Wednesday, March 24, 2010

THE OLD SINGER SEWING MACHINE

During the Second World War, when my mother was a young bride, she lived and worked for a while in Los Angeles. Along side other war wives, she manned the factories that were being used to keep the country going…and the war going. Imagine losing most of our male workforce today. The men were off fighting in foreign lands, and not only did they need the women to keep the wheels rolling in the most basic ways, but they also needed able hands to build the weapons of war. So the women stepped up. Rosie the Riveter was born on billboards and posts throughout the US, to encourage women to help.

During this time many of the typical comforts of American life were unavailable. There is a set of French doors hanging in our house between the study and the entry hall. The doors were hand made by David’s Grandpa Roy around 1940, for their summer cottage in Michigan. We shipped them out here to put into this house after Grandpa died. They sold the cottage and the new owners remodeled, so we asked for the doors. Grandpa was a builder; very skilled with his hands. Since he could not order glass or doors during that time, he took old glass from other places, cut it down, and created his own doors, each of them having 15 separate pieces of glass placed between wooden dividers. I love these doors because they remind me how Grandpa would not be stopped just because he couldn’t order a set of doors from the factory.

During this time the Singer Manufacturing Company suspended sewing machine production to take on government contracts for weapons manufacturing. Singer factories in the US supplied Americans with bomb sights, rifles and pistols. You could not purchase a new Singer sewing machine during the war. I understand gun collectors will now pay up to $80,000 for a Singer pistol.

When the war ended and factories went back to making their peaceable things, the woman who would be my mother returned to Idaho. Her father, George Washington Parrish, died the day after Christmas that year, 1946. With the small inheritance she received, Mom decided to purchase the first commercially made electric model sewing machine Singer offered. They had learned during the war, apparently, how to make the popular treadle machine electric, and my mom was the first in line (figuratively speaking) to get hers.

The soundtrack of my childhood has a throbbing beat running through it. Like the chug-a-chug-a-chug of a steam engine, the sound of that old Singer sewing machine aligns with my heartbeat.

Mom was a fabulous seamstress. I think she learned from Aunt Ruby, who was known county wide for her handiwork. My children have cherished baby quilts made by my Aunt Ruby. In those days one didn’t just go down to the store and buy a pattern. They made their own. Mom designed wonderful, snazzy dresses for herself, and darling outfits for her seven kids. We used to play dress up in her creations, old dresses that used to fit her in her dancing days. And on Sunday mornings I remember waking up to find three coordinating dresses lined up on the couch; one for Ann Marie, one for Libby and one for me. She had a sense for style, not gaudy or tacky. Our dresses did not match, but the fabrics and the patterns agreed sweetly with each other; like we were not the same people, but we had the same bloodline. Mom was amazing on that machine.

I was not amazing with that machine. When I had to take Home Ec in middle school, Mom made me unpick everything so many times the fabric wore away. Mom was a bit perfectionist in some domestic matters. I did not inherit that trait. By the end of the semester, when Mom realized that indeed, the nut had fallen far from the tree, she made a suggestion.

“Cori,” she said, “why don’t you just play your guitar and buy your clothes.”

So that’s what I did. And I do.

THE OLD SINGER SEWING MACHINE is the story of the fate of that machine. Here are the true details though, since I opted to use poetic license in the song.

As all her kids grew and left home, Mom continued to sell Real Estate in Pittsburgh. She was a fabulous Realtor, one of the top ten agents in Pittsburgh. Many of her former clients are now dear and cherished friends. Eventually it came down to Dave and I being the only ones left in Pittsburgh. Mom moved in with us. That’s where the invisible bond of steel was forged between mom and my kids. Johnny used to sneak up on her as she read the paper in her white upholstered rocker. He’d stand in front of her, mind you he was 2 or 3 years old, and suddenly slap the paper down and poke her belly button, giggling the words “ding dong” as he did it. They lie in bed and read stories together. Mom’s gentle hands rubbed baby Sarah’s back to calm her. She warmed her little baby feet in the palms of her hands. She was as gift to us, and the kids were a treasure to her as she tried to re-define herself. For so many years she was the single mother of some pretty crazy and dynamic kids, and when those kids left it was tough on her.

