This message came over the weekend.
Do you remember Deborah L? She moved from Hampton when we were in the fifth grade. She remembers someone making dresses for her and going out for a fitting. She thought maybe it was my Mom since she sewed, but her description of the house was not ours.
“Your house was a red brick ranch on a small hill outside of Hampton. Didn’t you have a pony?”
I’m not sure if the pony has anything to do with the dress fitting question, but thought I’d ask if maybe this was your Mom. I told her that maybe it was Miss Helen, but that didn’t ring a bell with her. We rode the school bus together, but I don’t remember ever seeing your house.
All kinds of bells went off when I read this.
First of all, my memory of kids from the fifth grade depends on how many brain cells I have left at this point in life. Not many. Memories are based on connections with a core group that spent 12 years together. Like Audrey.
I remember the guys I played ball with, or was in Scouts with, or who I rode in the back of pickup trucks with throwing bottles at mailboxes. I remember Robert, who should have been in 7th grade, throwing a baseball glove at me from across the room and breaking out a window.
I remember the girls I had crushes on, or played spin the bottle with, or handed notes to that said something clever like: “Do you like me? Yes. No.” I remember Mrs. Rhodes who taught us and Miss Mary Welch who whacked us with a wooden ruler, but unfortunately DL is not coming up on my registry of memories. Forgive me.
Second. Yes, by granny, I had a pony. My Dad must have been nuts for letting me have him. He was a Palomino that I called Trigger. He was mostly unruly and hated to be ridden. He would turn his head around and try to bite me on the shinbone. The belly strap came loose one time and he dumped me in the briars along Simpson Mill Road. I’m pretty sure that when he left us, he was headed off as a prospect for Elmer’s Glue and Purina.
The memory that clicks the most is the red brick ranch house that sat up on a slight knoll above Hampton Locust Grove Road. I guess if you’re little and you drive out to our house from Hampton, and you cross the bridge over Towilaga Creek, the rise coming up from the creek feels like a big hill. I must have crashed my bicycle a million times on that tar and gravel speeding down to the creek. And somewhere in the bowels of that little house was my Mom’s sewing room.
Mama quit school in the 8th Grade. I’m not sure when or from whom she learned to sew but sewing was a necessary and enduring part of her world. As a teenager, when she moved away from home in Walton County, she went to work for the Griffin Hosiery Mill sewing up the toes of socks by the thousands.
When I was little, her sewing machine sat in front of the big window in her bedroom. On Saturdays, there would be a parade of women and young girls in our house to be measured and fitted for dresses. My bedroom was the fitting room. No telling how many Hampton girls and ladies wore one of Mama’s dresses. Needle and thread and bobbins and pedals were her pallet of paints and fabric was her canvas.
“You go outside and play for a while. Me and Miss Inez need to try on this dress.”
The idea of women changing clothes in my bedroom was kind of creepy. But I did get to watch her do fittings for my sister.
“Mama, tell him to get outta here.”
“Oh, he ain’t bothering nobody and he’s not gonna see anything he ain’t already seen. Now, stand still before I poke you with one of these pins.”
Mama with a cloth measuring tape draped around her neck. A mouth full of straight pins pinched between her lips like a carpenter with finish nails. Tugging. Tucking. Folding. Pinning up the hem. Adjusting the sleeves. There were so many pins sticking out everywhere that I often wondered how my sister got the dress off without bleeding.
When my grandmother passed and I moved to her room, my old bedroom became the sewing room. Bolts of material leaned up in the corners like logs. A cutting table where my bunkbed used to be. Simplicity patterns stacked on shelves like a veritable library of dress making.
The week before Easter was her own version of March Madness. She sat for hours at her machine pushing spring flowered prints of yellow and pink and blue through the needle. Snipping off corners of fabric. Biting off the end of a freshly filled bobbin and threading a new spool down from the top.
Looking back now, I admire this woman. She always bemoaned the fact that she had no education, but to me she was the smartest seamstress who ever lived. She could make her own patterns if the store-bought ones didn’t work right. Her dresses were masterpieces, and everybody wanted her to make a new dress for Easter.
Nell Driskel was a regular customer to our house. Seems like one time she decided to make her own dress. She brought it out to Mama, maybe a little embarrassed. “Helen, can you fix this? Lord, I don’t know what I was thinking to try and make a dress on my own.”
Mama agreed. “Oh honey, this is a mess.” They laughed as only friends can do. Mama worked into the night. Pulling out stitches. Reworking seams. Adding a piece here that wouldn’t be seen. All so Easter would be perfect.
She eventually not only made dresses for her and for Marian, but she made suits for me and Dad. When I was about 15, I stood impatiently for my own fitting. A navy-blue leisure suit made of stretch nylon. Wide lapels with white thread outlining the edges. A paisley shirt with balloon-like sleeves and even wider collar. A white belt to set off the ensemble. We went to Church on Easter Sunday in style.
I don’t wear suits much anymore. I must have had five or six that she made that I kept around for long time as a young man. But yesterday, for Easter, I wore a suit and tie. I thought about her and how we used to wear a rose on our lapel for Mother’s Day. Red to honor the living. White to remember the past.
Hardly an Easter ever comes and goes that I don’t think about her. The sound of her sewing machine. Her hands moving a pair of scissors flawlessly around the edges of a pattern pinned to dress material laid out on the table. Her focus given to the work in front of her while I watched cartoons on Saturday mornings. The light on over her work late at night.
If I had the chance, I promise I would stand still for just one more fitting.