(This is another special posting by Suzy. I hope you enjoy it.)
I have been sewing most of my life. I enjoy construction sewing, that is making clothing, as well as various decorative needlecrafts. My skills, like many other things we do in life, came out of necessity.
In the fall of 1950, when I was three, we were living in Norfolk, Virginia, because Daddy was stationed on the USS Leyte. At the time, I thought he was going to work on a ship called the Lady. Such are a child’s ears. In reality, she was a straight deck carrier that had been commissioned at the end of WWII, and was Showing The Flag in the Mediterranean during the summer and fall of 1950. As there wasn’t much else for Moma and me to do as we waited in the ship’s homeport, the summer had been filled with beach time.
I remember Virginia Beach as being beautiful with gentle waves, plenty of sun and a wide stretch of white sand. Lunch at the beach was warm lemonade, and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches seasoned with their share of sand. For years Coppertone Suntan Lotion had an ad campaign with a young girl, hair in pony tails, showing her deep tan when a puppy tugged on her swimsuit. I could have been that little girl. Moma was a strong believer in in their product, so I ingested my share of Coppertone along with my PB and Js seasoned with sand. In August the jellyfish arrived. I could still play in the sand, so we kept going to the beach. This idyllic phase continued until it was time for the neighbor lady’s children, who were a couple of years older than me, to go back to school. They were our traveling companions, so the beginning of the school year effectively ended our daily trips across Norfolk to Virginia Beach. I was so very envious. I wanted to go to school. They got to get dressed up. After all, this was the 50’s and boys wore slacks with button shirts, and girls wore dresses, and everyone carried a satchel for papers and books. I was so impressed because they were learning to read and write. In the 50’s parents were strongly discouraged from teaching their children to read before going to school as that was the job of teachers who would teach the children correctly. Hence, Moma wouldn’t teach me to read and I was bored.
Then, in the wee hours one night after the air had turned cool, the door bell rang, waking both Moma and I. She had a soft conversation with a half seen-man, softly closed the door, came back across our living room and scooped me up in a bear hug and kept mumbling, “Poor baby. Poor baby.” She took me to her bed, cuddling me while she explained that the ship Daddy was on wasn’t going to bring him home for a long time. I later came to understand that they went through the Suez Canal, across the Indian Ocean, and, after a brief stop in Japan, joined the “Policing Action” that was in Korea. Moma and I packed our belongings and drove north to a suburb of Philadelphia called Sharon Hill. There we moved into her mother’s house.
Hallowe’en followed soon after. Grandmom always bought a basket of apples and made a batch of gingersnap cookie. These were the treats she gave out each Hallowe’en. My great-grandfather, Pop, walked me to selected houses on both sides of the street, and a few on the street behind. This was not a time of “hitting” every house on the street. People only gave treats to children they knew, or in my case, knew Pop. I don’t remember how I dressed, but I have a strong memory of a mask I didn’t want at all. It was scratchy and kept slipping so that I couldn’t see the leaf covered sidewalk. I just held Pop’s hand tighter. From then, until the next time I had to wash my hands I had the scent of his pipe tobacco with me. He always smoked cherry. I really enjoyed walking with him, or sitting on his lap and inhaling the aroma of his pipe. To this day, more than half a century later, if I catch the scent of cherry pipe tobacco I can feel his hand and see his face.
One night shortly after we had arrived, Daddy showed up at the door without any notice. Mom and Grandmom were cleaning up from dinner and Pop and I were playing in the living room when the door bell rang. Daddy had gotten some leave, while the ship was in Japan, flew MATS (Military Air Transport Service) and arrived with a duffle bag and 36 hours to be sure we were all set up for the duration, whatever that turned out to be. Since Grandmom didn’t want more than help with the groceries, being “set up” included the first TV set in our family. I think it had a 10” screen. It had a black and white picture, rabbit ears, and two plastic knobs in the front below the screen. Black and white makes it seem as if the picture was clear. We would turn it on and wait. As the vacuum tubes warmed up, the picture gradually became decipherable on the screen. The grey-scale pictures were often hard to understand. Pictures of something happening in the dark were very hard to discern. The other knob was to select channels. Even though the knob had 12 numbers, there were three channels in the Philadelphia area: 3, 6, and 10. The broadcast day didn’t begin until late afternoon when most people were done work and ended at bedtime. Pop and I became fans of Howdy Doody and wrestling. We would watch the NBC test pattern disappear as the station signed on for its broadcast day. Then we would sing out loudly “It’s Howdy Doody Time.” After dinner, I would sit on Pop’s lap or the hassock in front of his chair while we watched wrestling or a boxing match until bedtime, somewhere shortly after 8 PM for me. The kids here were all in school, too. So I lived in a house with three adults. My grandmother would take me up and down the street to visit with various neighbors, but that wasn’t the same as playing with kids. I was bored, so most likely the grown-ups thought I was doing things I shouldn’t. My grandmother decided it was time I learned to use a needle. After all, idle hands are the devils playthings. Grandmom was a