When I visit my parents’ farm and stay in the extra bedroom, I check through the closet, which often holds fabric or other things I might want to appropriate. This summer I found a grocery bag filled with textiles, things headed for Good Will. “Take what you want,” Mom said. I pulled out old towels, some homely placemats, and then – what?! My very first sewing project! The gingham apron I slaved over for the Polk County Fair! What was she thinking? I had even submitted an essay about it to the newspaper in 2003, when readers were requested to write in for Mother’s Day. Below is what I wrote. I guess I’ll forgive Mom for not recognizing this important item. I’m happy to have it, and it will sit in a trunk until my children throw it out someday.
The greatest gift my mother gave me was the recognition that if I needed to accomplish something, I had merely to try. Of course I would go to college, of course I would have a successful career, of course I would have a lovely home and family. And even though it might be very difficult, of course I could sew an apron.
Growing up on a farm in the 1950s and 60s, I was involved in 4-H activities. (The girls in town were able to join the more exotic Brownies or Campfire Girls.) Since we had no animals on our wheat and potato farm, my projects were relegated to domestic arts. I made cookies and bread, and learned to sew.
My first project, appropriate for baking the cookies and bread, was an apron, the typical front panel gathered into a waistband, to be tied in the back. This project taught basic techniques; straight machine stitching, hemming, and the real hurdle for me, gathering. I must have been about eight or ten years old, and sat on the couch intent on making the gathers even. I was frustrated and angry at the gingham in front of me, and would have preferred to set it aside and watch “Bonanza” on TV. But true to form, this was a last-minute affair, and had to be ready shortly to present at a monthly meeting or send to the Polk County Fair for judging.
As the gathers merely puckered unevenly or remained flat, I realized what the problem was. This was my mother’s fault! Surely if I brought her in and accused her of not helping me correctly, it would all be straightened out. I’m sure I whined plaintively. She came to my side, offered her typical instructional words like, “Robbie, this is not the end of the world,” or “Just keep trying, dear, I’m sure it will turn out fine,” and returned to her own tasks. And so it did – after some more tears, the apron was fine.
Despite this rocky start, I became an accomplished seamstress, and later, a weaver. My mother had a good strategy; she would refuse to buy me clothes during my teen years, but would buy fabric whenever I wanted a new outfit. Though she was a resource as I learned to match plaids, sew buttonholes, or fix a lining, her basic teaching method was modeling her competence, and expecting that I would do as well.
This fine mothering extended to all areas of my life – to my profession, and to my own mothering of wayward toddlers and teens. I may not ever make bound buttonholes as well as my mother, but her example has led me to my own accomplishments. I can only hope that my own children have the same feeling of eagerness and readiness to meet life’s challenges that my mother gave to me. Thanks, Mom!