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Page Two of History by the Thimbleful

I don’t consider myself a true needlewoman. I grew up with someone (Aunt Martha) who filled that bill. She sat and sewed quietly in a sunny corner of her sitting room. Her sewing table was next to her, and her African violets bloomed on the windowsill. I loved to sit next to her on a little stool we called “the cricket,” and often she would let me sort her thread drawers. I loved all the little spools she had arranged, warm colors to cool colors, in boxed trays.

She would often tell me stories about the odds and ends in the various drawers: a little Chinese doll with a crocheted mandarin dress and hat; a small emery bag with a silver cap on it; an ivory needle case that held a single needle; various sizes of hooks and awls and metal loops in a little case, all with mother-of-pearl handles; a tiny magnifying glass; a set of three graduated and wonderfully sharp scissors that even to this day cut better than anything modern.

But my favorite object was a gold thimble that Aunt Martha wore whenever she sewed. It came in a tiny, well-worn hinged box that had once been white velvet but was now worn to a smooth finish and was ivory-colored from the oils of many fingers. It had belonged to her mother, my great grandmother, Abigail Pomeroy Burleson.

Abigail was married to a clergyman who moved throughout Minnesota and Wisconsin in the mid-1800’s, starting congregations and building Episcopal churches. He and Abby had nine children, eight of whom lived to adulthood. He could scarcely have found a better life-partner than Abby. She ran the home with smooth efficiency. My grandmother, her youngest daughter, once said to her: “Mother, how did you manage so calmly, all those years, with all you had to do for the parishioners and all of us children? I never saw you get flustered or hurried!”

“Well,” her mother replied calmly, “I never had time to hurry.”

Managing to clothe eight children on a clergyman’s tiny salary must have been quite a feat. Mind you, this was in the days when mothers had to: (a) draw water from a creek or, if they were lucky, from a well; (b) cook on a wood stove, and keep the fire burning because it also heated the lower floor of the house; (c) wash clothes, including diapers, by hand; (d) wash and dry dishes for ten people and often more, by hand; (e) iron with a sod iron that was heated by setting it on the top of the stove, no thermostatic controls; (f) teach the younger children to read and write and cipher, when her husband was assigned to a remote posting where there were no schools; and (g) make or remake clothing for all members of the family.

Abby’s husband wrote out his sermons in a beautiful, italic hand. Abby didn’t write much of anything, except an occasional letter home to Vermont. She didn’t have time. But in her old age, she wrote to every single one of those eight children, by then adults, every Sunday, and they are the letters of a lively, articulate woman.

By her 80th birthday in 1913, she had long been a widow, and was living with a couple of her grown children. For her 80th birthday, the sons and daughters all chipped in and bought her a gold thimble. Aunt Martha told me that when she opened the present, she threw back her head and laughed, and said: “Oh, children, how did you know that I always wanted a gold thimble?”

She died eleven years later, so she never knew that one day she would have great (and great-great and great-great-great) grandchildren who sometimes sleep under the patchwork quilts she carefully made from the family’s castoff clothing. My grandmother used to point out pieces of her favorite childhood dresses in those quilts, or bits of Martha’s riding cape, or a brother’s baby dress, or a single square of her father’s worn, velvet vest. A couple of those quilts, now threadbare in spots but still viable, lie on the beds in my son’s old bedroom, and his children sleep under them when they visit during cold weather.

The other day, my eleven-year-old granddaughter spent a day with me. She had just attended a few days of something called a “sewing camp,” and loved it. I took her to a fabric store, where we looked at patterns. She chose one, and selected a piece of material to make herself a summery top. She chose with care and certainty, and will, I suspect, make a fine seamstress.

That’s why I gave her her great-great-great grandmother’s gold thimble. I think Abby would have been delighted.

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