My Mother’s Sewing Machine

There are shelves in my garage that contain boxes. Boxes of my children’s artwork from their elementary school years. Boxes of old letters. Boxes of books. And, on the bottom shelf is a box that has been taped shut for years. I’ve never opened this box, as its power over me is still too strong and I worry I might fall to pieces if I do.

Inside is my mother’s sewing machine, the kind that has a mechanical foot pedal, which has to be pumped with your foot in order for it to function. Once, there was a time that it was in constant use. But, for nearly two decades, it has remained untouched.

I remember how my mother would sit for hours, sewing. Her worn hands threading the needle, using her best scissors to cut the material, then gently guiding the fabric so that the stitching would line up perfectly.  And, wherever you were in the house, you could hear the machine’s gentle hum, as her right foot pressed down on the pedal, again and again.

Coordinated dresses, courtesy of my mother.

Coordinated dresses, courtesy of my mother.

My mother could be on her feet all day long, preparing coffee for my father, ironing his shirts, making the beds, or weeding in the garden. But, after dinner, she’d steal away for a few hours of peace, and sew. That sewing machine became an extension of her, as she poured her secrets, her passions, even her sorrow into it, for her sewing machine gave her comfort when all else failed, and it gave her boundless joy.

Yet, she didn’t always know how to sew. She took it up when I was gone.  I was eight years old at the time, and sent to live in Venezuela, my parents’ birthplace.

You see, there was a time when my parents planned to move back to their homeland. They sent me ahead, so I could start the school year on time. I boarded the plane by myself, and traveled to South America to live with an aunt and uncle and their three daughters.

But in the end, my parents decided to stay in New York. I missed my mother so much, I sometimes would sneak into my bedroom closet, and cry, as I yearned, more than anything, to see her again.

My mother made this dress for the holidays. That's me at 14.

My mother made this dress for the holidays. That’s me at about 15.

I guess my mother missed me, too, for to fill the void my absence created, she poured herself into her sewing. She took classes, and soon was whipping up dresses, skirts and blouses for me, and even for my dolls. All the love she couldn’t give me because of the distance between us, she gave to the clothing she made and would send to me.

After a year, I returned, thrilled to see my family. Glad to be home at last. And, my mother’s passion for sewing continued through the decades.

I remember the last item she made. It was for my son. In second grade, he wanted to be a Teenage Ninja Turtle for Halloween. She bought a pattern, and went to work right away.

But, around this time, dementia started clouding my mother’s head, and she found herself forgetting how to sew.  She’d take out the fabric, her basket of brightly colored spools of thread, and her sewing tools. She’d look at them and feel frustrated, not quite remembering what to do. Finally, she reached out to some cousins, who also knew how to sew, and asked for their help.

I didn’t know this at the time, but later, at her funeral, the cousins told me how my mother had struggled with making that costume, yet was determined to get it done. Though, it pretty much took a village to finish it.

She shipped it out to me in San Diego, and that Ninja Turtle costume was the best I’d ever seen.  “Cowabunga,” as my son would say. He beamed with pride, wearing it in his school’s Halloween parade.

It was the last thing my mother ever sewed, and I still have the costume.  I cannot part with it anymore than I can part with my mother’s sewing machine.

When she moved to Florida, two years before she died, she and my father carefully packed her machine into a box and taped the box shut.  And, there it sits. On a shelf in my garage.

My son, second from left, in his Ninja Turtle costume.

My son, second from left, in his Ninja Turtle costume made with love by my mother.

Too afraid to open it. Too fearful of the recollections contained within. I imagine her fingerprints smudged on the balance wheel and the handle. A relic of another life, and a reminder of what I once had and will never get back.

All that remains are scraps of fabric, bits of thread, and the love my mother’s sewing came to symbolize. But, if I close my eyes, I can see my childhood home once again. And, I can hear the distant hum of my mother’s sewing machine.