seamstress, having been apprenticed to a fashion house when she finished eighth grade. As she made “pin money” by sewing for others, Grandmom always had something in her house that needed hemming, a task she decided should be my first lesson. It was tediously slow. If I speeded up, I picked up too many threads with the needle allowing too much of my stitch to be seen from the right side. If I concentrated on only picking up one or two threads of the weave, I went far too slowly for my grandmother’s satisfaction. She decided that I was too young for fine work and would start me on something with a larger tool. Pop took one of her empty dressmaker size spools that she had emptied of thread and put five nails on one end. Grandmom found some scrap yarn and set up the spool by dropping one end of the yarn through the hole in the spool and then weaving the yarn around the nails, before taking a crochet hook and beginning to lift the under strand of thread over the strand above it and over the nail head. Each was done in turn then the little tail hanging out the hole was to be given a little tug. As she finished a round, she would weave more of the yarn around the nails so that there were two strands of yarn per nail. After she had done a couple rounds so that she thought it was secure she encouraged me to take up this task. My small muscle control was not very well developed yet, so it was a very time consuming and tedious task. Besides, I am not the most patient person, even as an adult, so waiting for the little worm of a knitted cord to come through the hole seemed an eternity. I kept putting the spool down and chewing my fingernails, picking at the cording on the edge of the sofa cushion, or anything else that caught my fancy. Eventually a bit of the knitted rope came out of the hole, but it never grew with any alacrity. I persisted in asking how much of this yarn worm I needed to make and what we were going to do with it when I had that much. People who do this successfully wind the cord into a flat mat. Depending on size the mats can be used to protect tabletops or floors. Mine never got long enough to wind into anything useful. After some amount of time my Grandmother decided that I was a hopeless Tomboy and would never learn to use a needle. I was permitted to run and play, but also given to understand that being a Tomboy was somewhat less than feminine and not very desirable.
When the Korean War was over my parents set up our own household again and I was no longer made to feel guilty for not enjoying the little knit worm. Upon our leaving, Grandmom told me she would keep the spool knitting safe for me so I could work on it whenever I would come to visit. You can imagine how excited I was about that.
When I was in 4th grade I was deemed old enough to be re-introduced to the concept of using a needle. I’m not sure whose idea it was, except that it wasn’t mine. For my birthday I was given an embroidery kit. It was a map of the United States with the name and picture of it’s flower in each of the states stamped on a piece of fabric. It came with enough thread for the project and a needle. I dutifully began outlining the USA and each state. I’m not sure if I finished the outlining or not before the entire project was crumpled, dirty, and whatever interest I had had was completely gone. I returned to exploring the canyons near our home in San Diego where we were then living. It was a lot more fun to take an empty cardboard carton and use it as a sled to go down the canyon wall than to attempt to ply a needle.
By the time I was in 6th grade, we were again living in the Philadelphia area, not too very far from Grandmom. I had joined the local Girl Scout Troop and was trying to earn merit badges for my sash. One was to be for sewing. Moma suggested I ask Grandmom to teach me to hem as making 3 dishtowels was relatively easy and inexpensive. Moma didn’t want to show me as she was left handed and afraid that that would spoil my technique. A couple of afternoons after we had made this decision, Grandmom was waiting for me when I got home from school. She had brought with her some new fabric for towels, a package of needles and a spool of thread. First, we cut the linen into convenient sizes. Next, she had me thread a needle and knot the thread. Still before I could put in one stitch, she showed me how to roll a quarter inch in twice to enclose the raw edge. No pins or rulers, one rolls the fabric as one stitches and needs to keep the hem even. Finally, a stitch. Here we go again. I remembered the lecture from my pre-school years: Anchor the needle in the roll, pick up one thread of the weave to show through on the good side, slip the needle back into the roll picking up a heavy eighth of an inch, and repeat. Again my stitches were too big when I had any speed, or much too slow. This time I had an incentive; I was determined to get that merit badge. I held that fabric taut and wielded that needle as best I could. I’d like to say that by the time I got to the end of the first short side I had the skill down and just zipped along to my goal, but it didn’t happen that way. The fabric became creased and somewhat dirty. Neither the stitches nor the hem roll were even. In fact, it was a pretty sorry job, but it was sufficient to earn the merit badge, which Moma made me sew onto my badge sash. After all, I had earned the badge saying that I could sew. Once the badge was on my sash I put the needles and thread in Moma’s sewing drawer and went to play with my girl friends. I remember hearing Moma tell Grandmom that I just wasn’t going to be a seamstress, that I must have taken after my other grandmother who couldn’t replace a lost button.
It was a couple of years before I would again attempt to learn to sew. The next time I had more motivation, but my goals were less realistic.
The last word:
I feel a sequel coming. Suzy continues to sew and does beautiful work.
Keep your sense of humor.