Perhaps it really wasn’t necessary to clandestinely whisk away Mom’s sewing basket into my car during a visit to my parents’ house; I suppose I was afraid to ask my father if I could take it with me, for fear he’d turn me down. It seemed as though everything that had belonged to my mother was now sacred to him.
And after all, I had my own sewing basket—an efficient plastic see-through box with a removable tray that Mom had bought for me years ago. But (I weakly reasoned) my sewing basket didn’t contain the right color thread to hem dad’s trousers. A pretty lame excuse. After all, how long does it take to run to the grocery store for a spool of khaki-colored thread? Even now that she’s gone, I am amazed at the reliance those she left behind have on Mom for the simplest of tasks. And so it was, in relative anonymity (with a sweater draped over it), Mom’s sewing basket was spirited away.
Upon my return home, I found myself struggling for a while with the reasoning behind this bizarre act. As I approached another anniversary without Mom, I was faced daily with the feeling that I was not someone’s “little girl” any more. A constant ray of unconditional love in all our lives, Mom brought a quality of grace, innocence, domesticity and maternal “religion” difficult to match by any woman, least of all me. Missing from our lives for several years now, we are still dumbfounded by her disappearance due to a weak heart. Perhaps the sewing basket was a reminder of the multitude of small tasks she performed for her family, helping to bring her back in some intangible way.
Of course, it was all so overwhelming –the idea that I would ever have to face any segment of my life without her. Although common sense dictates that we will eventually lose our parents to old age or illness, no one in my family could even imagine the thought of Mom’s just not being there any more. My natural instinct at the time was to capture as many memories and details or her life on paper as I could from my singular, daughterly perspective. So, within the first few months following her death, I spent hours burning up the keys of my computer. The laser printer churned out my work of memorial to the earthly angel we called Mom, while I proceeded to purge, express, celebrate, and create her legacy. I reasoned that somewhere in these pages, my daughter (her only grandchild) and my daughter’s daughter may someday understand the stock of women from whence they came.
As noble as it may sound, however, I have today discovered that it will never be printed words or flowery expressions of memory that will provide a meaningful link to Mom’s existence. It will be the simple items she left behind that will remind us of her love for us.
Safely sheltered in the darkness of the closet of the spare bedroom at my parents’ home, the sewing basket’s ostensible need, created by my father’s simple request to hem some trousers, left me both flattered and honored with the transference of maternal duty from mother to daughter. My mother had been the person upon which Pop had relied for such domestic chores for fifty years. Since her passing, I tried to clean and straighten their home when visiting, attempting to sound and act practical and mature, while the overwhelming presence of my mother wafted from each room full of knick-knacks and specially placed furniture.
Discussions of Mom lessened as my family tried to cope while healing time passed. Today, many of us wouldn’t think twice about paying a fee to a department store or dry cleaner’s alterations department to hem a pair of trousers. My life was so busy at the time—full of two parent paychecks, soccer practices, and those much-needed fast food meals when we rationalized that our schedules leave us no time to shop, cook, or clean. Even though many of us “Baby Boomers” were spawned from a generation of stay-at-home moms who learned early on to express their love for their families by domestic doting, I doubt that I will ever possess the simple dedication to wifely and motherly duties exemplified by my mother and women like her.
As I carefully opened the blue wicker basket, its crevices seasoned with dust from years of service, I am first impressed by its orderliness. Under the calico patterned and pin-cushioned lid, a plastic tray sits atop its cache of contents, the crackled edges lovingly mended with duct tape. The usual sewing scissors and seam rippers lay untouched since Mom’s departure, and it suddenly occurred to me that some of these items are the very ones I used as a teenager during my sewing classes, at a time when “Home Economics” was required of junior high school girls. I am amazed now that I actually made clothes for myself at one time. Admiring handmade clothing sewn by teenagers—or even adults, for that matter— seems nowadays an activity relegated to state fairs, where these creations are displayed for throngs of city dwellers. We are fascinated by this dying art and awed by the time, concentration, and planning it must take to accomplish a fully completed handmade article, let alone the skill required to make garments appear “store-bought.”
