“Home,” as Jimmy Carter wrote, in a piece for The Bitter Southerner, “is a complicated idea.”
I’ve been sewing in the mornings, sitting in my chair by the window, sipping coffee and stitching in the few quiet moments before other more immediate responsibilities take the stage, which usually isn’t very long. Sewing, and this kind of hand-sewing in particular, is one of the few things that lends itself, for me, to an interrupt-driven reality. I can stop easily and then pick back up wherever I left off, whenever another opportunity opens.
The dress I’m making, in these fits and starts, is for my daughter’s graduation. She, with all of her classmates, will wear a white dress and walk down the aisle, with a flower girl at her side, in a ceremony that marks the end of childhood, in the traditional sense anyway.
I remember walking that walk, though I attended a different all-girls school. I remember the dress fittings and photographs, the excitement and relief. I was ready then, as my daughter is now, to launch forward and leave behind the things I felt sure I no longer needed.
The South topped that list.
Yes, I was leaving the South for good after high school. I was leaving the small-minded bigotry, fake gentility, and willful ignorance for a more sophisticated world of ideas and intellect, too young and inexperienced to know that all of those shapeshifters exist everywhere.
So I left. And then, unexpectedly, I came back. And stayed.
The dress I’m making for my daughter has an underlayer of Swiss cotton, the last remnant of white Swiss cotton that belonged to my mother. I saved this fabric for this occasion, or one like it, not knowing in advance precisely when I would use it but with the belief that the right time would present itself.
The underlayer needs the strength of machine stitching because it’s the foundation that holds the whole thing together, through sitting and standing and walking and dancing. If the foundation holds, the dress holds.
The top layer is made from antique curtains that belonged to my great aunt and might have been her mother’s. They were a gift to my mother when we set up a house of our own after my parents separated. Though this woman was my father’s aunt, it was with my mother that she had a close relationship. It was she who guided my mother through mothering, told my mother words I would hear after leaving for college: “They’ll drive you so crazy that you want them to leave, and then then, just before they leave, they’ll become something else, and you’ll want them to stay, even though it’s their time to leave.”
It is those words, that wisdom, running like a ribbon through my mind as a sew, stitching the spell of generations into the fragile pieces of cloth.
Making a dress from curtains would have delighted and horrified my mother, who would have instead used pin-tucks and lace. Lace was my plan, too. I saved an entire box full, also for this kind of occasion. Only when the time came to start designing and sewing, I couldn’t find the box anywhere. I turned closets and storage rooms upside down looking for it, to no avail. I thought maybe I’d given it away, by mistake, to a friend who sews for a living, but she didn’t have it. I was plotting plan B – estate sale shopping – when I stumbled on the curtain panels in the back of the linen closet.
The style of the dress is either Bridgerton or Jane Austen-esque, depending on how one looks at such things. Empire waist; long, soft skirt that’s full but not too full; cap sleeves that will reveal the rebellion of our mother-daughter matching tattoos, the shared imprint of her 18th birthday.
The curtains are embroidered cotton voile, a sheer and delicate fabric with flowers and vines embroidered in white thread along the edges and scattered throughout. There are three full curtain panels and four valences, each in a slightly different shade of antique white and sporting various stains and tears of time. With no one left to tell their true tale, I invent their origin story as I cut and reconfigure them. Whether they were originally for a bedroom or breakfast room, nursery or wedding chamber, I’ll never know.
My mother learned sewing as a practical kind of survival skill. Her mother, and other women in the family, made Depression-era quilts and clothes from fabric scraps and flour sacks. After the war, her family continued to live with hand-sewn clothes and hand-me-downs that were part and parcel of subsistence farming and her father’s nomadic preaching. Her cousins, on her mother’s side, lived “in town” and wore store-bought clothes.
When she left for college, at age 16, my mother intended to leave behind everything awkward and uncomfortable that accompanied “homemade,” keeping only the delicate and more fashionable aspect of “hand-sewn.” A pianist, she had small, nimble fingers and light hands that make easy work of neat, tiny stitches.
In the living room of my growing-up home, the house that I think of as my childhood home because I lived there from the start of kindergarten until the middle of my freshman year of high school, my mother regularly entertained her sewing group, a circle of women who sat, sipping percolator coffee and stitching fine dresses for their daughters or other girls they knew.
I learned about lace, Swiss cotton, coffee, and Southern women from this circle, even though I was not generally allowed to sit in the room with them. The dress I remember my mother making, in her sewing group, was a white cotton batiste dress and slip for my sister to wear on Easter Sunday. It had lace, tiny pearl buttons, and thin, silk satin ribbons.
