I’VE BEEN BUSY lately. Every day or two, I take some time to sort through the items that defined my parents’ lives: files, old documents – Russia, Poland, Germany, Switzerland, USA – yellowed deeds to properties long sold, faded photographs, birth certificates. My father’s diploma for an apprenticeship as a furrier, completed. A letter of recommendation from my mother’s year in Denmark for a job well done, shortly before escaping the growing threat of Adolf Hitler for the safety of the U.S.
My father passed away fifteen years ago, my mom just barely three months ago. That’s still very raw; the ache from my father’s passing a more distant and familiar friend.
And so today, I find myself looking for her sewing kit, identical to mine, a gift to her, and to me, from an aunt, many years ago. I’m looking for grey thread to sew a hem on my husband’s pants; why am I all out of grey? I find the sewing kit, woven in white plastic, with flowered puffy panels cushioning the top. I notice that hers is in far better condition than mine; it still has the white plastic around the loop that mine lost years ago. Was this box used less frequently? This isn’t the first sewing kit I remember; that one disappeared long ago, a large wood box that opened in stepped zigzag layers as you unfolded it, revealing one side or the other.
I forget to steel myself before opening the lid. How am I to know that this box, so innocent, sitting on the shelf untouched since I moved it into my house, could hold such a wealth of memories?
As I open the box, I’m stunned. Tiny, elegant scissors in the shape of a fanciful bird, greet me. A few spools of thread: yellow (what was that supposed to repair?), orange (for her sweater, new in Zurich, and now not new anymore?). Oh, and here’s that grey thread I was hoping to find. This spool at first commands my attention, but quickly, my eye is drawn to a treasure trove of sewing paraphernalia. A sharp needle, for sewing leather: that was my father’s, clearly. A zipper. Pins. Chalk.
I catch my breath as I spot a button with a flower pattern in the fabric. I know that button, and the dress it came from. It makes me wonder: why did she remove it? Was it an extra button, irritatingly placed inside a seam, that my father removed for my mother many years ago? I miss her, in that blue green pink swirl of a dress, a holiday afternoon kind of a dress.
The top layer of the sewing kit is see-through plastic, with compartments for items such as spools for the sewing machine – something she never touched. A red tape measure, centimeters and inches, carefully folded upon itself in S loops, a slender metal band holding it together neatly, keeping the ends from unraveling. Another scissor, not quite as delicate as the first, the lower blade rounded so as to protect the fabric one layer below. Shiny gold ornaments – they look like earrings, but they’re not. What were they used for? And what was my mother doing with those sparkly red discs? Maybe she bought them, or picked them up at the crafts club, but without my father, anything to do with sewing wasn’t going to happen. I’m left to wonder.
I excavate deeper. Black batting. A mini-sewing kit, for traveling. There are loose buttons, and neatly organized buttons, from suits, men’s shirts, and dresses. And a needle threader: that must have come in handy when it was no longer easy to thread a needle with aging eyes. Hooks for fixing a bra (does anyone repair those anymore?).
As I get to the hard, blue-lined bottom, it finally dawns on me: this was my father’s sewing kit. My mother didn’t sew; I’d never once seen her thread a needle, or sew on a button. She left that to my father. Oh sure, she picked up crocheting again when she moved into an apartment at a senior residence: the Knitting Club, but she would crochet, she insisted, always a bit different from everyone else, slightly defiant. Maybe she snipped a stray thread with that elegant scissor, once.
My father was the one who used this kit, lovingly, meticulously choosing what he needed: the scissor, the thread, the tailor’s chalk to mark a hem. I can see his sinewy-strong, veined violinist’s hands choosing, threading, holding the fabric just so, his elegant fingers stitching a perfect hem, sewing on a button with the eye of the perfectionist. My mom must have asked him to fix this or that, surely. And, just as surely, she would have been pleased with his handiwork. They might have smiled at each other on a quiet evening, when the sewing was done. Or he might have left her sweater, the seam repaired with almost-invisible stitches, neatly folded on her dresser, to be discovered the next day, with pleasure. There are many ways to love.
I sigh. The ache is there as tears well up with the memory and the missing of him, and her, and them, and their quiet understanding.
The work of choosing what to keep and what to discard begins. The yellow thread: no. The elegant scissors, yes, definitely. I allow myself moments of pleasure: his hands held that scissor. A large silver thimble: I try it on and feel the metal that protected his fingertips envelop mine, he, still keeping me safe from harm, reaching out to me across the years. I sort things out, holding onto some of the items because I’ll use them (can’t everyone use more needles? pins? elastic thread?), others because in keeping them, I can keep him, them, close to me.
I can’t stitch them back into my life. But I can piece together the fabric of their lives, one scissor, one thread, one memory at a time. In that, there is the stab of loss and pain. And in that, there is also great, great comfort.
Hear Charlotte’s revisited 2015 interview with Sandi Klein here.