I Never Wanted To Be Like My Mom But Our Time Sewing Saved Our Relationship And I Am So Grateful
I am sitting in the back yard of our house in Menlo Park with my mom. She is teaching me to hand sew. The sun feels warm on the top of my head of long dark hair, and I am happy. I am wearing a red blouse and my favorite patchwork print skirt. The grass is scratchy and cool on my bare legs. I hold the sewing project on my lap, push the needle in and out of the fabric to make tiny stitches just like Mom taught me, and she is chatting now with our roommate Janet. She is not looking at me trusts me with my project. I feel big, like one of the grownups, doing what they do.
As I sew, nearing the end of the row of stitches, I can feel the sun feels hotter on my head, and beads of sweat have formed on the tip of my nose. Then I lift the fabric to show my mom my work. My whole skirt comes with it. I have sewn the hem of my pillowcase project right onto my favorite skirt. I start to cry.
Mom laughs, throwing her head back a bit, but righting herself quick when she realizes I’m upset about my skirt.
“Oh, Michelle, don’t cry. Look, we can get that out.” She digs in her tin of sewing supplies and pulls out a seam ripper.
I sit in my blouse and underwear watching as she she pulls each stitch one-by-one, freeing my favorite skirt from the pillow case fabric.
My mom learned to sew from her abuelita, my great grandmother Lupe from Veracruz, and from her own mom too. Grandma Lupe sewed flamenco dancer costumes, doll clothes, mended her own clothes; she could sew anything, and passed this skill onto my mother who naturally wanted to pass the skill on to me. Only, I didn’t want to sew. I wanted to play in my punk band with my girlfriends instead.
My first memories of sewing with my mom are good ones, but as I grew older, and began developing my own interests, they all seemed opposite of sitting behind a sewing machine, and in high school I began associating sewing with dark days in high school, her in her full-blown addiction behind a sewing machine all day and all night for two or three days in a row, and me doing everything I could to get away from it all. Like many women, I have resisted being like my mom, even though I know very well that I sound like her, laugh loud like her, and I am wild like her too. For so many years of trying to be my own person, I rejected the things she is best at because I associated with dark times in high school.
As an adult, I’ve realized that sewing, which she also does for a living, is to her, like writing is to me, the thing that defines her, one of the things that she is best at.
Being taught to hand sew at the age of three, the memory of being close to my mom then is something that I have always cherished, and knowing how to sew came in handy many times over the years. But for most of my life, I never cared to learn to sew on a machine or make things from patterns. Even though Mom made sure that I have always had a machine in my house, I had many chances to learn, but I was afraid of the needle, all the loops, and thread, and the pounding foot. In my twenties, I owned a number of sewing machines given to me by mom, sewing machines that I never used that my mom thought were as necessary as a plunger or vacuum. I feared these sewing machines, and they collected dust until Mom came to visit and I needed something hemmed: a pair of jeans, a second-hand dress. I left the cute blue sewing machine, which she claimed was easy to use, behind in the attic of a house I rented in my twenties. She took back the heavy black Singer because I had complained it smelled like it was on fire and because she knew it was too complicated for me to operate on my own.
Then ten years ago, the stakes higher than ever before, with me, her oldest daughter now in her forties, she bought me a new current model machine. She really hadn’t given up on the idea of passing this craft on to one of her children, or of me, the family academic (good with my brain), learning to operate a machine, learning to sew.
When I began to use the machine, I started on easy projects, sewing rick rack on tea towels with her help, and then altering old clothes, attaching an old skirt with the stretched-out elastic to an old top to make a dress. As I sewed more, I surprised myself by how much I already knew. I guess, since I had seen my mom at her sewing machine so often over a ten year period before moving away from home, and listened to her talk out loud about what she was working on, that I had by osmosis drawn some of the knowledge into my own body where it lay dormant but ready for access when needed. And whenever I sit down at the sewing machine, I feel like my mom, the same flick of the wrist when I drop the foot lever down, the snip, snip, sound of my scissors cutting the thread.
And each time I sit down behind my sewing machine, I learn something new about mom and understand why she has wanted me to learn all these years. I have learned how she sees the world, how it looks from over the top of a sewing machine, the details she sees when she eyes beautiful fabric and imagines how it might look on an apron, the cut of a dress, a delicate lace hem. I see her as I reach up to roll the wheel forward by hand to back the needle up and out of the thread so I can cut it and move onto the next area in need of stitching. I can feel her in my breath when exhale and flick the foot lever down so it will hold the fabric in place. I know what it’s like to feel the hum of the sewing machine motor under my hands, the rush of excitement for the moment I can pull the work from the machine and see how it turned out, knowing whether my mom would approve or disapprove, her standards for good work as my guide.
And I know what it feels like to create something tangible with my own hands, to take many parts and pieces and put them together, and the ways in which creating in this way is not unlike writing–crafting living documents of our lives.
Our relationship has changed a lot of over the years, but I know my mom has sometimes has a hard time relating to me, and I know she feels I haven’t always seen her the way that she sees herself. She didn’t finish high school and she had me when she was eighteen. I graduated high school, went to college, traveled, seen places she’s only dreamed of seeing, waited until I was in my thirties to have a child, and I only had one.
Still, mothers want to pass something on and like all mothers, my mom wants to be understood. And I have always thought I could understand her and why she did the hard things that she did all those years, but maybe she was right. I hadn’t really known her, not in the way she wanted to be known, because I didn’t practice or care to practice the craft, the art form that that defines her, the thing that distinguishes her from others, the thing that she is best at, the thing in which she excels. But I understand it now, how what she does feels, how it works, the time it takes, the patience (something she is often associated with), and the practice and the talent that it takes to be really, really good. I won’t ever sew as beautifully or as fluently as she does, and that’s not my aim, but I do feel closer to her for learning to sew, and I know now that’s all she ever wanted.