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May 20, 2011

Simple Gifts

Think back to a time when you were given something you wanted very much.  Now, think back to a time when you were given something you needed very much. Which memory is stronger? This special story by Lee Nelson paints a portrait of a woman who created and gave many a simple gift in her lifetime, lending her own art to what was also necessary, making the best of whatever she had--or didn't have. A great example for all of us.

As I maneuver yet one more box of stuff to fit in my spare-bedroom closet, I glance up to a high shelf. The shiny white and blue sewing machine becomes a beacon in the corner of my eye.

With all the things that life has thrown my way the past few years, I haven’t had a chance to sew anything. I used to create so many beautiful things with it—prom dresses, adorable outfits for my nieces when they were toddlers, and the wedding dress I wore one very happy day 22 years ago. Although the marriage didn’t last and the prom dresses can be seen only in faded pictures, the sewing machine remains as a tribute to my late mother, Norma.

The Melody of the Singer

My mom would spend hours at her Singer tucked in the corner of our farmhouse dining room—spools of thread, gingham remnants and dozens of unfolded Butterick patterns scattered about her. She  never cared about organizing the mess. Her creative mind worried only about designing something pretty for her three daughters or herself.

The motor hummed quietly as she guided the needle through one of my new cotton dresses. I can still feel the special pride I had for her ability to literally take scraps of material and create unique wardrobes for us. She started sewing from necessity because of financial hard times, but she soon discovered that for her it was both a passion and a talent.

Making Do Creatively

Money seemed almost non-existent in our household while I was growing up. My father farmed, but the bank account never grew. Tragedy upon many misfortunes just added to financial problems. Mom did all she could to make short ends meet by gardening, canning, freezing, baking, raising chickens, and cooking everything from scratch. By the time I was 10, she had taught me to sew a pants suit, including zippered pants and a lined jacket. An amazing cook and baker, she also taught me, with patience and pride, to cook an entire Thanksgiving meal.
On Sundays and holidays, our home filled quickly with family and friends to help devour her unmatched cherry and apple pies with homemade ice cream. For awhile, she worked in our high school cafeteria, but Mom didn’t like working for others. She would rather spend her days at home, pulling weeds in her massive garden or kneading bread in her cramped, cluttered kitchen.

The happiest I ever saw her, though, was in front of her sewing machine, tailoring something spectacular for herself or those she loved. Mom still wanted to look good, no matter how little money we had. When I was only 8 or 9 years old, I would walk into her bedroom and see her putting her nylons on with long, elegant gloves so she could attach them to her garters without runs. Her 5-foot 10-inch body always seemed lean and youthful to me.

Her makeup was natural. Her smile and high cheek bones reminded me of the models I’d see while flipping through the pages of the JC Penney catalogs. I thought she was the most beautiful woman in the world. And when she wore her home-sewn outfits, she looked like a million bucks.   

Pain without Complaint

Mom knew pain in her life, but never complained much. She took it all in stride and tried to make the best of every day. She would just smile and remark that all she needed was her family and her sewing machine.

When Dad died at age 60, she had to go on alone. That was a tough road for her to navigate. She had to move from the big farmhouse to a tiny one-bedroom apartment in a different town. Purging a lot of furniture didn’t bother her as long as she had a place to set up her sewing machine.

As the years passed, she suffered many medical setbacks. First, doctors diagnosed her with breast cancer and she underwent a mastectomy. She always had a good attitude when bad things came her way. That’s why no one knew for a long time that she faced demons of hallucinations and paranoia inside that creative mind. Dementia had taken hold and wasn’t going to release her. Yet, she managed to sew patches on her worn-out clothing or an occasional zipper repair to a grandchild’s coat.

A Stitch in Time …

Despite the bad years when dementia overtook her mind, I will always remember that woman who was my inspiration to be a great cook, a seamstress, a writer, a good mother and a passionate wife. Once in a while, I’ll even try and get her sewing machine out – the one and only possession of hers I truly wanted when she died – and make something beautiful and creative — as beautiful and creative as the pink-and-blue baby quilt that I hope my first-born will cherish one day. I hope he will wrap his own first baby in the comfort of love with which it was sewn and embroidered so long ago by his grandma and my mother.

Lee Nelson of northern Chicago has spent most of her professional writing career as a features newspaper reporter and now works as a freelance writer for magazines, Websites and businesses. She just recently moved from Iowa to reunite with her high school sweetheart after a 25-year separation.

Photos by Letty 17 and Arsgera of iStock photo.

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