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A Sewing Circle

The moving man, stout as the load on his dolly, steered a dark wood cabinet into my


mother’s apartment. He scanned the small studio, boxes stacked everywhere, for someplace to


unload the heavy piece. “Where do you want this?” he asked.


“Over here,” Mom said, pointing to where she sat in her blue velveteen recliner.


The workman zigzagged through the clutter and squeezed the cabinet between Mom and


her desk. Bright-eyed behind silver-framed glasses, she had been sitting in her favorite chair for


two hours, watching everything she owned cross the threshold of her new home.


Vibrant white hair framed her round-as-a-button face. Other than a few soft pleats around


her mouth, she was smooth-skinned for a woman in her late nineties. Thankfully, she had


remembered to wear her hearing aids. She also wore the poker face she usually reserved for card


games.


Before the workman and his partner arrived that morning, my two sisters and I moved


more than a dozen boxes of clothes, books, dishes and other personal items from our mother’s


one-bedroom apartment upstairs to this studio in the assisted living wing. We also moved her


ironing board and other household items three women in their seventies could carry. Hoping to


get Mom settled quickly, I volunteered to empty boxes and put things away while my sisters


finished packing upstairs.



“It’s not all going to fit, is it,” Mom said. She ran her hand across the dark wood cabinet


as if checking for dust. “Do you want it, Ginger?” Her dark brown eyes darted in my direction.


“You should have it. You’re the only one who knows how to use it.”


I approached the walnut cabinet and lightly touched its lid, a gesture of respect bordering


on reverence for the Singer sewing machine tucked inside. I knew she might ask me to take it.


What I hadn’t expected was the profound sadness I felt at the thought of Mom having to part with her


most prized possession. Not prized in terms of dollars—a Singer manufactured in 1945 or ’46


wouldn’t command the price of an antique—but because she had owned it for seventy years, used it


to sew millions of stitches in hundreds of yards of fabric, most of it as clothes for me and my sisters.


She had poured her heart into those clothes, using buttons and bows to say ‘I love you.’


She taught me how to sew on that machine the summer before my freshman year in


college. My sisters and I, being close in age and size, wore each other’s clothing. When I


realized going away to college meant dreadfully depleting my wardrobe, I asked her to teach me


how to sew.


My first lessons dealt with fabric and patterns. The only area in our 800-square-foot house


large enough to cut out patterns was the living room floor in front of the couch. We would spread the


fabric across the carpet, carefully position the tissue-thin pattern pieces on it, using the weight of


table knives to hold them in place. Once all parts were accounted for, we pinned them to the fabric


and cut them out. I always asked Mom to check what I pinned before I made the first cut. My part-


time job didn’t pay enough to buy more fabric if I goofed.


I was a slow and hesitant seamstress. Mom was inspiring. She used to complain about having


stubby fingers, but those fingers were light as butterflies when they fed a piece of fabric through the


Singer’s rapid-fire needle. She was also meticulous. She used to frustrate me by insisting I rip



something out and do it over, especially when the do-over was on the inside of a garment where


no one would see my mistake. That summer, I mastered changing thread, adjusting stitch size,


filling bobbins, sewing straight seams and putting in zippers, but Mom always attached the


buttonhole maker and created buttonholes for me.


Some of the angst I’d felt while learning to sew hit me again as I struggled for a way to


decline Mom’s offer. She’d be the happiest woman in the retirement center if I said yes. If I said


no, I would need an unassailable excuse, spoken gently, yet firmly.


I gave the cabinet a loving pat, kept my eyes on its dark brown lid when I said, “I’m


sorry, Mom. I just don’t have room for it. I’d take your Singer in a minute if I did.”


Feeling penitent as a naughty third-grader, I looked up, saw Mom’s lips pursed in a knot.


I waited for the argument sure to follow, but it didn’t come. Perhaps she thought an


uncomfortable silence would make me remember some space in my house I had forgotten about.


Getting back on task, I picked up a box of framed photographs and set it on the


kitchenette’s counter. The top photograph was of the four of us on Mom’s 75th birthday.


