Lessons Learned

My grandmother taught me how to sew. My mother taught me to cook. The fact that I perform neither of these tasks now, except under the most pressing circumstances, reflects not so much on my teachers' methods as on what I took from the lessons.

It was not the stitches my grandmother demonstrated that impressed me, but the way she held her fingers at a certain angle in line with the needle.

It is not my mother's recipes that I remember, rather the way she stood with one foot tucked behind the other leg, stork-like, poised at the stove, content as a bird at rest.

They taught me skills; I took away details, images, and feelings. My grandmother Ida had come to North America from Trondheim, a city in Norway. She settled first in Chicago, where she was a professional seamstress. She shared a walk-up apartment with her sisters, Lizzie and Annie. My grandmother refused to do dishes, because any roughness on her hands could snag the fine linens and silks she worked with. My great-aunt Annie said that Grandma just didn't want to have to do her own dishes anymore, though from what I could tell, there would be plenty of dishes for years to come.

My grandfather came to Concrete, Wash., where he worked as an accountant. He and my grandmother had been friends in Norway and began a correspondence that led to their marriage and three children. I still have some of his letters that begin with, "My Darling Ida."

They married in their 30s. Her sisters were "placed," as my grandmother used to say, by the time she was married.

My mother, Florence, my aunt Irene, and my uncle Dick were young during the Depression. And though my mother describes that period with an utter lack of self-pity, it was not a time of plenty for the family.

My grandmother went back to sewing after her years away with young children - a nightgown or a robe here, a thin-strapped evening gown there. I used to wear, for dress-up, a cream-colored lace dress with 50 glass buttons securing the front that she didn't sell to a customer who'd ordered it because, she said, it was "flawed."

Big limousines carried wealthy ladies to my grandmother's home. My mother said the regulars would come for fittings, then send their chauffeurs to pick up the finished items.

My grandmother sewed the way some people paint. She spent hours with fabric before she made the initial cuts. The smell of fabric, like the odors in an artist's studio, permeated my mother's clothing and enveloped her and my aunt and uncle as they yanked open the screen door to run into the kitchen for cookies.

Huge bolts of silk and satin would be piled in the bedroom corner like thick rainbows stacked upon one another. Occasionally, my grandmother would finger the fabric or bend in passing to smell the satin as one might smell a rose.

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