“Your brother took it,” Dad said of Mom’s sewing machine. “Karen wants to learn.”
For most of my life, my mom had sewn on this anvil-weighted machine that she’d gotten at Woolworth’s or W.T. Grant or some store like that in the 1970s. She couldn’t quite remember. It was incredibly heavy and, at the end of the day, she often needed help lifting it from the dining room table where she’d done her sewing for the day back down to its case on the floor next to the china cabinet.
Eventually, Mom wanted something else, but continued to settle for this monster for years. Finally, for her 50th birthday, my dad presented her with a Bernina: beautiful, computerized, with a free arm and I don’t know how many stitches. Her mouth had hung open when she tore open the wrapping paper. Later, she whispered, “I can’t believe your father spent that much money on a sewing machine!“ Incredulous at the expense and in awe that he’d done it for her to be happy.
After she passed in 2005, I had a hard time going into her sewing room. I’d gone in during one early, wine-fueled blitz with my first sister-in-law, Vonda, to divvy up Mom’s fabric stash, but we’d agreed that the machine should stay there for a while. For Dad.
A couple years pass and my brother gets divorced. The fabric stash Vonda took is lost, but that’s OK because Mom had taught her how to sew, too. From time to time, I ask Dad if he’s ready to let go of the Bernina. He’s never quite ready to let Mom’s sewing room go. The machine, and the room, stays a dusty memorial to her.
Years pass. I replace my second-hand machine with a $100 machine from Target. My brother gets divorced from Vonda and marries Karen. Even though Karen is infinitely better for my brother than Vonda, she and I have our differences. In short order, we become estranged. Some time after Karen leaves her job so she can join my brother in a new state, I hear the opening line from Dad:
“The sewing machine. Your brother took it. Karen wants to learn.”
Dad has progressive MS, but I wanted to punch him. The idea of that woman who Mom didn’t even know, sewing on her beautiful Bernina, was infuriating.
That machine should have been mine. I was her daughter. I was the one who begged to be taught then suffered through the cruel tutelage of Mom’s sewing curriculum for years. There was the added nostalgia of sewing on a machine my mother had used, but there was also the fact that I’d earned it.
I’d earned it through the endless straight lines Mom had made me sew. Through the gathers, the darts, the princess seams she’d meticulously looked over, found wanting, and made me rip out and redo. Through the endless crooked, puckered seams she made me rip out and sew again even though no one would ever see them.
All my new sister-in-law would ever have is a book or a website showing her the ropes. I loved sewing and I deserved my Mom’s powerful machine. Karen was just learning sewing to have something to do after being unable to find work in this town my brother had dragged her to.
Which was exactly how Mom had come to sewing in the first place.
It was how I’d come back to sewing after many years away. I’d needed to do something with my hands, needed to see a concrete product of my labor, needed clothes that bloody damn fit me off the hangar.
Same as Mom.
Same as Karen.
It was OK. Once this realization hit me, I was OK with Karen sewing on Mom’s Bernina.
I’d already received the most important and valuable parts of Mom’s sewing: her instruction. That could be applied no matter what machine I was sewing on. I will always have Mom’s voice in my head and her stern, pixie visage looking over my shoulder, criticizing every stitch, questioning my fabric choices, demanding I rip out seams that aren’t perfect.
Dad seemed to know this. Otherwise, he would have relinquished the sewing machine to me. Right?
Meanwhile, Karen has been sewing away in solitude with nothing but books, the internets, and my brother’s poor memory of Mom’s craft to guide her. It makes me want to reach out, but we’ve become so estranged that I don’t know how anymore.