All this talk of costumes, Halloween and the paths we take, brings me back to my earliest memories. I’m sure I have the timing wrong and the details are fuzzy now but there’s no one to ask, no one to set me straight; my mother’s memory has been gone for years now.
I was one of six children, in that naturally Catholic way, but we didn’t really have a large family. My father lost his mother when he was sixteen and his father, the year before I was born. He had no siblings and referred to himself as an orphan. My mother had just one brother and my precious grandmother, a story in her own right. Her father had been gone for years. Mentally ill, he and my grandmother lived separate lives, in that naturally Catholic way, without getting divorced. They lived in separate cities for over twenty years until my father pointed out the fact that if she died, her husband would inherit her property. The church be damned, she was divorced lickety-split. While growing up my family included grandma, my aunt and uncle and my three cousins; a tiny family by Italian Catholic standards. It was my grandma and my aunt that taught me the needle arts.
With my aunt I learned needlepoint, crewel and embroidery. Gift giving occasions were marked by wonderful needlework kits that became wall hangings and pillows around our home. My grandmother taught me the proper way to hold a crochet hook and count stitches on a circular knitting needle. I was gifted her leftover balls of wool and angora to make mittens and potholder squares. She always had an afghan in process on her lap that I would examine each time I visited and remark on her progress. Imagine my surprise when I opened my eighteenth birthday present to find my own ivory, brown and rust crocheted throw ready to make the trip to my dorm room that fall. She had managed to hide its construction for months before.
Earliest memory of sewing I am about seven years old watching my mother sew a blue and white damask Martha Washington costume for my sister. She didn’t have a great love of sewing, she learned because it was expected as part of her training to be a good housewife. Apparently the sewing gene can skip generations. My grandmother came from a long line of professional tailors on her father's side. Most of her family sewed expertly, my mother learned but never really enjoyed it.
My father's great grandfather owned a factory that made school uniforms in Leeds, England. As I researched our ancestry, census after census showed professions associated with sewing on both sides of my dad's family. Clearly, I had inherited something because I was fascinated by the process. I loved the feel of the fabrics and the hum of my mom's Phaff sewing machine. It seemed magical to me. Back in those days sewing patterns often came with pieces in the edges of the marker for doll clothes. In an attempt to keep me from underfoot, she gave me that pattern and enough scraps to start me sewing. A passion ensued.
I lived in the same house from my fifth birthday until the week I left for college. All that time I had a best friend living right next door; she was my sewing partner, so to speak. Together we learned to thread a needle and make Barbie outfits by hand. We scrounged scraps from our family sewing baskets and turned rags into doll clothes and costumes. What we couldn’t teach ourselves and my mother was too busy to teach, we learned by riding bikes to the Clearfield Library and checking out books. On lucky days I had the joy of spending an afternoon at my grandmother’s being taught the rudiments of how to work the machine.
Eventually we took classes and saved our nickels to buy yards of cotton seersucker and bits of rick-rack to make summer tops. By the time we reached home economics class in middle school, we were already quite accomplished. By high school we could stitch a lined navy blue blazer with a sailor collar and soutache trim. It only followed that she would go to the Fashion Institute of Technology for a degree in design and I would go to Nazareth College for a degree in business management. That would be the first big hiccup in my life plan.
My father pretty much chose my major. I believe the conversation went something like: “I’m paying for it; do as I say.” Needless to say I hated it. I loved English and History classes and anything in the arts. Everything else bored me. I relieved that boredom by spending my every free minute in the costume department sewing everything and anything for a crazy Head Costumer while eating mint Milano cookies and wearing a blue net hairpiece from the nineteen forties. My parents thought the lousy grades were a result of too much beer and sex, in reality it was the theater costume department.
I met the Costumer my first week at school. There had been a sign posted in the student union looking for volunteers, sewing experience welcome but not necessary. I went over to the workshop one afternoon and asked if they had anything for me to do. She was making witch costumes for a play I’ve long since forgotten, and was wrestling with a huge bolt of black taffeta. She asked if I could cut out a pattern if she laid it out, she was extremely busy and needed all the help she could find. She handed me the actress’s body measurement sheet and a simple pattern for a gathered full length skirt with a set in waistband and a back zipper. Childs play. Little over an hour later when she came to check on me I was ironing the finished skirt and getting ready to pin the hem. Needless to say, she was surprised and delighted. She threw her arms around me and sang, “I am so in love with you; don’t ever leave me.” I didn’t leave her for the two years I was there. I was in the costume department my every free minute; much to the detriment of my school work.
Anyone who knows me now will shake their heads in disbelief when I tell you I was quite shy back then. I didn’t have the courage to stand up to my father and change my major. I had such insecurities about my abilities that I mutely followed the path I was pushed down, no matter how disastrous that would turn out to be, rather than forge ahead on my own. I’m reminded of that every year on October 31st when the worlds of textile and make believe collide and I am afforded one more chance to sew something wonderful for my little girl to masquerade in. I imagine I'll be doing it for quite some time since She refused to learn how to sew; apparently She doesn't have the sewing gene.
I’ve been told, and rightly so, that I have spoiled Her. I have been too easy, I have paid too many of Her bills, I have given Her too many opportunities that She has squandered away. I do it because I want Her to have every chance to find Her calling; to not be stuck in the wrong life. This year, more so than ever, I am cognizant of what’s gone wrong in both our lives and am determined to set things right.
The night of Her accident when I found out about the Girl I was shocked. It seemed so odd to me that we could be so close, yet this huge piece of who She was had been hidden from me. The Husband hadn’t heard, he had left the room; a good thing because he would not have been supportive. There would be blaming and accusations and derogatory comments. None of which I cared to hear. I stood in stunned silence looking at my broken, bruised baby with her clothes cut off and the cervical collar forcing Her head back at an odd angle. I needed a minute to digest the words She had spoken, God granted me a time out in the form of an orderly, come to wheel Her down for an MRI. I was left alone to my thoughts when my phone buzzed. It was The Boy. He had been my support all night, texting me to keep me sane on the long drive to the hospital and answering my frantic texts with just the right words. He was a master at reading me and saying exactly what I needed to hear. I text him: “She has a girlfriend.” His instant answer: “Who cares, Baby, as long as She is happy?” Indeed.