By Dena Amoruso
I didn't really have to clandestinely whisk away Mom's sewing basket into my car during a recent visit to my parents' house; I suppose I was afraid to ask my father if I could take it with me for fear he'd say no. It seems as though everything that had belonged to my mother is now sacred to him.
And after all, I had my own sewing basket - an efficient plastic see-through box with a removable tray that Mom had bought for me years ago. But, I reasoned, my sewing basket doesn't contain the right color thread to hem dad's trousers . . . a pretty lame excuse, I must admit. For heaven's sake, how long does it take to run to the grocery store for a spool of khaki colored thread? Even now that she's gone, I am amazed at the reliance we all have on my mother for the simplest of tasks. Whatever it was that possessed me to require the use of this sewing basket at the time forced its secret journey home that day. And so, in relative anonymity with a sweater draped over it, it was spirited away with no one else's knowledge.
Upon my return home, I found myself struggling for awhile with the reasoning behind this bizarre act. Trying desperately to understand my motive, I pondered the possibilities. As I approached another anniversary without Mom, I was faced daily with the feeling that I was not someone's "little girl" any more. A constant ray of unconditional love in all our lives, Mom brought a quality of grace, innocence, domesticity, and maternal "religion" difficult to match by any woman, least of all me. Missing from our lives a few years now, we are still dumbfounded by her disappearance due to a weak heart. Perhaps the sewing basket was a reminder of the multitude of little tasks she performed for her family, and somehow brought her back to me in some intangible way, if only for a brief moment.
Of course, it was all so overwhelming. The idea that I would ever have to face any segment of my life without her. Although common sense dictates that we will eventually lose our parents to old age or illness, no one in my family could fathom the thought of Mom just not being there any more. My natural instinct at the time was to capture as many memories and details of my mother's life on paper as I could from my singular daughterly perspective. So, within the first few months following her death, I spent hours burning up the keys of my word processor. The laser printer churned out my work of memorial to the earthly angel we called Mom, while I proceeded to purge, express, celebrate, and create her legacy. My motive? So that my daughter (her only grandchild) and my daughter's daughter may someday understand the stock of women from whence they came.
As noble as it may sound, however, I have today discovered that it will never be printed words or flowery expressions of memory that will provide for us a meaningful link to Mom's existence. It will be the simple items she left behind that will remind us of her love for us. What brought this realization to my attention was the sewing basket of which I speak. Safely sheltered in the darkness of the closet of a spare bedroom at my parents' home, the sewing basket's ostensible need, created by my father's simple request to hem some trousers left me both flattered and honored with the transference of maternal duty from mother to daughter. My mother had been the sole person on which Pop had relied for such chores for fifty years. Since her departure, I have tried to clean and straighten their home when I visited, trying to sound and act practical and mature, while the overwhelming presence of my mother wafted from each room full of knick-knacks and specially placed furniture as I scrubbed and dusted.
It was amazing to me that a simple sewing basket could become a symbol of a caring nature and love of family; a reminder to help ease the pain during such a difficult transition. Discussions about my mother lessened for a while as my family tried to cope and some healing time passed. Today, many of us wouldn't think twice about paying a fee to a department store or dry cleaner's seamstress to hem a pair of trousers. Our lives are so busy - full of two-parent paychecks, soccer practices, and those much needed fast-food meals when our schedules leave us not time to shop, cook, or clean (a likely excuse). Even though many of us "baby boomers" were spawned from a generation of stay-at-home mothers who learned early on to express their love for their families by domestic doting, I doubt that I will ever possess the simple dedication to wifely and motherly duties exemplified by the mother and women like her.
I slowly began to realize the reason and the need for acquiring this precious vessel of memories and the physical cargo contained within. As I carefully opened the blue wicker basket, its crevices seasoned with dust from years of service, I am first impressed by its orderliness. Under the calico patterned cushioned lid, a plastic tray sits atop its cache of contents, its crackled edges lovingly mended with duct tape. The usual sewing scissors and seam rippers lay untouched since Mom's departure, and it suddenly occurred to me that some of these items are the very ones I used as a teenager during my sewing classes, at a time when "Home Economics" was required of junior high school girls. I am amazed now that I actually made clothes for myself at one time. After all, admiring handmade clothes sewn by teenagers - or even adults for that matter -is nowadays an activity saved for state fairs, where these creations are displayed for throngs of city dwellers. We are fascinated by this dying art and awed by the time, concentration, and planning it must take to accomplish a fully completed handmade article, let alone the skill required to make the garments appear store-bought.