When Dave and I decided to move to Salt Lake City mom said, “Darned if I’m staying here!” so she came with us. At that point her children were scattered from Baltimore to San Francisco and many points in between. No one lived in PA.

So we loaded up the moving van with our items and what was left of hers. Among those was the old Singer Sewing Machine. The poor machine had not been used for years, since Mom first started trying to put meals on the table after Dad left us high and dry. It was only used when one of us had to take that blasted Home Ec. class.

The machine stood on four legs and looked sort of like a table when the workings were cradled down under the top. So that’s shat we used it for. An end table, only it was a little tall for an end table. It floated through various rooms in the house, eventually ending up as a TV stand.

Not long after we moved to Utah, Mom got her own place a few minutes away from us. A great condo on the golf course. One day we decided to have a Garage Sale, Mom and I. Mom put the machine up for sale. We made a promise to each other that whatever did not sell was going to go to DI. We had to make this promise because our tendency was to sit there all afternoon and look at the items and think, “Hmmm, we really could use that someday.” Then we would have defeated the purpose of the sale…to clean out our junk.

We sat all that Saturday, selling this and that, and we probably made something like $32. But, again, that was not the objective. We were CLEANING OUT! So when the sale was over Dave backed up the old red truck in mom’s driveway and started loading for the DI run. When he was almost done he stood by the old Singer machine. He looked at Mom;

“You sure you want me to take this?”

“Yup. Someone else out there needs it more than I do.”

Then Dave turned to me and asked:

“Are YOU sure you want me to take this?”

I shrugged my shoulders, my head cocked to the side.

“I guess so.”

So Dave loaded into the bed of our little old truck the back-beat of my childhood.

I knew as I watched him drive up the hill and out of sight, that I had probably made a mistake. Nevertheless, I let him go.

That next Mother’s Day I gave my mother this song. It was my attempt to keep the machine, with all its memories, with us. This song won’t bind two pieces of fabric together, but it somehow binds the people in our family. We all remember the machine. Mostly we remember our mom sitting at it, her little ones playing at her knees as she sewed. The song retains the memory, but it is much easier to store.



THE OLD SINGER SEWING MACHINE

Well the fellas from Salvation Army
Drove up to my Mamma’s today
And she opened the door to her basement
Then they hauled half my childhood away

Well I let go the lamp with the glitter
And the chair that was Naugahyde green
But I paused for a moment when they carried away
The Old Singer Sewing Machine

Mmmmm, my mamma’s electric machine
Like magic the fabric would change in her hands
To the prettiest dresses you’ve seen
On the Old Singer Sewing Machine

There were times she would sew through the evening
And well into Saturday Night
On Sunday were three little dresses
With collars of navy and white

Other times it would stand like a castle
And I was its four-year-old queen
And my subjects were Teddy and Raggedy Ann
Beneath the old sewing machine

Mmmmmm, my mamma’s electric machine
Sometimes it would roar like a long distant train
That never did run out of steam
The Old Singer Sewing Machine

Bridge: Now I’ll never buy in a store
The love she had sewn in the dresses we wore

So I like to imagine some other
Who’s struggling out there in the world
Goes into a Salvation Army
With one, two or three little girls
Now she walks past the lamp with the glitter
And the chair that is Naugahyde green
Then she pauses, she smiles, and she carries away
The Old Singer Sewing Machine

Mmmmmm, my mamma’s electric machine
Like magic the fabric would change in her hands
To the prettiest dresses you’ve seen
On the Old Singer Sewing Machine

That Old Singer Sewing Machine.

When Sarah was four years old she took tap dancing lessons in Linda Richard’s basement with a group of neighborhood girls. I found out, after she had been taking lessons for months, that I was expected to make a costume for her recital.