Touching these elementary sewing implements somehow transported me to that awkward age. Mom was always there to compliment and mildly critique my handiwork. I could never determine whether her flattery on the speed with which I threw together an A-line skirt was merely an attempt to make me feel good about myself, or a prediction on how long it would take for my hastily-sewn clothes to fall apart. My creations were never made with the attention to detail and time it took for Mom to turn out her own masterpieces. Her seams were always straighter, her garments fit the wearer better, and the unmatched concentration she displayed seemed to result in a thing of beauty every time. Mom’s pat answer to my queries of why this was so was always the same. “It’s because it was made with so much love,” she would say, her eyes glistening. Of course, the depth of this statement was lost on a 14 year old, to be left unappreciated until I was a mother in my own right. More and more, I find myself wanting to echo lessons such as this to my own daughter, as she rushes through tasks at home with reckless abandon.
I search further into the basket’s depths. A box originally made for straight pins efficiently holds a collection of buttons gleaned from years of discarded dress shirts worn by the men in my family. An unopened supply of safety pins, price tag still attached, sits next to an almost depleted card of Velcro fasteners, a vague comment on the progress of human ingenuity. Various sewing machine screwdrivers and zipper attachments are hidden among thimbles and small boxes of machine needles.
As I lift up the tray to reveal a recess of valuable sewing notions, my nostrils are filled with the faint fragrance of mothballs, an aroma that instantly causes me to remember my immigrant grandmother’s apartment. I’d swear I hadn’t smelled that since I was a child, and now it was here to validate another grandmother’s existence. As I peer into the brightly lined basket, an entire collection of colored threads dares me to choose from its assortment. Naturally, the perfect color spool of cotton for repairing Pop’s trousers is contained there. Beneath it lies a thrifty little plastic bag with its zippered and closed top, boasting another collection of salvaged buttons. This time, however, the buttons are still attached to scraps of fabric, as if Mom’s time had become more precious to her in later years.
At the very bottom of the basket are two items that have no real reason to be there except for sheer sentimentality. Mom hadn’t used these items in years, but both looked as if they might have been brand new. One was an army-issued sewing box; a palm-sized cloth-covered container of army uniform-colored threads and buttons my dad must have carried with him during his years in the service. Mom had married Dad at the tender age of eighteen, the first boy she had ever been allowed to date. The pictures we have of our parents at the altar reveal my father in full World War II regalia. I’ll never forget my mother’s stories of how she blushingly presented her dashing lieutenant to her array of bobby-soxed girl friends. Little did she know at that time that she was on the threshold of life full of children, hard work and the kind of fulfillment she later claimed was made possible only through her faith in God and those she loved.
The remaining item was mine, and mine alone. A red velvet pincushion I had stuffed and made when I was six or seven (with the help of someone else’s mother to surprise my own) lay there, reminding me that I was indeed someone’s little girl. Its heart-shaped softness and white-tulle edges stared up at me, and Mom’s smile appeared in my mind. I could almost hear her, “overdoing” it with unmitigated praise of my creation, making me feel almost “icky” inside for presenting her with such a mundane gift on Valentine’s Day.
It has become important to me to try to carry on this legacy of love and service to others I inherited through the stories hidden for a while in Mom’s sewing basket. In an odd way, I think she must have known I would discover each and every item there, but I doubt she would have predicted that I would attach so much meaning to each one. Secretively slipping a simple sewing basket into my possession now seems to make more sense.
Sometimes it is the little, perhaps at first unnoticed, articles of daily family life which give us the most strength in times of confusion and despair. Through my newly-found connection to the treasure within Mom’s sewing basket, I can better understand my role as my mother’s daughter. And perhaps, if I try hard to carry on Mom’s legacy of giving and caring, my daughter may someday ask how I accomplish the things I do in our busy lives, and I can respond with, “…because it’s done with so much love.”