“Mama,” my six-year-old daughter, Annabelle, says, “let’s sew.” She looks at me, her eyes already sparkling with ideas for projects. Aprons, pillows, stuffed animals.
The truth is, I do many things well. I can cook and bake. I routinely throw dinner parties for 20 people. I knit and write books and give speeches in front of a crowd of thousands. I do these things without fear, some might even say with a good dose of ease. But sew?
“Mommy doesn’t sew,” I tell her.
I could add that this is why many of my coats are missing buttons. When a button falls off, it stays off. But instead of explaining, I get out paper and paint, and together we write and illustrate a book about a pig and a dog that are best friends. Writing and illustrating a book? No problem. Sewing is something else.
Back in 1972, when I was in ninth grade, girls were required to take home economics. Half a year of cooking, half a year of sewing. That fall the boys marched off to woodworking and shop, and we went into the home ec lab. There, countertops gleamed and stoves beckoned. I happily baked cookies and brownies that we later served to the boys on silver trays. But when we returned to school after Christmas, the cooking part of home ec was finished, and we began sewing. On the other side of the home ec lab, Singer sewing machines lined the wall.
“Ladies,” our sewing teacher barked, “by June you will have finished making a wraparound skirt, Simplicity pattern 101.”
Mrs. Wylie used to shave off her eyebrows and draw them in with a red pencil, too high on her forehead, which gave her a look of perpetual surprise. Unlike our cooking instructor, Mrs. Follett, a gray-haired grandmotherly type who also taught us sex education (“Making out is what happens above the pearls, and petting is what takes place below the pearls”), Mrs. Wylie snapped and marched and tapped a ruler across her palms to show she meant business.
At the fabric store, I stood paralyzed beneath the bolts and bolts of possibilities. Other girls easily chose baby blue cotton dotted with small forget-me-nots or happy pink-and-white stripes. But I couldn’t imagine how any of it could turn into a skirt, much less a skirt I wanted to wear. “Move along!” Mrs. Wylie commanded. Hastily, I grabbed the largest paisley print, angry brown-and-aqua teardrops on a yellow background. For the rest of the semester, I cringed whenever I had to look at it.
As Susan and Karen, my lab partners, pinned and cut, I poked myself with straight pins and mismeasured. My sweaty hands made everything even worse. By the time we moved to the sewing machines, I hated that hour of home ec more than anything else, more than the algebra I couldn’t quite understand, more than having to shinny up the rope in gym while our teacher blasted “Go, You Chicken Fat, Go” on a record player.
Each week Mrs. Wylie fiendishly reminded me how slow my progress was, looking positively gleeful at my mistakes. “Ann,” she told me one day, “you may be getting an A in English, but you are not getting an A in home economics.” The sewing machine continued to jam, the bobbin remained mysterious, and thread flew off the needle regularly.
In desperation, the night before my skirt was due, I sneaked my pile of hideous paisley fabric home and begged my cousin to make it for me. She did. The next morning I arrived at the home ec lab early and slid the skirt under the needle as if I were just finishing it. Mrs. Wylie stood in the doorway, her penciled-in brows raised. She watched me, then marched across the room, picked up the skirt and said, “You did not sew this.” Before I could protest, she pulled one thread and unraveled the entire thing. On the day the ninth-grade girls got to wear their homemade wraparound skirts to school, I stayed home in shame.
Now I have Annabelle looking to me to be her sewing partner. Online I order a kit that promises anyone can make the three small stuffed--pillow patterns inside. Even beginners can master these easily! Annabelle, who often sews the insides back into her ragged stuffed pig, Piggy, will probably have no problem. Me? I’m not so sure.
My husband and I adopted Annabelle from China in 2005, when she was 11 months old. Three years earlier, our five-year-old daughter, Grace, had died suddenly from a virulent form of strep. From the minute the Chinese-government official put Annabelle in my arms, there was no doubt that my heart could open big and wide again and love another child. What I worried about was whether I could allow Annabelle to be herself. Grace and her big brother, Sam, both loved swimming and putting on backyard plays. They liked the Beatles and Simon and Garfunkel, Oliver! and Fiddler on the Roof. But by the time we brought Annabelle home, Sam was in middle school, off on his own path with friends and after-school activities. That left me at home to get to know Annabelle.
