Keeping Up With the Past

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Baby has outgrown her onesies, not because they are tight on her, but because she is in full potty training mode. The snaps on the inseams get in her way as she prepares to go. And since we inhabitants of the Northeast are putting up with a frigid, wet spring, where we haven’t had a single three-day stretch of clear and warm weather, I thought those two inducememts were enough to convert her onesies into long- and short-sleeved T-shirts.

The thing is, until I took on this project I had not sewn much beyond basic hems and re-attaching buttons. I had never even owned a fully functioning sewing machine until I picked up the Singer Esteem II model at Target last winter. See the serious-looking Singer in the photo, the one with the foot pedal that comes inside the cabinet? I picked that up from an Italian woman who was clearing out her parents’ house to move them to smaller place. I mean to have it refurbished and get it up and running again, because I admire the workmanship that goes into these machines. I can’t see the sense in having a beautiful piece of work like that simply lay fallow and rust in my house.

I also like having it around because it makes me feel connected to my Caribbean past, and to a generation of women whose practical knowledge I envy and admire at turns. I know at least 10 very talented seamstresses. Aunt Mary is one of them, and she has a serious professional model. When Baby, Little Sister and I drove down for a visit on one of our (many) snowy days last winter, Aunt Mary let me take a few practice passes on it to hem up Baby’s “new” T-shirts. Readers, I was very rusty. But I was also determined to make these hands do something useful. Something that gave me something in common with some of the most creative and self-sufficient people I know. It is one thing for a family to assimilate into a culture, and send its second generation, myself included, into the professional workforce. Journalists like me tap out words for a living. (And a mean living it is, too. Generally speaking, journalists are among the most underpaid professionals you’ll find. Makes me mad.) For me, that’s not enough. I need something to do to take my mind off of work. Work, money, careers and getting ahead. It can’t be about that ALL THE TIME.

My late aunt Lena, my mother’s sister had a Singer similar to my vintage model. She kept it near one of my cousins’ bedrooms in the teacher’s cottage where we lived in rural Clarendon parish. I remember being a small child, about four or five years old, and sitting on the floor of that room while she sewed. The sultry air outside pulsed and teemed with noisy birds, monger out on the road hawked coconut water from homemade carts. Tiny lizards skittered along the verandah. Aunt Lena pumped the broad iron foot pedal and sent the machine whirring, joining these country noises, as she fashioned dresses, hemmed clothes, shortened or made drapes, or worked on whatever else was needed around the house. Aunt Lena’s son is married to a dynamo, Patrice, who is just as inventive as Martha Stewart, B. Smith and any other domestic taste maker out there. She just doesn’t have a syndicated media powerhouse to ply her wares, is all.   🙂  In any case, Patrice is a fantastic seamstress, who makes beautiful drapes, furniture covers and all sorts of other things. My mother is also proficient, and she made herself a few outfits during one of her particularly lean years in the early 1980s. I remember going into fabric stores with my mother. Colorful fabrics jutted out from everywhere, and the quiet was only broken up by one of the shopkeepers flipping the bolts of cloth around on a table to measure out the yardage, or the scrape of heavy tailor’s shears along the table as they sliced off what she wanted. I remember listening to her rev her Singer as she sewed her clothes. My mother looks great in pretty much whatever she wears—always turning heads—but I don’t remember any of her clothes (except for what she wore to my wedding) as much as I do her handmade outfits. Not to outdone by the women, my uncle Rowan worked as a tailor in London, where he lived for many years.

These women and uncle Rowan are all out of my league when it comes to sewing. We’re not even on the same planet, or galaxy, for goodness’ sake. There are times, like when I purchased drapes for Little Sister’s room and the kitchen, then brought them to a local dry cleaner to have the tailor shorten them, when I feel stupidly helpless.  With all this knowledge around me, why couldn’t I make simple, sturdy and attractive drapes for my house? Or just buy them and make them over myself? I regret taking such a late interest in developing this skill, which is just as relaxing as it is practical. For the few hours that I put into changing Baby’s onesies, sewing actually made me feel good, once I practiced. I got to feel a little more like a self-sufficient, can-do Jamaican than someone who has to run out to a store and swipe a card for every little necessity.

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