I’ve been feeling less than literary these days, which is one of the occupational hazards of teetering on top of the work/life balance. I’ve noticed that when you’re up there on that precarious perch, it’s hard to keep your balance if you have a book or a pen and paper in your hand. I’ve also noticed that it’s particularly difficult to keep yourself from crashing to the ground during the holidays, a time when there are more than the usual number of things to do that I’m not particularly good at doing. Like sewing.
Since I’ve been on the subject of household management lately, I want to discuss sewing with all of you. First, let me say that I do know how to sew. I’ve never thought of myself as being from any particular generation, much less one that’s been around for a while, but it turns out that I’m from the tail end of a generation of women who had to take home economics in junior high, which makes me a person who’s lived in a world that many young women don’t know anything about.
If you missed it, home ec is what you took when the boys were learning to weld in shop. It was where you learned to make coffee cake, muffins (don’t stir too much) and dresses. They waited until the spring for sewing, wanting to make sure they could trust us with dangerous objects like knives before setting us lose on machines. My sewing project was a dress that had six zillion darts in it. To this day, I can’t see a dart without having a shuddery flashback to myself, c. 1974, hunched over a dress that, even by the very low standards of that decade, was terribly, terribly ugly.
After that one dress, I put the sewing machine away for a few years. Until 1976, in fact, when for some reason I am unable to quite fathom, I became a high school cheerleader and actually had to sew an entire uniform to wear during basketball season. Apparently, it wasn’t enough to have one expensive uniform, the skirt and sweater you wore to football games. Nope. You had to have another entire get-up for the sport that mattered more than football in our town, which was basketball.
So there I was, 16 years old, a recovering seamstress, with a pattern and a lot of red and blue and white material that I’d stuffed under my bed the instant I brought it home from the fabric store right before Christmas vacation. It was clear to me that I was on my own when it came to sewing that basketball uniform. My mother was busy working as a bookkeeper at J.C. Penney’s and she really didn’t want to hear about my issues with the uniform, a piece of apparel that was way more complicated than anything I could handle, involving as it did buttons and fabric that was slinky in that way only a 1970s cheerleading uniform could be slinky.
Part of the problem in getting help with this whole uniform issue was that neither of my parents understood or approved of cheerleading. (I don’t blame them, I don’t approve of it either.) My mother was sort of circumspect about it, and just didn’t mention it, the way you wouldn’t mention somebody’s obvious physical handicap. My father, on the other hand, routinely referred to my fellow cheerleaders as the vestal virgins, a phrase I found really embarassing and hoped he’d stop saying in that loud snorting way. I was pretty sure if anyone I knew heard him using the word virgin (ick) or that whole phrase, my cover as a sort of normal girl would be totally and utterly blown. I couldn’t talk to either one of them about the uniform, that was quite clear.
Adding to my angst over this uniform problem was that the other girls on the squad were named things like Cindy and Debbie and Tracey and Vicki and Linda and they were perfectly normal girls (not like me with my weird grandmotherly first name) and every single one of them had a mother who happily whipped up a perfect basketball uniform during Christmas vacation. Still, I didn’t really expect anyone to come to my rescue, because I never even mentioned the problem this presented for me. I just ignored it until it was almost too late.
And that is how it happened that the night before the first basketball game of the season, a cold, rainy night in January, after the heat had ben turned off in our house, I stayed up until about three in the morning, like Dr. Frankenstein, piecing together odd bits of this and that, all the while holding my breath and hoping against hope I’d end up with something that sort of looked like a basketball uniform.
Let me just say that a more misshapen thing was never worn by a Washington Patriots cheerleader before or since. It was too big in the places where it was supposed to be snug and too snug in the places where it was supposed to be loose. I kept it together for almost three months, and a series of championship games, using a combination of safety pins, masking tape, and hope. And now I’ll close the curtain on that episode in my life.
Which brings me to last night, to the Secret Santas, and to the Christmas on the Prairie.
At the very nice school one of my older boys goes to, they do Secret Santas during the last week of school before the Christmas holidays The children pick names out of a hat and then Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday of this week, they give their secret friend a gift. Okay, you’re thinking, no problem. Five bucks, a few hairclips, or a bunch of chocolate, or a paperback book.
But nooooooo. That’s not how it works. The children, you see, are meant to learn about giving from the heart. Which means they have to make the damned presents. Themselves. Except they don’t really make the presents themselves. We do. Apparently, people like my parents no longer exist, and so no child actually has to do this project on their own while their parents are busily balancing the books of the Penney’s at the Tacoma Mall, or sitting in the brown chair in the corner of the living room reading Nietzsche, which is how my parents occupied themselves during the Christmas season. Or at least I am not capable of being like my parents and ignoring the whole secret santa week and making my son deal with it in his own special way. (Which would be to give the girl who’s his secret santa old baseball cards.)
My son (aka me) made his secret santa person some brownies the first night. I thought that was pretty good, and we (me) even put them in a nice cellophane bag with a cute ribbon. The report on the brownies’ reception was lukewarm, however. They got crushed, he said, and were only “okay.”
Instead of thinking, okay’s pretty good, I thought, Jesus, we’re (me) going to have to think of something genuinely charming, handmade, rough hewn and useful. Something Laura would make for Mary in the Little House books. (Aha! A literary allusion. Whew.)
We (I) looked around, considered and disgarded hand made stationery (no nice paper in the house), more food (not special enough and besides we’re out of sugar), and came across the Martha Stewart website which is a very bad thing for a person like me, a person with a history of handmade failures, to come across at times like this.
Too late, we (this time, both of us) saw the Christmas stockings. Too late, we (both of us) committed to the project. Too late, the sewing machine happened to be out (for hemming pants, something that doesn’t involve darts). Too late, too late, too late.
And so, dear reader, we made the stocking you see at the beginning of this extraordinarily long and rambling post. Surprisingly, my son did a lot of the stocking. He sewed the button ornaments on the little felt tree. He downloaded and printed out the stocking and tree templates. He cut stuff out. He admired my erratic sewing. (Mom, you’re like, so fast with that thing.) The end result looks like it should: utterly handmade. But this time, thirty years later, handmade is really okay. It’s good, in fact. I don’t want people thinking I made it, for heaven’s sake!
The odd thing is that making this stocking was actually a lot of fun. Maybe it was having my son’s help, and company. Maybe it was the fact that my son now knows how to sew on a button, something his father can’t do. Whatever it was, this project seems to have exorcised the memory of being alone in my room on a cold January night, hunched over all that red and blue slinky fabric. I know making a stocking was a hugely inefficient way to spend a Tuesday night. It messed up our living room, and everyone got to bed half an hour late, and I probably should have let my son have a go at the sewing machine. (I didn’t let him. It was too much fun to do it myself.) But among the many redemptive things about being a parent yourself, is that you get to correct for your children a few of the things that hurt more than they should have when you were young. Were I to come up for air from this sentimental paragraph, I’d also observe that in so doing you add a few problems of your own — in this case, maybe it would have been better for my son to do more of this for himself. Still, having said that, I’m okay about it all. And you know what? I stayed up another hour after they were in bed and made another Christmas stocking. For my son. From his secret santa. Me.