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Domestic Engineering

by Laura W. Haywood


I grew up in a household that included -- in addition to the then-usual mother, father, and sister — at least one grandmother. Sometimes, both my grandmothers lived with us. My mother did most of the cooking, but the grandmothers were always hovering. Another female was needed in the kitchen like Custer needed another Indian. The only thing my mother could sew was cross-stitch embroidery, which she dutifully taught me to do.

My father's mother could sew anything — she could make a quilt or a dress, or crochet an afghan — but the only sewing she taught me was making yo-yos.

All that was fine with me, until I got into the seventh grade and was required to take "home economics." The boys took "shop," and I would much rather have been in that class; they got to make really cute little wooden ducks. But girls had to take home ec. In retrospect, that may have been fortunate; turned loose with a hammer and saw, God along knows what havoc I might have wrought. In the school system I attended, it was considered impossible to flunk home ec — until I came along.

We spent the first semester cooking — and we had to eat what we'd prepared. The first thing we made was fudge — well, the rest of the class made fudge. I made chocolate sauce. My fudge refused to solidify and I had to eat it with a spoon. To this day, I can't make fudge and my jello doesn't jell. I have no idea why.

Then we cooked bacon, which I burned, and potato soup; eating that made me barf. Finally, we did salads, and I even messed that up. I peeled an orange, broke it into sections, arranged it in a kind of pinwheel pattern on lettuce and put a cherry in the middle. I thought it looked pretty, but I hadn't bothered to peel the membranes off each section, so I flunked salads, too.

But the second semester was worse — it was sewing. I never did learn how to cope with a bobbin, and at this point in my life, I don't remember what a bobbin is. I just know it was my nemesis.

The first thing we made in the sewing semester was a make-up cape. It doubtless proves my bad breeding, but I have never in my life known anyone who put on a cape before putting on make-up. Nevertheless, I made a make-up cape, which I gave to my mother. I believe she dusted with it.

Next we made a skirt. We were instructed to purchase several yards of fabric for this project. My mother, judging me accurately, bought the cheapest fabric she could find. Unfortunately, it was plaid, which meant all those little lines had to be matched. I made such a botch of it that, when the day came that we had to wear our skirts to school, I was excused from the requirement. I started over so many times that my skirt came out three sizes smaller than it was supposed to, and I couldn't have gotten into it with Vaseline and a shoehorn.

The final project was a weskit. Again, my mother bought a cheap fabric. It wasn't plaid, but it was very loosely woven and the minute I cut it, it frayed. Despite that handicap, I managed to make the weskit (okay, a somewhat frayed weskit), but I was still having bobbin problems, so the semester ended before I could make button holes and the weskit was worthless.

When I got married, my culinary skills were limited to hard-boiled eggs. My husband was in night school, so I found a bunch of college kids who, after months of dormitory food, would eat anything. Practicing on them, I learned to cook six items; on the seventh day I rested.

And as for sewing...well, I can still do cross-stitch embroidery as long as the pattern is printed on the pillow case, and I can still make yo-yos, though I still haven't figured out how to connect them, but that's the only sewing I do. At my husband's request.

On our honeymoon, he popped a button off his jacket. He stood there with the button in one hand, the jacket in the other, and the helpless look only the male can achieve. I had with me — heaven only knows why — a little sewing kit, and I took the jacket and button from him and proceeded to sew it back on the jacket. In the process, I managed to sew the front of the jacket to the back of the jacket. Now, whenever Bill sees me with a needle in my hand, he confiscates it.

I do like a man with good judgment.


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