06 January 2010

This (sewing) life

I wrote this piece in May 2008, and it appeared in the Review section of The Weekend Australian's January 2-3 edition, 2010. When I submitted the piece all that time ago, the word length was 100 words more than the column's current layout allows. So prior to publication the editor advised me she would have to delete some words. And though I think the editor has cut very judiciously, this week when I read the piece as printed I was a bit saddened to find that I hadn't managed to convey the sense of loss and nostalgia which I had hoped this brief segment of memoire would somehow connote. But then, I went back to see what had been excised (the deleted words appear in red in my original version below), and I felt better about the piece in its original form. It seemed to me that the sentences deleted –  especially in the 2nd and 3rd extracts shown in red – may not have been essential to the factual narration, but somehow they contributed to the nostalgic mood I was aiming for. And the fact that the final sentence of the first paragraph appeared in the newspaper as a separate paragraph seemed to lend unintended importance to the word 'stupidity'.

What I mean to say in this introduction is not that I object to being edited, because I think the editor did a pretty good job. Rather, it is simply that I am (once again) amazed by the power of words, and of their arrangement and inter-relationship in any piece of writing. And the way in which the parts, especially in a reflective piece, contribute to the 'whole' is so complex that if you think too much about it, you could be paralysed and never write another word. But this should come as no surprise to any avid fan of William Zinsser's wonderful books about writing, especially Writing About Your Life (ISBN 1569243794) and Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir (ISBN 0395901502). Anyway, in this post I've chosen to reproduce my original, slightly longer, version of 'This (sewing) life'.

Ah, the adrenalin flood as you make the first cut into crisp new fabric laid out on your table, right sides facing. I’m a methodical sew-by-numbers person. My mother was something else. It’s not that she prided herself on never reading the instructions. She just had the ground-in humility of a poor farm girl, and believed she wasn’t clever enough to follow complicated construction steps. She rarely even checked which numbered pieces to use for whatever pattern ‘view’ she aimed to sew. For most of her life I believed the myth of her stupidity.

Then in her 80s, almost blind and badly crippled by arthritis, she came across the world to live with me. To fill in her days, we hit upon a word puzzle – nine letters, scattered haphazardly, to be used to form dozens of words, including one nine-letter word. Day after day, Mum scored ‘Very Good’, sometimes ‘Excellent’ – never spelling a word wrong, often getting the nine-letter word. For 30 years my late father had written all the letters, so I never knew my mother could spell – had even won prizes for it. Yet here she was, stiffly manipulating the large alphabet cards I made so she could see the letters, and with a fat texta recording the words on a big sheet of paper, in a neat longhand she could only reread with a magnifying glass.

But wait. Watch as I open a new dress pattern packet, consult the instructions to select the correct pieces, maybe even read every sheet from beginning to end. I carefully lay out the pieces to make sure they all fit my fabric. And then I start cutting. Not Mum: cutting as she went, sometimes getting to the end with paper pieces left over and no more fabric. Never mind: why not a different-colour collar – maybe crisp white piqué – or solid sleeves on a patterned dress. Other kids’ admiring mums always assumed these touches were intentional.

My own mistakes had different endings. I once slaved over a three-coloured Mondrian-inspired crepe concoction for three days. Then, after too much attention to perfect top-stitching and not enough to fitting, the hip turned out a fraction less than I needed for sitting down. So after midnight, when my nosy Italian landlady was asleep, I snuck outside and threw the rolled-up expensive ball of unfinished dress into the waste bin. Mum would have cut it up for cushions or those odd sleeves.

But another time, I spent two weeks’ leave pinning and repinning the pieces of a six-gored coat with tab-fronted pockets onto a beautiful woollen fabric in a complex plaid that was not only a one-way design horizontally, but also vertically. I cut three collars before getting a match, and my leave was over before I started sewing. Later, when I moved to a warmer climate, I bequeathed the finished garment to my mother. I doubt she valued my several degrees more than that dream coat, even if few but her appreciated those perfectly matched seams and bound buttonholes.

Nowadays I don’t bother with one-way plaids. But I will always remember fitting my daughter’s first formal made of knobby silk in two colours. And my mother and me, armed with giant wooden spoons, swirling round coffee-tinted water in a bathtub to dye the laces and tulle she needed to make the veil after finishing my ivory wedding gown.

Now she no longer sees well enough to inspect well-matched seams. And I choose the softest cottons to make her wispy nightgowns, one of which I hope she’ll be wearing when she takes her last (in)significant breath.

[Postscript: My mother died in Southbridge, Massachusetts, on 24 January 2010, one month before her 89th birthday. This picture was taken in April 2007, one month after I'd brought her back to the USA. She had spent the previous year with us in Australia, but I hadn't been able to get her a visa to stay any longer. She left her false teeth in Australia, saying she hated wearing them and could manage very well without them! You can read her obituary in a post dated 25 January: Hazel Jessie Boulanger.]

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I started this blog in 2009 when I became a full-time caregiver. My husband had been diagnosed a few years earlier with primary progressive aphasia. Over the next four years until his death in 2013, we went on a journey of discovery about this rare condition. My blog is about what I learned, how we both coped and how the journey deepened our love and appreciation of each other. Allen’s journey is over, but mine goes on.