Friday, April 9, 2010

Lessons from Sewing

My mother recently celebrated her 85th birthday. It is hard for me to reconcile that fact with my perception of her as she was 20 years ago. And after living my entire adult life thousands of miles removed from my family, my mother is now a 5 minute drive from our house, which continues to startle me on a regular basis. It has been a strange clashing between reality, expectations and memories. At 85 my mother is in amazing health and is still sharp as ever. But there are natural changes - loss of confidence, fearfulness, tendency to become overwhelmed and shut down - which are to be expected with the elderly, but are difficult to face because, well, she is my mother.

Coping with an aging parent and a preschooler have striking similarities. Both tend to get impatient with their limitations, both want to believe they are capable of things beyond their present skill sets and both are grappling with issues surrounding independence. Cowgirl is dependent and seeking independence while my mother was independent but is having to become more dependent upon me. The major difference is no one is welcoming the change in my mother's situation, least of all me. I find it upsetting to have to take charge, prodding my mother along when she rather retreat into inactivity, making decisions for her when she drifts into the limbo of indecision and uncertainly.

The other day my mom came over for Sunday dinner. One of the items I inherited in her move out here is the sewing machine my father gave her when I was born. Yup, a 47 year old Singer sewing machine that still chugs along dependably although it is in need of a good cleaning. That Sunday my mom brought along a pair of pants she was altering as she needed to use the machine. I have all of her sewing stuff - boxes of thread, buttons, needles, bias tape and rick rack - and she foraged through them like a seasoned mechanic reaching for his favorite wrench. She then sat down at the machine and deftly threaded it up and started sewing. Hearing the machine whirling away, seeing her hunch over it with focus and determination, took me back to my childhood.

All my life my mother has sewed. Torture for me was a trip to the fabric store. I can vividly recall her pouring over the over-sized pattern books, seeking out the numbered drawer in the metal cabinet that held the pattern she wanted to make. Then we had to find the fabric and all of the necessary "notions" needed to complete the pattern. Back home, my mother would lay the fabric out on the dining room table, pinning the tissue paper pattern to the appropriate pieces. The straight pins were kept in a used blue and white Sucrets tin. After cutting all the pieces out, she would retreat to the upstairs bedroom where she kept the singer machine. The sound of that machine was the background soundtrack to my childhood.

One year my mother gave me a plastic pink sewing box, complete with my own stuff tomato pin cushion, a mini measuring tape and some thread and needles. She tried to teach me to sew using gingham fabric - pale green and white - because the checks would help me to space my stitches and keep the row straight. I cannot remember what I ever sewed. In 7th or 8th grade I took Home Economics at school and made a skirt or an apron. It didn't hang very well and I'm not sure I ever brought it home.

I never had the patience my mother had for sewing. One year she made by hand a doll who I called Nell. She made a small suitcase full of little dresses, bloomers and bonnets to complete my Laura Ingalls Wilder fantasy. Everything she sewed was precise and carefully put together with neat, evenly spaced, tiny stitches. Love was definitely in the details as she spent hours crafting that doll.

I am thinking a lot about sewing because the next project in The Artistic Mother group is a patchwork poetry tote. I bought the fabrics and other materials and love the look of the finished tote, but cannot seem to get started. I asked my mother to look at the directions and her only advice was for me to simply follow the directions, step by step. She has told me before this is how she taught herself how to sew: by reading and then carefully following the directions. Oddly enough, the Husband also spouts this wisdom. He is a self taught handy man; family and friends ask for his assistance on various projects and he always says the same thing: if you just read the manual or get a book from the library and follow the steps then - and these are his words - an idiot could do it.

I've been thinking about this wisdom - to follow directions and proceed step by step as instructed. What is not stated, but is the key component in this formula is patience. I realized today I am more like my father in my impatience, wanting to skip steps to get to the end faster. I may start out methodical and careful but that lasts only so long. This is how I bake cookies: The first batch look pretty good, uniform in size and shape. By the third tray I am ready to be done and on to other things and the cookies get larger, spreading together in the oven and forming a large, often raw in the middle monster cookie.

