Artifact Threads: On Daughters, Mothers, Ex-girlfriends (and Sewing Boxes)
Inside his sewing box was an old girlfriend’s felt heart, stuck with pins. Throw it out, he says. I don’t.
My daughters are as different as artichokes and apples. One is cerebral and very witty, as befits a Hollywood writer. The other is kinetic and flexible, just right for a rock climber who’s scaled El Capitan and is a seasoned art teacher in a tough urban school. Both of them think I’m a bit nutty. But on one issue they are exactly alike. They like me to do their mending.
This is a challenge as the fabrics they favor are hard-to-sew synthetics. But never mind. I love mending. It’s an opportunity to repair, to fix, to heal. And heaven knows there’s been plenty in our lives that’s needed that: Both daughters are the children of divorce, both had to deal with a single mother, and we’ve had a pile of “issues” to “work through,” as the saying goes.
There are socks to darn, seams to sew, buttons to attach, tears to patch. My assignments include my grandsons’ clothes but since these boys are still growing they seldom wear their clothes out except in the case of hand-me-downs, which may need some accommodation.
To do my best, I need needles and threads, buttons and seam binding. This takes me to their sewing boxes. One daughter’s is small and neat, the spools ranged by color, the needles in a cute felt case, a funny pair of bird-shaped scissors with blade tips tucked under the pin cushion. The other daughter’s is a large plastic bin. Sewing things compete with art supplies. There’s a jumble of fibers—raffia, wool, synthetics with spikes like tinsel, embroidery threads—and tools, including crochet hooks, safety pins, combs, scissors with little wads of glue stuck to the blades. Once in a while I recognize a swatch of fabric cut from the older one’s orange silk tunic, or a notion, such as a set of buckles with which to fix the straps of one of the younger one’s four pairs of ski pants. But mostly I’m in the dark as to what belongs to what. And I never see evidence of anything male—no collar stays, no ties losing their lining—because my intrepid sons-in-law are casual dressers. The whole lot of them are adults in their forties. They are who they are; there is so much about them I can only guess at, so little I really know.
Long ago I spent many hours browsing through my mother’s sewing box. Made of dark wood, it was about four by six by three inches, with a hinged lid. A bouquet of yellow and red flowers was painted on it, in a naïve style, petals and pollen on a stalk with a leaf here and there. My mother let me take the box out of a dresser drawer in the room I shared with my sister. That drawer was the only private space she had in our crowded apartment on 97th Street: My parents slept on pull-out couches in the living room. I lay on my bed and explored the box. An enchanting world lay inside. Mother-of-pearl buttons with lovely pink underbellies and little white pearly shanks huddled next to bone buttons shaped like a ram’s horn, a silver button hook, countless scraps of lace and ribbon. I especially loved the fragment of black silk with dark pink flower petals on it. I imagined it as a dress with a smooth bodice and a flippy skirt that I could twirl around in and create a little breeze. There were ordinary things, too, plain white buttons to replace lost ones on my father’s and brother’s shirts, lots of white and brown darning thread—six very thin strands that clung together—for mending our socks. Two or three packages of garters were packed tightly at the bottom, needed for repairs to my mother’s girdles, and hooks and eyes with which to mend the backs of her bras.
As I write these words—“girdles” and “bras”—I feel a shiver of embarrassment. I knew my mother’s taste in art and music and loved her charming anecdotes about her family. But I hardly knew anything about her deeper emotions. Most mysterious of all was her body. I never saw my mother naked: The very thought of such a thing horrifies me as the violation of a taboo. The closest I got to her was the scent of her perfumes—Evening in Paris, L’Air du Temps, Mitsouko—which gathered in that dresser drawer and seeped into the sewing box. The box gave me access to her in ways that were closed off by other means. Its contents were a synecdoche of who she was, fragments that added up to her whole person. The pretty things—the silk, the buttons, the bits of ribbon and lace—were part of her European life, the opulent lifestyle she lost in the war. The homely dull bits were her American life, more involved with repairing than with making new. Sadly, the box got lost. Perhaps it was forgotten when we left New York in 1951 to go back to Belgium, where we’d come from. Perhaps it accompanied my mother throughout her later migrations to England, to Switzerland, to Holland. Perhaps someone who emptied her last home in the Hague after she died, threw it out, mistaking its treasure for a heap of brokenness.
During the first month that I lived with Phil, I asked him for a needle and thread to darn a tiny hole in my sweater. “It’s on the bedroom dresser,” he said. All I saw were a couple of inlay wooden boxes and a large square basket crafted out of dark brown cane. “Where?” I had to ask. He came into the room and pointed to the big brown thing. It looked like the jewelry case of a Japanese courtesan in an eighteenth-century print. I approached it gingerly, half expecting a golden lizard to pop out. It had two levels: the top one shallow, the bottom deep. The first thing I saw was a little felt heart covered with tiny felt flowers. The heart was stuck with needles and safety pins. Something about it made me uneasy. Before looking further—I hadn’t found thread or the size needle I needed—I brought the little heart to Phil. “Where did you get this?” I asked. “Oh . . .” he answered.
While the box was his, much of the contents belonged to my predecessor, a woman who lived with Phil for ten years. “Why did she leave it here?” I wanted to know. Phil had no good answers. I suspected that his lack of openness about the sewing box hid some information he didn’t want to share. I was especially bothered by the large drawstring bag that filled the bottom level: lots of tiny spools in many colors.
“Send it back!” I insisted.
“She doesn’t want it,” he assured me.
“She had a reason for leaving it here,” I said.
“She’s not like you,” he said. “She’s not much of a homemaker.”
I didn’t buy that answer either. I thought she’d left it as a way of making a claim on Phil, as a way of not letting him forget her.
A few years have passed now. The box is still there, with Peggy’s felt heart stuck with pins, and the concealed bag of spools. Phil tells me I can throw them out. But I don’t want to. That feels like a violation. I tell him he should. He doesn’t either.
The day I brought my sewing box into Phil’s apartment felt momentous. Three years after our first meeting, we had decided I’d move in full time. I was planting my turf marker. I was edging out that bag of spools, that little felt heart stuck with pins and needles. I was here to stay. That “other woman” was “old news.” But I have many second thoughts about that. One of us is the “girlfriend,” one of us is the “wife.” Peggy was an artist. I’m an academic. She was a blonde and a Unitarian. I’m a brunette turned gray and black—and a Jew. Those contrasts don’t get us far. How about this? Her sewing box had only a few buttons, nothing more than threads and needles. Mine is crammed with bits of elastic, lengths of Velcro, a few thimbles and sharp-edged sewing scissors and pinking shears left over from my sewing days, a packet of black garters I bought in London recently in case a garter belt I seldom wear needs repairing, and a bit of green-and-red woven ribbon that I once turned into a collar for the Jack Russell of a long-ago admirer. The fancy basket is the “girlfriend,” decorative and perky, of limited function. My wooden box is the “wife,” less attractive, a bit worn, but better equipped. Or is it the other way around?
All that stuff is as intimate as a lock of hair, part of something that was once touched by warm fingers, moistened by breath. The dip and thrust of the needle, the tension of the thread, now taut, now slack, now taut again, invokes the tides, measure of mortality. Just seconds ago, I was sewing dresses for my daughters, and seconds before that I was watching my mother hem my skirt. I stitch myself into the fabric of time, at once prey and ally to the Fates who spin thread and cut—and spin some more.