Parent invisibility, within the walls of the wartime house.
Recently I found myself sitting at a sewing machine. The home computer has robbed me of my private friendship with the sewing machine, and as I sat again in front of that clunky old friend, my mind drifted back to my first one.
The jet black Singer treadle sewing machine with the lovely gold-painted crest came into our house during the early years, before boys and junior high. It had been my granny’s. I’d spent days in her dining room sorting her buttons by the hour. Piling her crazy quilt squares. Granny sewed mostly by hand, as far as I can remember, and at some point this Singer treadle with an oak cabinet – two drawers on the left and two on the right – ended up at the wartime house. We would ride the treadle, sitting on the cast iron footplate underneath the cabinet. We usually had to spin the big wheel underneath, catching our fingers and small fists as we worked to get it spinning. The top wheel never worked because the belt between the top wheel and bottom wheel was always broken. When it came time to sew, the belt would be jerried with safety pins or coat-hanger wire punctured through the leather belt. Eventually it would eat through and the belt would get shorter and shorter, and have more and more pieces holding it together to complete the pull.
As I worked to mend my lingerie on my electric machine and listened to the hum and lock and watched inexplicably inconsistent tension and missed stitches, I realized why I have become an expert on the PC. It was the sewing machine that taught me patience.
I used to listen to my dad vibrate and whine and shake and snap at us when he was under the hood of a car that was refusing to do what he wanted it to do. He didn’t swear much, but this was worse. His wrath would percolate slowly, growing in intensity until we would hear this high pitch vibrato from deep in his throat, and we’d look at one another and duck.
With a sewing machine, that kind of childish behaviour gets you absolutely nowhere. Thread breaks. Needles break. Mistaken seams get sewn and must be ripped. Tension can suddenly become impossible to adjust. Change the thread. Change the needle. The bobbin thread can break, and break, and break again. Dust the bobbin case. Add a few drops of oil. Lift the presser foot. Lower the presser foot. Loosen the feed dog. Dust the feed dog. Stitches get missed. Loosen the pressure foot. Such adjustments were possible with the treadle. Once the electric machine replaced the treadle, you had backstitches, zigzags, buttonholers, and far more sensitive adjustments that could increase the permutations and combinations for solving a nagging problem of thread breakage. It took more than patience; it took persistence and a view to the eventual goal.
And sew I did. My first Home Ec teacher happened to have been my mom’s Home Ec teacher too. Miss Krett was the reason my Mom quit school, but she taught me how to clip the seam allowance of a shoulder seam and how to never put pins in your mouth. I had already learned how to tie off a seam because my Granny had taught me that. Pull the thread through. Tie one knot, right over left, then tie the other, left over right. Then snip the end. There was no reverse on the school electric machines, and there was no reverse on my treadle at home. I already knew how to stitch by hand.
In the focused intensity of the sewing machine, I discovered a new self, the bookish me. I was not really a patient girl, but if there was a destination to reach I became determined to find my way there, not letting any little piece of equipment block my path. For hours, perhaps days, I would stitch stitch stitch.
One day, during a renovation project in the back shed – I think we’d finally gotten a new hot water tank – Dad decided that the sewing machine was too big. It took up too much room. He handily sawed off the two oak four-inch lips that extended over each side of the cabinet. He made it fit. Then he painted it white. There was no value in it. There was no such thing as antiques. It was still a sewing machine and one of my few refuges. It moved with me, away from the wartime house, away from Shaughnessy Heights, above the escarpment, and eventually, after I got my electric sewing machine I sent it to my sister. It is dead to me now. I do not wonder if it still joins fabric for a girl.
In grade seven Home Ec, I first found out how big the North End was. It turned out that St. John’s High School (or Isaac Newton Jr. High) either had no Home Ec classroom or too few chairs in the one they had. Thus, the girls from St. John’s came to our school. They were girls from a part of the North End that I’d never really considered: past Arlington! Existence beyond McPhillips had entered my consciousness by this time, because my older brother had some friends from over there, but these girls were so different! So stylish! So brave! Make-up! Short, very short skirts. They were loud talkers and had such confidence.
I saw them as the years progressed, the same girls, on the basketball court. They always had their noses in the air. Our part of the North End was definitely in a class of its own.