “The emergency is over.”
On that long ago day I learned that handling emergencies well and falling apart afterwards would be the course of my life. But the sewing episode taught me one other thing: I keep my fingers well away from the needle when I sew, whether on Mama’s old singer or my new one. Every time I sit down to sew, I still see that bloody needle protruding from flesh, and I can’t think of any better reminder to be careful.
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