You and your sister Oatie are learning how to sew in 4-H. Mrs. N has you stationed upstairs in her home, known as the Cleveland House, because Grover Cleveland lived there for a year, or a month, or possibly a day or so, when he was a little boy.
What are you sewing? You are sewing a red-and-white checked shirt. The shirt has a collar, which poses major problems. The shirt has sleeves, which pose major problems. The shirt has buttons, which means buttonholes. Moreover, the shirt is checked, and the checks are supposed to match up exactly.
Oatie is sewing a long dress, the color of peaches in a pattern of tiny flowers and stripes. The long dress has sleeves. The stripes and flowers are also supposed to match exactly.
Exactitude is not your forte, nor is it Oatie’s. Mrs. N moves from girl to girl. There are others in your 4-H club, and they too are learning to sew, but all you remember is Oatie and you, Oatie weeping silently onto the peach fabric, you making ample use of your seam ripper, a tiny instrument of torture used to rip out stitches which must be ripped out.
Why must the stitches be ripped out? Because they were put in wrong. In an alternate universe, wearers of clothes would view inside-out sleeves as pleasing anomalies. In an alternate universe, people would find a collar in which one point hung three inches below the other as an example of pleasing asymmetry. In an alternate universe, all clothes would be snapped and not buttoned.
Oatie weeps on. She is the master of silent weeping. Her hot tears stain the peach fabric with wet blotches. What has gone wrong for Oatie? You would inquire, were you not so busy ripping out your fourth attempt at sewing in a sleeve. You would have sympathy for Oatie were you not so focused on your own situation, which is bad and getting worse.
How many times can a single seam be ripped out before the fabric begins to shred and can no longer be sewn at all? About four. You are Sisyphus, grimly pushing the rock of your pointy collar and recalcitrant sleeves up the mountain.
You glance over at Oatie. Now her tears are staining the card table on which rests one of Mrs. N’s sewing machines and the long lengths of peach fabric. Oatie feels your gaze and raises her head. Her huge brown eyes are swimming. She has the look of a family dog awaiting euthanasia.
You want to tell her the hell with the long peach dress. You want to cast aside the red-and-white checked monstrosity on your own card table.
You do not know that the day will come, much later, when you will look back on these Mrs. N days and know that you were in the presence of a saint. The day will come when you look about and realize that you are one of the few adults around who knows how to make quilts, sew on buttons, hem a skirt. And will you have passed these skills on to your children? No, of course not.
For now, you look down at your red and white checked disaster and figure that you can wear it with a sweater and turn the collar inward. It will look lumpy and ugly, but what else is new? You look over at your still-weeping sister. Let’s make a break for it, Oatie, let’s get the hell out of the Cleveland House. You sit with your seam ripper, silently vowing to quit 4-H the same way you quit every other club you are required to join, which is as soon as your parents allow you to.
my high school homeroom teacher told me that i would do just fine in her home ec class, not believing my protests that i cannot sew, that neither needles nor sewing machines can be directed in a straight line by my hand. at the end of the semester, she sat me down and said, “you’re right–your’re hopeless. the worst i’ve ever seen. you couldn’t even make a decent pillowcase! but i’m giving you an A anyway because you tried so hard.”
and on i went with my life, having achieved the dubious honor of being declared officially hopeless in the domestic arena. but unlike you, mcghee, i did not overcome my handicap to create gorgeous quilted works of art. somehow your inauspicious seam-ripping beginning turned into something beautiful, which is more than i can say for myself.