My family’s heirlooms all come from Wal-Mart, so the traditional divvying up of the goods wasn’t much of a fight.
The one thing I wanted most, and the one that I have, is her old sewing box, the one I remember her having as early as 1972 and probably even before that. It stands about 3′ tall and folds out accordion-style, and came filled with great treasures: rickrack trim, dull scissors, thread she bought for 19 cents a spool at Woolco, a pencil supporting the Houston Sheriff’s department back before phone numbers had 7 digits, and some self-stick pocket inserts that have lost their adhesive over the years. There are bits and bobs and bobbins and rusty pins and needles, and odds and ends that I don’t understand in the least. Growing up, I knew her sewing box to be a place of wonder. I was allowed to look through it so long as I put everything back where it belonged, so I learned to at least emulate meticulousness for a while because there was always something new to find; it was endlessly fascinating.
I’m not a seamstress. Through some trial and error, I’ve learned to sew well enough to tack up pant legs or make straight-sided curtains with lumpy hems, but my skill ends there. I occasionally think about taking a class but I’m just not that motivated. Even the funky fish fabric I bought at a shop in Dublin because for a brief moment I thought I might make some cushions for the new bay window hasn’t motivated me to learn. As an adult, I asked my mother to teach me how to sew and she just shook her head. “I can’t do that” she told me. “You’ll have to find someone else to teach you. I just can’t.”
I understood what she meant, that she didn’t have the patience to teach me, or anyone, how to sew. As badass as she was, she wasn’t a particularly patient woman. You had one chance to get a thing right, and then it was over. In truth, this often worked out in my favor. For example, I couldn’t sweep the floor to her standards, so I never had to sweep the floor. The couple of times that I tried, she took the broom away before I could get more than a whoosh or two into the process—my whooshes, she said, just made it worse. Sure, that made things a little challenging when I reached adulthood and had to figure out the most efficient way to sweep the damn floor, but it certainly made childhood less chore-filled.
Digging through her sewing box, sorting the brittle thread from the safety pins, I am reminded of her sewing space at home. She would set up a folding table in the den and meticulously cut around the tissue-paper thin pattern carefully pinned to her fabric. The scraps and edges didn’t even touch the floor before they were swept into the trash. I loved watching this process because usually she was sewing for me and the anticipation was electrifying.
My paternal grandmother always accused her of spoiling me, and promised that I would come to no good if she didn’t stop. I finally asked my mother, many years later, why she’d always said that. My mother stared into the distance, her face slightly twisted as though she’d tasted something bitter, then finally admitted it was because she had made all of my clothes, but not my brother’s. And she didn’t make his, she explained, because collared shirts were just too damn hard. Buttonholes, in her estimation, were the worst. She made one cowboy shirt for him and then gave up on the idea; it just wasn’t worth it.
I admit I’m still kind of puzzled over how her simple A-line dresses with rickrack trim ruined me for life.
I think about my mother and her impatient perfectionism often, mostly because I feel a little guilty that she got stuck with a kid like me. A kid who was clumsy and clueless, and chatty and curious, and much too flighty to focus on one thing for too long unless it was a Nancy Drew. I can only imagine how challenging I was, not because I was confrontational but because I was so completely different than she was that she just didn’t know what to do with me most of the time. My brother and I are complete opposites in many ways, and she understood him. He made sense. Their bond was always strong; even during the hardest times they counted on each other. I, on the other hand, made no sense at all.
Fred and Margaret moved in next door the year I was in 3rd grade. Fred worked for NASA and puttered in their yard every evening and on the weekends. Mowing, weeding, that sort of puttering. I would follow him around like a lost puppy, telling him about school, the books I was reading, how much I hated Tiffany, what I wanted to be when I grew up (a businesswoman named Anne. Or else a ballerina, despite never having had a single lesson), what Pepper the dog had done yesterday. Fred was a patient man.
Eventually, Fred decided it was time for me to meet his wife, Margaret. We bonded immediately. My mother was at work every day until almost 6. My brother was too young and too angry to be a good caretaker, and Margaret, who had never had children of her own, was always there, always welcoming.
Where my mother was meticulous about putting away her sewing things, picking up the pins and threads from the floor, returning everything to its original state, Margaret’s sewing room was a complete disaster. I would spend hours sitting on her floor digging pins out of the carpet and making balls out of all the stray threads. She would sew, and I would dig up pins and chatter on and on and on. And Margaret would listen and thank me for picking up her pins.
I would show up every day right after school, and Margaret would make me toast on Mrs. Baird’s French bread. Or pancakes with Br’er Rabbit molasses syrup, or grilled cheese and soup. I would eat my snack, and then we’d watch General Hospital in their sunken living room with the white sofa and mirrored walls. I’d do my homework then read, or pick up pins, or take a nap.
One birthday, she gave me a stuffed Pink Panther (I loved the Pink Panther cartoons that she would let me watch when General Hospital was over, he was just so put upon and yet also smooth and debonair). Pinky went everywhere with me. Everywhere. Margaret made formal wear for him so that he was ready for every occasion. When Pinky’s neck was broken from an excess of love, she helped me fashion a collar that would keep it upright. Margaret was everything my mother wasn’t—patient, gentle, affectionate. Not a badass, but a caregiver who relished the role.
In truth, I credit my not growing up to be a complete asshole to Margaret’s care. I learned from her that when guests stop by, they should be offered refreshments. I learned to wash my hands and face even if I didn’t think they were dirty. I learned how to be grateful, and the meaning of real kindness—lessons that didn’t wholly sink in for a lot of years, but she was the one who planted those seeds.
In her later years, my mother acknowledged that if it hadn’t been for Margaret, she doesn’t know what she would have done. That knowing I had Margaret made it easier for my mother to get through some really rough years. One of my biggest regrets is never telling Margaret how much she meant to me, and never thanking her for always being there when I needed her most.
I worry that I make my mother sound like a flaming bitch, but that is neither a true nor a fair assessment. What is true and fair is that we were mismatched—she wasn’t the mother I needed, and I wasn’t the kind of daughter she could understand. In truth, we each did the best we could and there has never been any question but that we loved each other, each to the best of our abilities and in our own imperfect ways.
I treasure her sewing box in ways that I can’t articulate. I sorted through it, tossing the old zipper feet and buttonholers from long-ago machines, and most of the rotting thread as well as those unsticky replacement pockets. But I kept the orange and green rickrack and the bit of lace left over from one of my favorite dresses, because they remind me that every damn day we get up, we do the best we can, and this is the most that we can ask of each other.