By Her Own Design
Maria’s mother never taught her daughter to sew.
Yet, she kept a cookie tin overflowing with multiple spools of thread, pin cushions and four pieces of Dritz dust free tailor’s chalk “manufactured from the finest clay materials” in its original packaging, priced at 20 cents.
The chalk box cautioned in capital letters: “Always work on the wrong side of the fabric. However, if you find it necessary to work on the right side, before marking your fabric, test a swatch to determine whether the marks can be removed.”
Maria thought that admonition seemed kind of serious. What was the worst thing that could happen? You might be left with a colored smudge on your clothing. So what?
“You followed the rules,” her mom explained.
“When I was growing up, you didn’t mess things up, Maria.”
Maria inherited the sewing kit when her mom died and treated it like a relic for several years. It recalled a time when things were not disposable, when people salvaged what was frayed or tattered.
Maria’s mom was enrolled in dressmaking school when she was 13. She barely put up a protest. She spent her teenage years hand stitching delicate embroidery on garments for well-known manufacturers. It was piece-meal work, steady, but not lucrative, and done in her home, not in a dirty factory.
It was decided that her dungaree-wearing, salty-mouthed adolescent mother was heading down the wrong path. She spent too many nights playing skelly in the streets and stamping out bonfires and charring the bottom of her jeans.
Skelly, alternatively known a skully, was a popular urban street game in which a board is drawn with chalk on a sidewalk and players flicked bottle caps, weighed down with melted crayons, to boxes numbered 1 through 13.
It was a game for would-be gamblers and chance takers.
The chalk Maria’s mom used to draw for the game was messy, not the kind a tailor uses for precision. When the bottom of her pants were blackened, she cuffed them, rather than hem them. The knees of her jeans that were holey from playing the game were crudely held together with large safety pins. Street soot and chalk dust settled in her unruly hair, kinky if not brushed and straightened with a flat iron.
Her mother’s antics were like a pesky knot in the seamless portrait of an Italian-American family in the 1950s. So the choice was made for her to go to dressmaking school.
“Water under the bridge,” her mom said. “That’s how it was.”
Maria’s mother graduated with a medal for her precision and originality in design. Nimble and determined, she completed her own high school prom dress. It was her final project graded highly for its detail and complicated pattern. The neckline and waistline had finely hand-stitched crystals. The white lace bodice had a drop-waist, befitting a princess, not a tomboy.
But as an adult she never picked up a sewing needle again.
Years later, Maria wore a royal blue, off-the rack, short dress, complete with Madonna-inspired long, lace gloves, to her own prom. It was a creative, half-silly attempt at looking like a grown-up girl, more trendy, than edgy. She stepped awkwardly out of the dressing room in the department store to give her mom first looks.
“What do you think mom?”
The fabric bunched by the zipper in the back, and even to an untrained eye, the seams were uneven on the shoulders, making the whole top appear lopsided. One spaghetti strap drooped and the cheap sequins edging the bottom tier were unraveling before she even stepped into the limo.
“If it’s your choice it’s perfect.”
“I followed the rules. You follow your heart.”