My sister wore it for a family wedding and on other Sundays too, of course. It was a work of art in every way. The indelible memory of the dress, though, is from an ordinary Sunday when we stopped, as we often did, at Baskin Robbins on the way home. My sister ordered chocolate ice cream, which melted and dripped all over that white dress. My mother soaked the stain out easily, but the story endured, emblematic.
I don’t remember exactly how I learned to sew, but I do remember when I “graduated” to using my mother’s beloved Singer. It was built into a handsome, cherry sewing cabinet that had drawers for thread and buttons. It was a serger, though my mother never sewed knits, and it had a pleating attachment, though she preferred to pleat by hand.
My first machine-stitching lesson was simple: A one-seam sundress from yellow-gingham fabric that had elastic shirring at one end and a gathered flounce at the other. We bought it at Hancock’s the summer before 4th grade. We measured, cut, pinned, and sewed together, my mother helping me guide the fabric through the presser foot and apply pressure gently on the foot pedal.
The following summer, when I was old enough to be home alone during the day, I ventured into sewing with reckless abandon. My mother gave me free rein in her sewing room, and the result was my taking an exquisite piece of Liberty cotton and ruining it by cutting into the middle of the fabric because we hadn’t covered the basics of laying out patterns. That story, too, was emblematic of our relationship.
When we moved from that house, first to a small apartment and then to a series of rental houses, the sewing machine, fabrics, notions, and lace all came in tow. Instead of a sewing room, the sewing machine lived in my mother’s bedroom. Many evenings, throughout my high school years, she would lie in bed reading and I would sew at her machine, making skirts and dresses, some of which I still have.
She taught me, among other things, how to assess fabric for quality and when to switch from machine to hand-stitching, to give a garment a finished look. I ruined countless pieces of fine fabric and made countless unwearable items — corduroy pieces cut in opposing directions, patterns that didn’t line up, zippers too uneven to wear in public. I felt a wave of guilt with every failure and only now begin to understand why these failures were always met with my mother’s grace.
My high school graduation dress was a family heirloom, from my father’s side. The top layer was cotton organza, with a tight-fitting bodice and long skirt with rows of hand-stitched pleats. The dress belonged to my father’s cousin, who was more like an aunt. She, too, loved to sew. In my teenage years she let me spend the night in her guest room and sew on her sewing machine, rifling first through her assortment of fabrics.
She and my mother were closer than sisters in many ways. They were the same age, same general physical build. They both loved sewing and cooking and travel. They shared a kind of disdain for the South but also cherished the Southern conventions that felt comfortable.
It was she, as loudly as any, who insisted I leave my provincial upbringing in pursuit of a different, more sophisticated future. She clipped Wall Street Journal articles and gave me her hand-me-down copies of French Vogue. In me, both she and my mother saw a future that hadn’t been available to either of them.
Since I was taller and broader than she, her dress needed alterations that she and my mother enjoyed making together, stitching and drinking coffee and conspiring about the future. I have photographs of the three of us together, of me in that dress when them at my sides.
That dress moved on to another family member, and if things had gone differently, if they’d gone the way they were expected to go, then I might be altering that same dress once again. But I can see now that its fabric always carried the weight of bitter disappointment, and I am glad to be rid of it, even if the sting will never completely fade
What I’ve learned as a mother, or perhaps one thing I’ve learned through the experience of motherhood, is that it is all but impossible to watch children grow up without remembering, and in many ways re-living the experiences of being a child and growing up. The pivotal moments — the “firsts” and “lasts,” the excitements, the disappointments — have been poignant for me in ways I wasn’t expecting.
I’ve learned, through my work at Kindred Place and in “doing the work,” as the lingo has it, on my own, that my personal experience is similar to that of most parents. We re-experience our own childhoods through our children, and that process can be dysfunctional, healing, or a combination of both. Each time parent and child come to one of those junctures, when a parent’s past experience and a child’s current experience align, it’s an opportunity either to repeat or to break from the past, whether the past was nurturing or maladaptive.
What I have wanted, and still want, for both of my children is the freedom to be their fullest selves, without the weight of outside expectations. I can offer, when there is an opening to do so, perspective from my history. But I cannot go to college or live adult life for them, just as I couldn’t be in second grade for them, even at science fair time.
That has been the hardest lesson of all.
I am making a dress, by hand, that won’t be mine to wear when I knot the last stitch and cut the thread. There is still much stitching to do, along with fittings and photographs, before the dress is complete, but the time is drawing close.
It is a new dress, an amalgam of storied fragments now freshly assembled and transformed. There is love sewn into its seams, along with a history of strength and independence. It is light and weightless, delicate on the surface and sturdy underneath.
When its work is finished, when it remains behind, hanging in a cedar closet while other things get packed up and move far away, the dress will be a kind of home, for me.