“Remember this?” I held up the photograph, hoping it might brighten her mood. “Hard to


believe that was 22 years ago.” She glanced at the photograph, then turned her attention to the


pot of ruffled begonias I’d brought down earlier.


Most likely she was ignoring me, though she sometimes lost interest in the middle of a


conversation. She was beginning to need help with dressing, showering, keeping track of her meds.


She could still walk short distances using a cane but needed a wheel chair to get back and forth to


meals, vespers and social activities.


She turned her little brown eyes on me. “You never know when you might need a sewing


machine. Maybe hem a skirt? Make curtains?”



Aha, the argument. I opened the top drawer of Mom’s dresser and put the photograph


inside. I know,” I muttered, “I’ll probably be sorry I didn’t take it.”


This was only partially true. I was deeply sorry for my mother’s sacrifice, but besides not


having room for her sewing machine, I no longer had the time or patience to sew. That, plus moving


a heavy hardwood cabinet with a solid steel sewing head bolted inside meant I would have to rent a


U-Haul, hire someone to load it, and then drive the precious cargo nearly four hours to my home.


About then, youngest sister Susan walked in and set a large plastic bin on Mom’s lap.


“This contains old birthday and Christmas cards. Do you still want them?”


Mom unsnapped the lid and glanced inside. “I don’t have time for this. I’ll go through it


later.”


“Where would you like me to put the bin?” Susan asked.


Mom gestured impatiently. “I don’t know...try the linen closet.”


The linen closet was full, so Susan put the bin in the clothes closet. “We’re almost done


upstairs,” she said with a smile. “Just a few more trips.”


“Need me to come with you?” I asked.


Susan shook her head. “We’ve got it handled. With Karen packing, me bringing things


down, and you unpacking, we’ve got a good system.” She pointed at five cartons stacked at one


end of the room. “You should clear some space over there. The movers are bringing her bed


down next.”


Susan left for another armload. As I went back to rearranging Mom’s dresser, I felt her


eyes on me again.


“So?” she said.



“There wasn’t room in the linen closet, Mom. Susan put the bin of cards on the floor


under your clothes. Don’t you want that space for shoes?”


“Forget about the cards. Are you gonna take my Singer?”


The raw edge of frustration in her voice was justifiable. The first thing I used to hear


when I came home from school was the whirr of her sewing machine. She kept it in the room she


and Dad slept in. I had to walk by that room to get to the bedroom I shared with my sisters. Most


days I saw her silhouetted in the window, head bent over her work, adjusting hand-me-downs


people had given us or sewing an item from scratch. Occasionally, she sewed something for


herself to wear to church. Otherwise, she wore slacks and house dresses while making sure my


sisters and I were dressed as nicely as the rest of the girls at school, including the fluffy gowns


we wore to proms and other formal dances.


What was she thinking about during the hundreds of hours she sat at that machine? The


country school she attended didn’t have clubs, organized sports or formal dances like my sisters


and I enjoyed. She began high school in the middle of the Great Depression; left after her


sophomore year to work as a switchboard operator. Did she resent the disparity between our lives


and hers, or did she figure sewing for us was just part of being a mother? Though we didn’t


realize it at the time, her patience and generosity were implicit lessons. Whether sitting at her


Singer or dispensing advice, the paradigm she set stitched us to her and the three of us to one


another for the rest of our lives.


“It still runs like a dream,” Mom continued.


“I know. Amazing, when you consider all the use it’s had.”


“They don’t make ‘em like this anymore. All the parts are metal, not plastic.”



“I remember you saying this was the first sewing machine you ever owned. It’s far more


complicated than today’s dial-a-stitch models with built-in buttonholers and self-threading


needles. You learned how to use it all by ourself.”


Her expression softened. “I got it after all three of you were born. Your dad and I were


lucky to find it. They weren’t making ‘em during the war.”


I nodded in approval; turned my attention to the five cartons sitting where her bed had to


be placed. I knew those cartons held yards of wool gabardine, polyester double knits, batiste,


poly/cotton broadcloth, corduroy, taffeta in an array of colors. The only sewing Mom had done


for the last twenty years was to hem her pants or shorten sleeves, yet, ‘I might sew something’


was always the excuse she gave for hanging onto enough fabric to sew something for every


woman in the retirement center.


