The Fabric of Love

The Fabric of Love

From Chicken Soup for the Grandma's Soul

The Fabric of Love

Nothing is so contagious as example.

Francois Rochefoucauld

As a child, I memorized the months: May, June, July, Grandma. During the hottest days of summer, Grandma rode the train from Boston, bringing a suitcase of kosher food, her own special dishes, her sewing box and a bulging sack of remnants. She collected the cloth to create outfits for me.

While Grandma sewed, I fingered the hill of bright fabrics and made rows of her spools. In Russia, Grandma told me, she wore dingy brown so she blended in under the bed when she hid from the pogroms. She wanted me, her first granddaughter, to stand out.

Haloed by a bright floor lamp, Grandma’s thick glasses glinted as she pushed the needle in and out, each stab deliberate and focused. In Russia she had sewn near the dying fire, squinting in the dim light. When she came to America, Grandma sewed in a sweatshop lit by pale ceiling bulbs.

“Maybe I married your grandfather for the light,” she told me. “He promised we’d have enough money for lamps in every room.” My grandfather kept his promise: Grandmother’s house was fine and bright. She sewed her son sailor suits of thick navy wool and flossy white piping. She sewed her husband linen shirts. For herself, she made serious cotton shirtwaists that nipped her wrists and circled her throat.

I watched as she gathered turquoise cotton in a pleated quartet, then let it flow into the stream of thread. I swayed along with the rhythm of the gather and release, holding my breath to count how many folds the needle penetrated.

The year I was twelve, Grandma broke her hip and did not come to visit. I began junior high school wearing hand-me-downs, fabrics that had stretched and faded on my older cousin’s body, then sighed and adapted to me. I liked the quiet anonymity of blouses and skirts, too big, yet vaguely resembling the other girls’ outfits.

Then Grandma sent me a box of clothes—dumpy flowered skirts that were for a baby-faced girl, not a teenager.

“Nobody wears these kinds of clothes,” I told my mother.

“You will wear them,” she informed me.

The day I wore my grandmother’s skirt, I sank into the back of my classrooms so no one would notice me. During English, I spilled ink on the cloth petunias. On my walk home, my hem got splattered with mud. During dinner, spaghetti sauce stained my lap. Gradually, I eased out of Grandma’s childish clothes and back into my bland disguise.

That summer, we drove to Boston to visit Grandma.

The brown houses were glued together with no patches of grass between them. Grandma’s apartment was at the bottom of a steep hill. When she answered the door, her eyes were clouded, her fingers curled.

But her hug was fierce and strong.

Piles of fabric adorned her apartment: a scrap of cerise silk here, a heap of lemony taffeta there. Her narrow bed was a pile of pink checked cottons, slinky purple rayons and sturdy burnt orange wools. Beside the small television, her sewing machine wore a frothy green net petticoat.

My mother looked inside the refrigerator. My father looked inside the medicine cabinet.

“Stay with your grandmother while we go to the store,” Mother told me. I followed my parents, wanting to go with them, but they closed the door behind them.

“Sit, darling,” Grandma said, patting the sofa. I perched on the worn brocade cushion and she brought me an ancient seafoam green dress from the hook on her bathroom door.

“Try this on,” she said. I turned my back before I slipped out of my cousin’s navy blue cotton jumper. Gingerly I slid the fragile dress over my head and felt it wrap me snugly.

“Ahh,” Grandma said, folding her good hand around the stiffened claw of her other hand. She motioned me to the bathroom to have a look.

I balanced on the edge of the tub so I could see myself in the splotchy mirror. I turned sideways, awed at how the dress hugged my beginning body. Ahh, I looked sophisticated and alluring.

“Here’s another,” Grandma said, holding out a burgundy moiré.

For an hour colors spilled and sang, the fabrics like foreign children, each whispering in a different language. As I wiggled into the slinky dresses, I saw myself, a character in a long story of thread and fabric, a story unraveling into many different endings.

My mother wouldn’t let me wear the dresses Grandma had given me.

“Too tight,” she said.

So I decided to sew my own clothes.

The fabric store smelled of something new and barely opened. The bolts were alert soldiers. The clerks raced around armed with scissors, dripping with remnants, their mouths prickly with pins. I selected a shiny orange, purple and black pattern, something surreal that I would never find in Sears. From the easy-pattern booklet I chose a fitted waist and plunging neck.

At home, I rolled out the fabric and stared. I could not remember what to do, so I dialed Grandma.

I heard the murmur of television in the background while she thought about my questions.

“First make yourself a nice cup of tea,” she said, her voice halting and dusty. “While you drink it, see yourself wearing this dress. Then, take your scissors and cut.”

I found some Lipton’s behind my mother’s Nescafe. As I sipped, I saw myself sauntering through the hallway at school, a vision of color and style. Boys paused by their lockers and watched silently as I walked past.

But once I broke into the cloth, my scissors bucked, the fabric fought. Once I inserted the needle, insinuated the thread, my seams squirmed and refused to lie flat. Despite all my work, my dress wore a prissy, puckered look. Then I saw my mistake: when I had gathered the fabric, I’d yanked the thread too tightly. The dress had no room to stretch and grow.

A month after Grandma died, I received a battered cardboard box filled with scraps of material: a length from a dotted swiss I’d worn when I was three, a scrap from a fiesta dress I’d swirled in at age five, forest green velveteen from my cousin’s wedding. I fingered each remnant of cloth and imagined the vest I might make. I knew just how to do it: I would sit in front of the light gathering and piercing, gathering and binding, gathering and, finally, letting go.

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