When my mom died, I inherited her sewing machine: nothing fancy, just a little entry-level Singer. It wasn't the industrial-weighted, institutional green one that once belonged to my grandmother and sat in a corner of my Mom & Dad's bedroom, tucked inside its own little table until it was somehow miraculously unfolded out of its hiding spot when it came time to make something. I learned to sew a seam on that machine. I'm guessing my mother did too, long before I was born. I'm not sure when that ancient Singer disappeared -- maybe while I was away at college? -- but during a Thanksgiving visit with my parents years later, my Mom decided she wanted to sew again, and that, since Christmas was coming, maybe a new machine could find its way under the tree.
I went to Target with her. Mom didn't want anything with bells & whistles, as she never really sewed garments or quilts, so she bought a basic Singer model with a few simple stitches. At Christmastime I wrapped up the box and left it under the tree. Of course she knew what it was -- that was half the fun! -- but it didn't matter. What mattered in the end was that she got sick and died and only used that machine a few times and now it was mine. The box, which she had kept in the garage attic, still had a tiny piece of wrapping paper stuck to it with scotch tape. I carefully peeled it off and saved it but now I don't know where it is. Somehow this leaves me heartbroken.
While I can say my mom taught me how to sew a seam, I can only claim to have become a sewer a couple years ago, thanks to a friend of mine who was a tailor. He took a new job managing a restaurant and had no more free time to alter all the skirts and dresses I'd given him in the months before, so I said, "Give me something to work on that you think I can do and tell me how." Trying to do this over the phone (he lives in Florida and I do not) did not really work very well, so I supplemented our conversations with YouYube tutorials and sewing blogs. My very first project was shortening a favorite thrift store floor length skirt and using the extra fabric to make a larger waistband. That project also gave me my first zipper and buttonhole experiences.
After that, I made pajama bottoms and my first dress, cut from an old sheet that I'd saved years ago specifically because I thought it would make a pretty sundress "if I ever learned to sew."
I made a skirt I'm sure my mom might have worn on a night out.
I learned to sew with stretchy knits.
Over time my skills improved but my sewing machine was becoming temperamental.
It made a heavy clunking sound, which the repair shop fixed, but they suggested that sooner or later I should think about getting a new one. If I was going to invest in a new machine, I wanted a good one, and those weren't inexpensive. Did I really see myself continuing to sew or was it just a temporary interest? I told myself that if I was still sewing a year after altering that first skirt, I would take the leap.
My mom left me part of a small IRA and every year I'm required to take a little bit of money out of it. Yes, I could reinvest it, but instead I consider it a yearly gift from Mom, as if she's asking "Is there something special on your Christmas wish list?" After that first year of sewing passed, she nudged me. "So what about finally getting that new sewing machine...?" Suddenly I felt sad. "But this was YOUR machine, Mom..." I wondered why I felt so attached; it wasn't the old green one that I'd grown up with. Nonetheless, it seemed to be a connection as strong as her perfume and pearls, which were now also mine. "Claud," she said, "you're sewing your own clothes. For Petes' sake, get yourself a machine that will last."
It was such a thrill to finally walk into my favorite Columbus sewing shop and try out a Juki. It was so quiet! Sewing through fabric felt like slicing through butter, not hammering away at an anvil (I could finally sew at night and not wake up my neighbors!) Plus there were unexpected luxuries I never even thought to want: it had an automatic needle threader (!) overlock stitches (!) You could program the foot pedal to do just about anything but fry an egg. It even said "hello" when you turned it on. Would I use all these extra amenities? It seemed almost too much. But then I thought, yes, you can make due with a falling-apart jalopy of a car for awhile -- it will get you from point A to point B -- but ohhh to have some air conditioning in the summer, comfortable seats, a good stereo (and to NOT have it spend half its time at the mechanic.) I handed over my credit card. This was a sewing machine that I could grow into.
I thought I might have buyers' remorse but I think I experienced the exact opposite. I was in love. Nothing beats buying local either. Sure, I could have saved a little money by shopping online, but there wouldn't have been anyone to share the joy with. Anita, the owner of Sew to Speak, was excited that I'd finally bought a new machine, and Jessica, one of the shop's teachers, spent an afternoon showing me how to use it before sending me back out into the world. A week later I sewed my first dress on my new machine and loved it.
Meanwhile, Mom's Singer sat on the floor. I didn't really know what to do with it. It didn't make sense to keep it, even as a doorstop or a decoration. But I still struggled. It had been so good to me. "Good grief, take it to the thrift store!" Mom said. Was she getting impatient?
It was a drizzly fall day when I finally wrapped the foot pedal and power cords around that sewing machine, put all its accessories into a plastic bag, and taped it to the side. I put it in the car, along with a bag of no-longer-worn clothes and a box of other stuff waiting for a next life at the Goodwill. The guy at the drop-off opened the door and sorted my things into different wheeled laundry carts: clothes, knick-knacks, etc. The sewing machine received its very own. It looked lonely sitting there at the bottom, all by itself. My eyes welled up. "It's not me in there," Mom said. "I know," I said. "But still."
If things had turned out differently, if my mother were still on this earth, every time I visited I'd put on a little fashion show after unpacking my suitcase. And like grade-school me bringing home some fresh-off-the-easel painting from art class, I would say: "Hey, Mom, look what I made!"