Thursday, May 17, 2018

Making the Best

 Irene Johnson in her studio, White Iron Lake, Ely, Mn, ca. 1982

My mom sewed for me, and both of my sisters.   In the 60's, girls weren't allowed to wear pants to school.  We wore cotton dresses, with gathered skirts, button-up backs, pockets, rick-rack, and bow back ties. She liked to add crisp white collars, and cuffs, which were always snapped on, so she could  wash them separately. She liked dark plaids for the start of school in September, but hounds tooth plaids, and cotton pique for spring.  The process of sewing a dress was the same for as long as I can remember, and involved me, and my sisters,  brought along to shop for fabric in  the dimly lit local department store, where she carefully evaluated the bolts of fabric.  We twirled on the tall stools at the pattern counter,  while she paged through heavy pattern books.

My little sisters were so bored and impatient,  they would lie down in the store aisle, whining, " Can't we go home yet?" Once we had the happy entertainment of our cat,  just retrieved from the vet, and still groggy,  that we carried around in a cake pan we'd just bought at the dime store across the street.
With patterns and fabrics selected,  she used to lay out the fabrics on the carpeted floor of the living room, pinning them out and cutting carefully. She had pair of dressmakers Wiss scissors which were never, ever to cut paper! Finally the day arrived when the dress was finished.  Wearing it for the first time was so exciting.  Who would notice?  I felt like a new, special person, sitting in the 4th grade of Miss Dankowski.  Sometimes, my mom made us  a set of 3 "sister" dresses for  each of her three girls.  Often, when she sewed a dress for me, she'd sew another little matching one out of the sewing scraps,  for my Ginny doll, with pockets!

She sewed in her bedroom, on the old, black,  Singer, with gold filigree,  that was her mother's.  An electric pedal modified the old treadle machine,  but it was the same one that was in her own mother's bedroom at the foot of the bed, where she slept with her mother.  "No, my father didn't sleep with my mother then.  They already had 4 children, and didn't have any other way to be sure they wouldn't get another one."  Before she was 40 years old, when my mother was just 8 years old, her mother died.

My mother and her sister, Marion, who was 2 yrs older than she, had to learn to do a lot of housekeeping in a short time. Pa, and her two older brothers were still home, and her mother's sister came to help. But,  much of the housework eventually fell to the girls.  "Thank goodness for the neighbor lady who showed me how to cook," my auntie Marion told me.  My mother said it was her job to start the cook stove fire, and Marion would cook.

My mother taught herself to sew, and knit. Later, she became a weaver.

"The neighbors used to say, 'Give those Peterson girls a piece of leather, and they'll make you a pair of shoes', " my mom told me, with a little pride.  I'd look down at my own scuffed, patent leather slip ons that I had cried to get, instead of saddle shoes in the shoe store, with a new sense of wonder.  How could I "make" a pair of shoes? I firmly believed my mother could have.

Our school dresses were sewn and hemmed, and worn, and ripped and repaired, and washed, starched,  ironed, and hung back in our closets, by my mother.  I remember calling to her, in the morning, when I was getting dressed for school, "Can I wear the blue dress with rick-rack?"   My mother, who liked to sleep in, called back sleepily from her bedroom across the hall,  "No, not yet.  Just wear the one you wore yesterday.  I just ironed the blue one."  Apparently my mother liked to admire a freshly washed,  ironed dress in my closet for at least a day before it went back into use.

I remember putting on my dress, and going in to sit on the side of her bed, so she could button up the
back, without leaving her bed.  I could tie my own dress ties behind my back, as soon as I learned to tie my shoes.

 I learned from my mother  there's no shame to sleeping in.  She also showed me how not to give in to fear, whether it was the Abominable Snowman that plagued my thoughts, trying to fall asleep at night, boys who bullied me at school,  or the Cuban Missile Crisis. My mother refused to be scared. She loved to make things, and sewed clothes, drapes, upholstery, tailored dresses.  She treasured fabrics, and collected the best of them. She loved French Vogue patterns. She made exquisite bound button holes.

