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Lifelong Pursuits: The Rickrack Chronicles

by Liz Flaherty

I was about nine. Awkward. Not very pretty. Not good at things, not that anything held my interest for very long. We spent Thanksgiving with Great-aunt Gladys that year. She sewed the most beautiful things (notably clothes that just fit my Tiny Tears doll) and I told her I’d like to sew, too, but my mother wouldn’t let me learn on the old treadle machine until I’d accomplished something by hand.

Did I mention I was awkward? Not the least of this was that my hands didn’t do anything right. Aunt Gladys — that’s a single “aunt,” not to be confused with the double one in the paragraph above — tried teaching me to knit and gave up after a long weekend of putting in and taking out … and taking out … and taking out. But sewing? Anyone could do it, Mom thought, and you had to do it in the right order.

So Great-aunt Gladys sent me — me, who never got mail addressed to me unless it was my birthday — a couple of yards of green cotton print, some white rickrack, and a pattern for an apron. Since my mother wore aprons all the time, I’m pretty sure everyone thought I’d give the whole project up anyway and Mom would get a new apron out of it and the fabric wouldn’t be wasted.

Well, I didn’t, she did, and it wasn’t.

Night after night, I stitched. I gathered, I hemmed, I added rickrack. And added it. And added it. I finished the apron. It was hideous, and I never wore aprons anyway. Did I mention I was nine? So I gave Mom the apron and she said, yes, I could learn to sew on the machine, but I didn’t want to anymore. I was sick of sewing.

When I was in the seventh grade, home economics was a required course — remember that? It was half cooking and half sewing and it only took me a couple of weeks to figure out I wasn’t meant to be either a chef or a seamstress. The food I cooked in class was raw in the middle and charred on the outside and the skirt I sewed was … God, it was awful. It had so many gathers in the back and so few in the front that the entire garment looked bustled. Not a good look for 1962. Did I mention I wasn’t good at crafting?

I had this sister-in-law, Sadie — actually, I still have her; I’m convinced my brother married her just for me. Did I mention I’m the youngest? One year during Dollar Days, a huge Midwestern going-back-to-school event at which you could buy fabric, socks, and underwear really cheap, Sadie said, 'Why don’t we make some dresses?' Shifts were popular then. They were easy to make, so we did. I used Sadie’s sewing machine with a knee press control and it was a lot of fun. Wonder of wonders, I was pretty good at it, too. But then shifts and sewing went out of style and I got more interested in the Beatles and other boys and I didn’t sew anymore.

I grew up a child of the 60s, complete with a peace sign on a chain around my neck and folk songs echoing through my heart. I wanted a husband and children, to write books, and to help people.

I had this daughter in 1972 — actually, I still have her, too. She was little and cute and so much fun to sew for that I spent years making her things. The year she was four, her dad stayed up with me on Christmas Eve until two A.M. while I made her a long Holly Hobbie dress on my horrendous old sewing machine. We drank coffee and laughed while I sewed and he assembled toys. At one point, when I was in tears because I was so tired from fighting with my sewing machine, he said, 'Let me help you. You can open that big present under the tree.'

But I wouldn’t. I finished the dress and it was beautiful and so was she. So was the new sewing machine I unwrapped on Christmas morning. Yes, I still have the man who gave it to me, too. Did I mention a husband and children?

Twenty years later, I gave my daughter that sewing machine when I bought a new one. I used the new one sometimes, made a garment here and there, but not a lot. I had teenagers and a husband, a job and a house. I wrote stories on lined yellow paper and dreamed of being a writer. I didn’t care about sewing.

In 1994, my daughter and her boyfriend called. They were engaged. Wasn’t it wonderful? Would I make her wedding dress? And dresses for the three bridesmaids and the two flower girls? 'Of course,' I said, and from March until midnight of the day before their August wedding, I sat in the kitchen and sewed, cursed, and cried in turn.

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