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Time In A Shoebox

I’d meant to organize my photos – twenty-years worth that lived in shoe boxes in closets and cupboards throughout the house. I hadn’t thought I’d be organizing the history of me and my mother. When I undertook this great task, I expected it would tax my organizational skills, and my wallet, as my desired result was a library of aesthetically pleasing photo albums, indexed by year and uniform in size and type. What I didn’t expect was an emotional journey through time, marked by the images of the many outfits I had designed and sewn for my late mother throughout those years.

My mother grew up in Italy and learned all the required needlecrafts that tradition dictated for a young girl. These included embroidery, an ancient drawn thread work technique called “punto a giorno,” and simple hand sewing. My mother meticulously hand-stitched every pant and skirt hem and taught me to do the same, with specific instructions to space the stitches evenly and above all never ever pull the stitches too tight, risking unsightly puckers on the right side of the garment. She didn’t have the patience or the time to teach me many things so I treasured this lesson. She wasn’t interested in making clothing but she taught herself to make aprons and sometimes, because she didn’t trust her hand drawing ability, she borrowed my valentine cards to make patterns for heart shaped pockets.

I embroidered as a young girl, but my real interest revolved around sewing clothing. I started sewing when I was in elementary school and continued to sew under the guidance of Mrs. Robb, my high school Home Economics teacher who challenged us with interesting projects. While she offered options of varying difficulty, I was always drawn to the most difficult patterns and fabrics and chose outfits where I had to match plaid, insert a zipper or make complicated pockets.

When I was in my twenties, I took my passion for sewing to another level by learning to make patterns and design original clothing. My mother was one of my early guinea pigs, and a reluctant one at that. Visualizing what could become of a bunch of fabric scraps with threads hanging off of them was not easy for her and it seemed that I had to prove myself to her every time. She squirmed and complained like a five-year-old, gesticulating to the point of ripping out my basting stitches. I even attempted to move her away from mirrors but she was not compliant. Those first fittings, which I tried to assure her, were more for my benefit than for hers, always left me wondering why I ever agreed to sew for her in the first place.

She was as impatient to get to the end product as I was fearful of her not liking what she saw when I was done. She always pushed me to be better than even I knew I could be but did it in a way that made me doubt myself. She balanced this with always worrying that I was taking on more than I should. As a young mother, I worked full-time and started to sew for others as a home business. She was appalled, not because she thought I wasn’t good enough but because she worried that my customers wouldn’t be satisfied with my work. My mother lived by the belief that she was allowed to comment on my shortcomings but that privilege was hers and hers alone.

As I waded through the many photos of birthdays, anniversaries, weddings and our children’s recitals and soccer games, there they were. Pictures of my mother wearing my original designs at a family wedding or other special occasion or donning the skirts she wore every day (always with the mandatory pockets and a side zipper) that I insisted on lining because they hung better, even though she still wore a slip under them. The best compliment of all, after all those painful fittings and uncertainty (on my part) as to whether the finished product was really up to her standards, was when someone complimented her outfit and she shone with pride and said, “My daughter made it. Isn’t she talented?“ She was stingy with praise directed my way, so these were monumental moments.

As I got closer to the shoebox from 1998, the year she died, it felt like I was saying goodbye to her all over again. I had pictures of my mother in my house, so I was totally unprepared for the impact of my chronological journey through shoeboxes. It came to an inevitable end when I found a picture of my mother, two months before she died, at my cousin’s wedding. I had forgotten about this picture, but when I saw it, I knew it was the last one. I had designed a forest green two-piece outfit for her, incorporating features that hid her incisions and scars, without sacrificing style and elegance. The opaque, but lightweight fabric I had chosen, made the top flow comfortably without clinging and the lining gave the skirt a bit of structure, even though she wore her beloved slip.

Happy to see so many familiar faces, she’d held onto my arm, and insisted on walking around the banquet hall to socialize, until I could feel her start to tire and with difficulty, convinced her to sit down. Even then, she held court as friends and family, some that hadn’t seen her during the 18 months of her illness, visited our table, pretending not to notice how thin she was and commenting on how much they loved her outfit. Someone had captured the moment, and her expression, as she shone from ear to ear.


Norma Gardner retired from the corporate world a few years ago. Her longtime side gig as a seamstress is mostly limited to taking requests for superhero capes and the like, from her grandchildren. She is content to spend time with family and friends, travel, write, and perfect her sourdough recipes.

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