From the start, she made it clear that she had no interest in the music or movies Grace and Sam had been so fond of. It was almost as if she understood that she had to carve out her own path. Although I never could bring myself to say it out loud, I worried that I might make unfair comparisons between my two daughters. When you lose a child, that child stays frozen in time. Grace would forever be my quirky, funny five-year-old daughter. Easy-going and independent, she never threw a tantrum or argued. Annabelle exhibited frustration and stubbornness early, testing my patience.
Then Annabelle turned six, and both of us entered new territory. Indeed, Annabelle was growing into a sweet-natured little girl, full of energy and opinions. She whistled as she moved through the house, making paper crowns for her stuffed animals and weaving friendship bracelets and pot holders for us. There were no comparisons to be made, I realized. I had the good fortune of being mother to two very different daughters. When I held Annabelle close, gratitude always flooded me. What a strange broken path had brought the two of us together, I thought. Her mother in China abandoning her on an early September morning. Grace dying too soon. And here we were, finding our way together.
The sewing kit arrived, a bright-orange box filled with all the things that made me shudder: straight pins, needles with tiny eyes that needed to be threaded, patterns of a cat and an elephant and a dog, fabric and buttons. But Annabelle surprised me by tackling everything with gusto. All I had to do was sit nearby and cut around the curvy parts or vote on which color buttons each animal should have for eyes. In no time, we had three small pillows sewn together with straight, even stitches.
But before I could sigh with relief, Annabelle had a new plan: sewing lessons. “We can learn to use sewing machines!” she announced with so much enthusiasm that I couldn’t say no.
On our way to the first lesson, I told Annabelle about my experience in ninth-grade home economics. “So you see,” I concluded, “Mommy doesn’t have very good memories of sewing.”
She patted my hand. “Don’t worry, Mama,” she said. “You’ll have fun.”
By the time we walked into our sewing class, my hands had already started to sweat. Somehow the teacher convinced us that we could sew little birds and then attach them to a branch; she brought out a selection of twigs and fabric to prove her point. Annabelle happily made her choices, and before I had even picked out the flowered material, she was tracing and cutting and pinning her first bird.
Annabelle took to the sewing machine easily, her small fingers guiding the fabric as the needle worked its magic.
“Wow!” the teacher said, clearly impressed. “She is good at this!”
I looked up from my misshapen bird and grunted. My hands stung from all the pin pokes, and the heap of sloppily cut material in front of me made my eyes hurt.
When it was finally time for me to work on the sewing machine, Annabelle positioned my fabric just so and rethreaded the needle each time the thread snapped.
“Isn’t this fun?” she asked me, and she looked so happy that I didn’t have the heart to tell her how miserable I was.
At the end of that first lesson, Annabelle’s three perfect birds sat on their branch. The two I’d managed to finish had stuffing popping out from my uneven stitches and heads somehow too small for their bodies.
Annabelle took my hand in hers and grinned at our work.
I never did finish my third bird. But two years later, Annabelle still goes to sewing classes. She designs and makes stuffed animals, pillows—-anything she wants. She is a good sewer, a fast reader, a poet. In the late afternoon, as the sky begins to turn from blue to lavender, we sit together, Annabelle with her sewing and me with a book. “Remember your birds?” Annabelle sometimes asks.
“I do,” I say. “I remember.”
And she climbs onto my lap, her body fitting just right against mine.
“How did I get so lucky to have you for my daughter?” I murmur.
“Mom!” Annabelle says, rolling her eyes.
Then she pulls her needle and thread through the fabric she’s holding, making slow, even stitches. What I know now is that we are all, each of us, doing just that. Even a failed seamstress like me keeps sewing, in a way. There is my daughter Annabelle, and the memory of my daughter Grace—and there is me, carefully stitching our lives together.
Ann Hood is the author of The Knitting Circle and a new novel, The Obituary Writer.
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