“What about all this fabric, Mom? There just isn’t room for it.”


Mom’s chin began to quiver. She almost never cried, even when past circumstances had


warranted it.


“You’re determined to get rid of my sewing machine, aren’t you?” She swatted the air.


“Just sell the damn thing, then.”


A needle of angst pierced my chest—a blend of guilt, sympathy and disappointment at


her lack of appreciation for what her daughters were doing to get her moved. Mom must have


known this assisted living apartment would be her last home. My sisters and I were trying to ease


the emotional transition.


“I’m going to put this fabric out in the hall for the time being.” I said calmly. “The


movers are bringing your bed down any minute.”



I set the five cartons in the hallway and went back to reorganizing drawers. After the


moving men set up Mom’s bed, my sisters added sheets, blankets and comforter. It was almost


noon, so we offered to take Mom to lunch at a nearby restaurant. Instead, she decided to eat with


her lady friends. Chatting with them over meals was one of the bright spots in her daily routine.


Plus, she was still angry with me over the Singer.


----------


After lunch, my sisters and I spent a couple of hours emptying boxes, laughing,


reminiscing, chatting with Mom while we hung family pictures and celebrated finding places to


store things. At 3:00, the head nurse came in to administer afternoon medications. When she


oohed and aahed over how nice the room looked, Mom’s poker face finally brightened.


Without saying where I was going, I stepped into the hallway to check on the cartons of


fabric. Mom had parted with many items that day without making a fuss if they went to someone


she knew. My car already held four boxfuls of items she no longer needed, didn’t have space for, or


were too small to wear. I had accepted her castoffs graciously—a turquoise bathrobe, books, Santa


and Mrs. Claus salt and pepper shakers, vegetable steamer, set of knives. Since I didn’t live


close, I doubted she would ever visit me again, so I planned to keep the vegetable steamer and


bathrobe, but donate the rest of the items to a thrift shop when I got home.


I couldn’t use this pretense with the five cartons. Why would I take fabric but not a


machine to sew it? I remembered a quilter friend of mine and called her from the hallway.


Unfortunately, my friend used mostly prints to make quilts, and all of Mom’s fabrics were solids.


The woman did, however, know of an organization that gave sewing materials to women who


couldn’t afford them. I told Mom about the organization, and when she learned the fabric would


go to someone in need, she agreed to donate all five cartons.



“But don’t give away the Singer,” she cautioned. “It’s too valuable.”


----------


My sisters and I knew it wouldn’t be easy to find a home for a heavy, outdated sewing


machine. Susan and her husband hauled it to their daughter Kari’s house for a yard sale. None of


the yard-salers were interested, so it sat in Kari’s garage for weeks until Jean, Kari’s husband,


overheard a woman at his health club mention she liked to sew. He told her he had a sewing


machine for sale, and a few days later the woman bought it for forty dollars. Forty dollars? We


thought Mom would throw a fit when we handed her the check.


A dry grin spread across her face. “That’s about what your dad paid for it.” No one


mention the word inflation or that seventy years that had passed.


Mom never talked about the Singer again. During the eighteen months she spent in the


assisted living studio, she mostly napped, watched TV or chatted with people who came to visit.


She had been remarkably hearty for a woman her age. I figured she would stretch her time on earth


like the elastic she sewed into waistbands, but her heart gave out at 99 and a half.


----------


A little over a year after Mom died, two of her great-granddaughters learned to sew.


Their elementary school offered special interest classes outside the regular curriculum, and both


girls picked sewing. Oh, how I wish Mom had lived long enough to know that!


Special interest classes were held during the last period of the day. The girls had just


finished their second sewing lesson when it was their father’s turn to drive them home. No


introductions were necessary when he entered the sewing room. Their teacher was the woman


who purchased Mom’s Singer.




BIO


 

Ginger Dehlinger has published two novels (Brute Heart, Never Done) and a children’s book (The Goose Girl’s New Ribbon). Her poetry appears in numerous journals and anthologies, and her short story “Francine” was first runner-up in the 2022 Saturday Evening Post Great American Fiction Contest. 


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