Touching these simple sewing implements somehow transported me to that awkward age. Mom was always there to compliment and mildly critique my handiwork. I could never determine whether her flattery on the speed with which I threw together an A-line skirt was merely an attempt to make me feel good about myself, or a prediction on how long it would take for my hastily-sewn clothes to fall apart! My creations were never made with the attention to detail and time it took for Mom to turn out her masterpieces. Her seams were always straighter, the clothes she made fit the wearer better, and the unmatched concentration she displayed seemed to result in a thing of beauty every time. Mom's pat answer to my queries of why this was so was always the same. "It's because it was made with so much love," she would say, her eyes glistening. Of course, the depth of this statement was lost on a 14 year old, to be left unappreciated until I was a mother in my own right. More and more, I find myself wanting to echo lessons such as this to my own daughter, as she rushes through tasks at home with reckless abandon.
I search further into the basket's depths. A box originally made for straight pins efficiently holds a collection of buttons gleaned from discarded dress shirts worn by my father and brothers. An unopened supply of safety pins, price tag still attached, sits next to an almost depleted card of Velcro fasteners, a vague comment on the progress of human ingenuity. Various sewing machine screwdrivers and zipper attachments are hidden among thimbles and small boxes of machine needles.
As I lift up the tray to reveal a recess of valuable sewing notions, my nostrils are filled with the faint fragrance of mothballs, an aroma that instantly causes me to remember my immigrant grandmother's apartment. I'd swear I hadn't smelled that since I was a child, and now it was here to validate another grandmother's simple existence. As I peer into the brightly lined basket, an entire collection of colored threads dares me to choose from its assortment. Naturally, the perfect color spool of cotton for repairing Pop's trousers is contained there. Beneath it lies a thrifty little plastic bag with its zippered and closed top, boasting another collection of salvaged buttons. This time, however, the buttons are still attached to a scrap of fabric, as if Mom's time had become more precious to her in her later years.
At the very bottom of the basket are two items that have no real reason to be there except for sheer sentimentality. Mom hadn't used these items for years, and both looked as if they might have been brand new. One was an army sewing box; a small, cloth covered container of army uniform colored threads and buttons my dad must have carried with him during his years in the service. Mom had married Dad at the tender age of eighteen, the first boy she had ever been allowed to date. The pictures we have of our parents at the altar reveal my father in full World War II regalia. I'll never forget my mother's stories of how she blushingly presented her dashing lieutenant to her array of bobby-soxed girlfriends. Little did she know at that time that she was on the threshold of a life full of children, hard work and the kind of fulfillment she later claimed was made possible only through her faith in God and those she loved.
The remaining item was mine, and mine alone. A red velvet pin cushion I had stuffed and made when I was six or seven (with the help of someone else's mother to surprise my own) lay there, reminding me that I was indeed someone's little girl. Its heart-shaped softness and white, tulled edges stared up at me, and Mom's smile appeared in my mind. I could almost hear her "overdoing" it with unmitigated praise of my creation, making me feel almost "icky" inside for presenting her with such a mundane present on Valentine's Day. But to Mom, it was as valuable as diamonds themselves, and her flattery was as sincere as that famous smile she came to be remembered for.
I will endeavor to carry on these small traditions of practicality and the legacy of love and service to others I have inherited through the stories hidden for awhile in Mom's sewing basket. In an odd way, I think she must have known I would discover each and every item there, but I doubt that she would have predicted I would attach so much meaning to each one. Secretively slipping a simple sewing basket into my possession now seems to make more sense. Sometimes it is little, perhaps at first unnoticed articles of daily family life which give us the most strength in times of confusion and despair. Through my newly-found connection to the treasures within Mom's sewing basket, I can better understand my role as my mother's daughter. And perhaps, If I try hard to carry on Mom's legacy of giving and caring, my daughter may someday ask me how I accomplish the things I do in our busy lives, and I can respond "Because it's done with so much love."
Dena Amoruso runs a freelance writing business and is a self-syndicated real estate columnist. Recently deciding to pursue her love of writing full time finds her at home for the first time since her daughter was small. In an effort to expand her writing to real life women's issues, she will be writing for WAHM.com as a mother, daughter, and wife. We hope you enjoy her reflections on experiences (some humorous!) that we may all face from time to time.