Thursday, September 9, 2010

When Women Could Sew

G'ma sewed.  So did her mother.  I'm not talking about putting on a button, I'm talking about seamstress sewing, show me a dress in a magazine and I'll make it for you sewing.  It's the kind of sewing that women did out of necessity and out of love and as an expression of talents that time and where they lived and who they were did not allow.
Bubba traveled from Galicia to the USofA at the turn of the 20th century.  Her ticket was for steerage class, but she had an advantage over her fellow travelers. Her clothing looked store-bought.  She was elegant and tailored and she wore a hat, not a babushka.  There was a Polish sailor on the ship who noticed her standing by the railing.  He soon began to supplement her meager rations with delicacies purloined from the crew's kitchen.  "He was a handsome fellow." That was the only extraneous piece of information I ever heard about him, but I developed a rich fantasy surrounding their voyage.  She was a Jew, he was a Pole - there would never have been a future for them, Fiddler on the Roof's Chava and Fyedka notwithstanding.  But the notion that my perfectly turned out grandmother had attracted attention (and food) by dint of clothes she had sewn herself made its way into our family lore.  

In America, she worked in factories (think Triangle Waist Company) and did piece-work (pennies for every piece you finished), leaving G'ma and her brother to fend for themselves as latch-key-kids.  When the Depression hit, Bubba and Zaydeh bought a pressing machine and a pleater, installing them both in the basement of the 6-flat apartment building he and their next door neighbor had built with their own hands.  After a full day for her in the sweatshop and he hanging wall-paper, they returned to their basement and ironed creases into fabric well into the night.  In her telling, it never seemed like drudgery.  Instead, it was creative work, taking flat fabric and changing it into material primed and ready for curtains or skirts or anything else the factor wanted. 

When my friends began to grow taller and more mature, I remained a little girl.  I'd skipped a year and was younger than they, but not by more than a few months.  Still, a late-blooming 6th grader feels almost as left out as does an early-blooming blossom.  The early-bloomer had the advantage of being able to shop for clothing that is age appropriate.  As a late-bloomer, in the days before manufacturers realized that there was a market niche to be filled,  I was left with child-like selections that did nothing to enhance my burgeoning sense of maturity.  Ruffles and bows and pink tulle were not what I needed for the graduation parties ahead.

G'm and I tried.  We really did.  We trekked into Manhattan and hit Lord and Taylor and B.Altman and Saks Fifth Avenue and Macy's and Gimbel's and, in desperation, we even went into Bonwit Teller, hoping to fill one of their fabulous shopping bags with something suitable.  There was nothing.  The clothes I liked weren't available for those with no curves.  Even a street vendor's pretzel couldn't cheer me up.  With a "Maybe I just won't go to the parties" pout, we took the train back to Long Island.  In retrospect, I feel sorry for G'ma - she had to endure my miserable pre-teen angst.  I'm sure that I was not subtle.

While cooking dinner that evening, G'ma wondered aloud if maybe, perhaps, if I were willing, we could ask Bubba to make me something from scratch.  Being 11 and quite full of myself, I was certain that it would be awful, un-cool, not worthy..... but I had no alternatives so I allowed the request to be made.

I described the dress for which I had lusted - an A-line navy blue sleeveless number with a white bib, front and back.  Without measurements, without a pre-cut pattern, without any assistance at all, my grandmother re-created it exactly.  It was perfect.  It was lined and luxurious and it fit and it hid the fact that I was two-bb's-on-an-ironing-board-flat-chested quite nicely, thank you very much.  The only thing left to do was the hem.

Standing before the mirror, I held my hands straight to my sides, fingers pointing down and feeling Bubba pinning the hem just to the tip of my middle finger, I was emphatic:  one millimeter longer and I knew my life would be ruined forever.  No one mentioned that I might grow over the course of the season. They knew that I was an emotional train wreck, and that getting my skirt to the right length was the only thing I could do to make myself feel like I was in with the in-crowd 
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I wish that I had a picture to show you.  It was perfect.  Absolutely elegant and sophisticated and custom made, just for me.  Because that's how I got around saying that my grandmother had whipped it up in her living room -- when asked where I got it I said that my mother had it made for me.

Even in the 6th grade, my friends knew that was special.  And I got to take a giant hug from my Bubba to all those parties, and that made it even better.

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