In about 1995 I was living in Williamsburg, BK just before it exploded; I had a studio right by the water, underneath the bridge and next to the Tung Fa Noodle Factory, for $400 a month. This was back when the truly cool already thought Brooklyn was old news, the Manhattan snobs felt sorry for them, and packs of stray dogs roamed the neighborhood. I used to hitch-hike over the bridge in the winter, to work the breakfast shift at a diner in midtown.
In an unprecedented gesture of god-knows-what that still mystifies me, my mother came and stayed over with me on a Saturday night, and I took her out the next morning for Mother's Day brunch at a fantastic but short lived restaurant called The Garage, where we ate almost an entire rotisserie chicken together, with mashed potatoes and a salad. In the afternoon, she made me curtains and some throw-pillows, and drapes for my doorless closet, on a very, very small sewing machine that she had brought along, and which was not new but which I had never seen before. When she left at sunset, the little sewing machine stayed with me. I think she had hoped to excite me about the possibilities of that kind of domestic creativity, but I never opened the thing again.
Nevertheless I was smitten with the curtains, made out of the patched-together good-parts of a pair of 30 year old bedspreads that her own mother had made; wild black and orange paisley on a gold background that weirdly matched the remnant of rust colored carpeting that covered the cold, splintery floor. I called my mother the next day to thank her again, and it was only then that she told me the story of the sewing machine.
As she spoke, I wrote down what she said, word for word, as fast as I could; I don't know what possessed me to do that, but it became the poem that follows here, which was published in 1999 in a magazine called Earth's Daughters, Issue #53: 'Punchin' In and Punchin' Out (Work).' My grandmother died when I was 7, and my mother died the Monday after Thanksgiving, 2001. My daughter, Little H, turned 3 months old on Mothers' Day, that was yesterday, and she's named for my grandmother.
On Sewing Machines, In My Mother's Voice
My mother, my mother said to me,
saw this sewing machine thirty-five
maybe forty years ago and
said about my aunt,
"Only my sister would buy that!"
Everything my aunt touched had to be cute.
"It's tidy," she used to say. Now your cousin
Celia, and my mother, thought she needed a slap.
"Oooooooo, so cuuuuuuuute...." they would say.
They mocked her.
This sewing machine, it's like something for a child but
from this sewing machine my aunt made drapes, she made bedspreads, she made
curtains and skirts, and dresses she made, and a coat she once made me, I remember.
You wouldn't believe what came out of this sewing machine, I mean
slip covers, lamp shades, table cloths, she...
she was an artist, my aunt.
She really was.
From all the putche, putche, putche, with
her bony little hands everything just so came, God
You can't imagine it.
Now my mother, on the other hand
only had on her mind an industrial sewing machine.
She wanted a machine like she had in the factory
as big as the dining room table, I don't know
where she meant to keep it, how
she would even have gotten it into the apartment but
You have to understand
my mother didn't think that way
she knew what she wanted, that was IT.
These sewing machines were MONSTER sewing machines they
were unbelievable You can't imagine it, I mean
these factory sewing machines were so powerful
they were so fast you could barely get your hands out of the way in time when
you set your foot down on the pedal they went rrrmmm rrrmmmRRRMMM!
Like a motorcycle!
You could run a twenty-foot seam in about two seconds, no joke, and this
my mother felt
belonged in an apartment so small
that sitting at the kitchen table
you didn't have to get up to reach the salt on the shelf over the stove.
You don't know what poor is.
You would understand this if you ever saw my mother sew.
You never saw anything like it
three feet back from the machine she sat
like in the sweat shop
bent completely over
for her it was easier, that way she didn't have to move the chair to stand up but
to me it looked awful
the way she was hunched over, sweating
she was a worker, my mother.
Sewing was her work.
She was an animal, my mother.
She was a monster.
You never saw anybody work like that.
The shop bosses called her 500 Horse Power
she made more money than the men
men used to sew in those days, it was considered work
it was all right for men to sew
but she was faster, my mother.
Faster than all the men.
She supported the whole family for years.
Now, your cousin Celia is so happy.
I told her I got you the machine from Cousin Lois so
Celia has regained her faith in you. She said,
"I have an idea that she will learn to sew yet."
She's determined to make a respectable person out of you.
By teaching you to sew, takke.
I guess there are worse things to know how to do.