She had married, instead of going to college, which always bothered her.  "Education is like a pair of pants," she quoted something she'd read to me, "if you're wearing them you, don't notice it, but if you're not,  you really miss them."  She read so much. We hated to see her start to read a book.  She'd disappear for hours, and would barely hear us if we asked about supper.  Supper was likely to be hard boiled eggs.  For the record, my mother never liked to cook.

When I can push back fear, or offer something to someone who I see can use my help, or when I stand up for someone who can't stand up for themselves, I know I learned this from her.  When I feel pleased and excited with something I've just taken off my loom,  I know I'm like her. She showed me how,  if I decide to, I can learn to do anything I want for myself.  Also, when I'm in a hard place, the only thing to do is to make the best of it.

Mom, you're still making the best of it.


Kate said...

Really lovely!

Cindie said...

What a wonderful post - thank you for allowing us all read your thoughts about your mother

Dave said...

Don’t know what prompted me to check your blog today but am happy I did.

Barb said...

Oh,'ve touched my heart by stirring my own memories of my mom doing these creative tasks.

I remember pretending the wheel on the sewing machine was the steering wheel of a car. Mom would pin pieces together while sitting in front of the treadle sewing machine and patiently wait for me, sitting on a high stool to her right, to finish "driving".

Thank you for sharing.

Hilary said...

This took me mother sewed all my dresses.........back in the day, when you couldn't wear pants to school.
I was glad to see you back.......I miss your posts.

Susan said...

Hilary, I’m so glad you connected with the dress sewing. I wrote this for my mom, and read it to her on the phone, before I posted it. I think she liked hearing it. We laughed about the shopping trips. I wish I wrote more on this old blog. It always feels good to write something new. for reading, honestly.

Morna Crites-Moore said...

Thanks for stirring up the many memories we have in common. The dresses with sashes, especially. Did you ever make the mistake of sitting on the toilet without first properly taking care with your sash? I know I did! That hideous moment when you realize the sash has dipped into the toilet and is all wet. As childhood mishaps go, it's right up there with the realization that you just stepped in dog doo and it's all over the bottom of your shoe. But I am driting off topic! It was a delight to read this post. Your mother is awesome. Thank you!

This link will take you to a photo you might enjoy. It is the back view, with sash, of a dress my mother-in-law made for her daughter, in the 1950s.

Morna :-)

Susan said...

Morna, I'd forgotten that detail! Yes, standing, mortified in the 5th grade girls' bathroom.

Thanks for reading. This is a very limited story about my mother's strong character and accomplishments. She's 87 now, and her memory is disappearing. I like to write stories about her, and then read them to her. She soon forgets, but she's very engaged while I read to her. I don't know how much she understands, but I love to write to her.

Jacqui said...

I love reading your writing, it builds bridges to my past; feeling the fabric by squashing it in your hand, being included in my mother's world, the timelessness of it all. Thank you kindly

Susan said...

Barb, Haha. Those sewing machines seemed like magic machines,

ARTISUN said...

I love that you are back blogging and sharing your mother with us. And what wonderful memories, thank you for that!

Susan said...

Artisan, Thanks! I didnt think I was gone. Apparently, time slipped by, and it appeared as if I'd stopped blogging.

Writing about my mom feels good to me. But, there's lots more to write about! I might have to pick up my pace.


riverweave said...

Mom at the sewing machine figured big in my life too. That's what you did then, I learned from her.
Guess I probably think of her every time I sit down to sew. Just this past weekend Annie visited and we
made a dress for a wedding she's in in September. It was the best. Love this post Susan.

Deb Lervaag said...

I have admired your weavings for many years. I pam particularly intrigued by your pick-up weaves. Could you point me in the direction of some resources on learning the pick-up technique? Thanks

jude said...

Time slipped by me and I missed this. Slowing down but always love your posts. This was beautiful.

Dawn of LaTouchables said...

Still miss your blog and your brilliant writing...but that's a good parallel---you miss a pair of pants when you're not wearing them. :-) XOX

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