“Are you kidding me?” (I was not happy) I don’t sew! I never would have signed her up for this if I had known I had to sew a costume!”

What made it worse was that the costume was a Fuzzy Wuzzy Bear costume, full body with a hat and ears and all. Made out of purple furry fabric. We could hardly afford the fabric, let alone the expense of hiring someone to sew it.

My friend Debbie Isaacson was a fabulous seamstress. I sat next to her at the recital. Deb’s daughter Camber looked darling in her purple bear costume. Sarah danced next to Camber, and she looked mighty fine in her purple bear costume as well. Debbie leaned over to me as they danced:

“Who’d you get to sew Sarah’s costume?”

“I did it myself.” I answered, trying not to be too smug.

I waited just long enough… enough of a pause for the humor to bubble up in my belly. Then I leaned over to her and added:

“I glued it.”

Indeed.
I had discovered when we moved to Utah, this amazing new tool everyone was using: A hot glue gun. It works just fine on furry purple fabric. And truth be known, all four of my kids played in that costume for years to come. So the seams were a little stiff. It didn’t bother them. And, thankfully, it didn’t bother me.

There is a hidden track on the Pontiac Rocket album. It’s from a cassette tape recording Annie made when she was 4 years old. Annie was always really great at pretending on her own, so it was a joy to me to find this little tape tucked into her Fisher Price tape recorder. She was pretending to be on stage, having a play, and I was greatly honored to hear that the song she performed in her play was none other than The Old Singer Sewing Machine. I’ll put both versions of the song on the music machine below:



6 comments:

  1. Well, I also made a Home Ec project on that same sewing machine - I got a "D" on my pleated skirt and vest. Don't know why, I thought I looked pretty spiffy in it.And you should have seen the salmon and white polka dot dress I made on it. It was worthy of an "F." I didn't look so spiffy in it. Now you know why I quilt instead of sew. I do have to tell you, I sure wish David had asked me if I was sure I wanted him to hall it away. And I about died when I found out what Aunt Mae did with her Singer Featherweight. Oh well - it'll teach me to not let anybody know what I'm doing!
    And Annie can brighten up any room, anytime.

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  2. Wow, I look forward to reading your stories each night. They are wonderful!! Learning so much about the cousin I knew as a kid. You are such an inspiration!!!

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  3. Cori,

    My mom told me that you were telling the stories behind your songs for lent. It's been so fun reading through them. I was a little purple bear with Sarah! Such fun memories of Linda Richards dance class! You have an amazing way with words.
    Jane

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  4. Lent. Once a year. 40 days. I am thankful for it. And for the fact that it's only 40 days. How many times can you scour the inside of a thing before you make it so thin, it's bound to burst? A heart, for instance.

    Saw dust was my father. The Singer was my mother - the same table, the same metal logo and lovely gold ribbons of paint along the front. The same mysterious hole into which the machine might disappear.

    I had one once. Mom bought me the machine when I went to BYU. "Metal gears," she said wisely. She didn't know then that the real strength of the machine was the straight needle housing - all the new fangled ones were set at a slant. But the straight needle makes for great strength of thrust. You can't really do denim on a newer machine - not the 1970-90s ones. But that ancient Singer could sew threw anything.

    I finally sent it back to her. I was tired of old things and wanted new ones. The irony of all this? I was a real quilter for a decade, and in that time, the Singer was re-discovered, and that old machine of your mothers, the one that nobody wanted? Five hundred dollars, easy. Women would have pulled each others' hair over the getting of it.

    I wonder, sometimes, why I left some of these things behind. Not realizing I wasn't getting with the new half what i'd had with the old.

    But the main thing here is that I would know the sound of that machine anywhere. And I would wrap myself up in it, and I would breath the bouquet of saw dust, and suddenly, I would remember what years have buried, and maybe I would know more about myself, and maybe I would forgive the hurts I carried along, long after I'd left the old joys behind.

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  5. needle and hook for the machine to form the perfect stitch? In most cases of skipping stitches, great quilting sewing machines

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