I also realized today that my impatience is the major hurdle on my spiritual path (and the parenting and the creative paths.) I know the steps I need to take - regular meditation, mindfulness, slowing down, using the mantra, inspirational reading, study and time for reflection - and there are periods when I make time for all these elements. I can see the positive impact upon my life but then, well, I begin to believe I can cut out a step here or there. Before long, my entire practice has been abandoned and I find myself wallowing in a pit of frustration, confusion, anger and uncertainty.

I know patience is my practice because I just do not have much of it. But to love authentically, to learn and to grow requires patience. I cannot see or appreciate another person for who they are when I am impatient because then I am fixated upon how I want things to be rather than accepting the reality of this moment. To take time, to allow things to unfold in their own time and manner requires patience. To navigate the changes in my relationship with my mother demands an extra dollop of patience on my part.

I don't know of any How To manual for this all, but if there was one I would need to follow it line by line. I do know like any worthwhile project, there are necessary steps to be taken, they cannot be skipped. Like my poetry tote, I must be prepared to slow down, pay attention to the details, not rush the process, enjoy the discoveries along the way and know the end result will be equal to the patience I put into the work. And I am grateful that when it comes to sewing, I can ask my mother for assistance.

Perhaps Patience is the manual I need to read?

(Postscript: this morning I woke up to the sounds of Cowgirl playing in our bathroom. Hearing papers rustling, I decided to get up and investigate. She was sitting in the middle of the floor with her Lego dump truck and the manual for putting it together. A few months ago she had dismantled it and her dad was furious. "It took me forever to put together!" he had wailed. Well, she reassembled it this morning and yes, she followed the directions. Her dad was proud.)


  1. oh how i loved reading this!

    i just lost my grandmother. at age 89 she was still as active as ever and a voracious sewer. i inherited all of her sewing stuff, but have decided to get myself a brand new machine (i've got a 30 year old one myself) and really get into sewing.

    patience patience patience. that is my practice too. i love finding that there are so many gifts in the patience and how it allows us to be more present with what actually is.

  2. My mother has mad sewing skills herself. She too sewn all my life..and still sews daily. When I was a kiddo, she tried to teach me--but all we would do is clash--for I had my ideas of how my work should be--and she hers. She sounds very similar to your own the precise attention to detail.

    My mother lives alone 2000 miles away from me. I usually say its better that way. But there are those days I simply miss hearing the hum of the sewing machine myself.

    As a gift when I turned 20, my Mom purchased me my own sewing machine.

    I think I need to dust it off and take it for a spin again.

    Thank you for writing this--for sharing your honesty--for opening your heart to us.

    Big hugs!

  3. I loved reading your post. It has to be one of the hardest things to deal with - seeing your Mother change and become dependent.
    I used to watch my Mom sew as well. I can remember her rescuing a blouse that I was making and had ruined. I cut a hole in it and it was to be ready for school the next day. My Mom just proceeded to start over and got to where I messed up and then she let me finish.
    She passed away almost 2 years ago - and I still miss her. Thanks for such a touching post.

  4. Your post is truly touching. This for me is so timely. What an amazing post. Thanks for sharing.

  5. This is such a great post Lis. My mom too was a perfect sewer, she made most of my clothes when I was little and I never had the patience to learn properly either. I still remember those sucret's tins. Patience is my lesson too, want it to happen now and I hate having to real all of the directions, but I am working on it. My mom died when I was 25 so I had to learn alot of skills on my own, but that sucret's tin brings tears to my eyes. Thanks so much for tapping in to the universal and bringing me this bittersweet memory and sharing your own. xo Corrine

  6. Oh I so relate to this! The torturous trips to the fabric store, my own inability to just follow those stupid pattern directions, my frustration with taking it step by step in my spiritual life. This was a great post. Good luck on the tote. :-)

  7. This was beautiful; thank you so much for sharing!

  8. Lis,
    This is a beautiful post. You are such a gifted writer. I cannot only visualize what you are saying but relate to the emotions. I loved the postscript. Way to go Cowgirl!!!