This is one of my “Wayback Wednesday” articles I discussed in my post of 10/14/20 (Wayback Wednesday – Terri LaBonte- Reinventing Myself in Retirement.)
I was never domestic. God knows I wanted to be. I tried to be. It was my fantasy of me. Still, when striving to develop certain talents, one must consider the raw materials. I came from a home where the “good china” meant heavy-duty paper plates and cleaning house meant company was coming. Most people have a junk drawer in their homes. We had a whole junk room. It was supposed to be a den or spare bedroom, but nobody ever ventured in there except to dispose of something we could not find a place to put. Every now and then, an overnight guest would come to stay. This spurred a massive campaign to clean out the den. It was not a pretty sight. My mother served Kentucky Fried Chicken for Christmas dinner. When it came to sewing, hemming a skirt was only about as far as things got. I suspect they only got that far because everyone in my family was below normal height and above normal girth, so clothes were always too long. Occasionally, my mother did attempt to sew a simple outfit for me when I was a child. I thought they were wonderful, but my mother would rarely let me out in public wearing one.
Our somewhat less than Ozzie and Harriet life did not bother any of us. It might have been somewhat chaotic and unorthodox to the uneducated eye, but it was our life and we loved it. Unfortunately, as children always learn, the world does not stop at the door to our homes. My time of revelation came when I was forced to take 7th grade Homemaking.
Seventh grade Homemaking did not initially appear to be the devil’s work. The curriculum ignited my burgeoning domestic desires. We would learn everything that all twelve-year-old girls need to know- cooking, babysitting, and sewing. I had big plans. I would cook elaborate meals for my family that did not come out of a box. Never mind that I was an incredibly picky eater who drew the line at “chunky” peanut butter. I would learn skills I could use to be a well-qualified babysitter. It did occur tome that every other little seventh grade girl would have the same intensive course of study under her belt, but I was going to be different. I was going to pay attention. As for sewing, I was going to reverse a trauma I suffered in grade school. My school held a mother-daughter fashion show each year. We always attended, but I nursed a secret desire to be in the show. This was not to be because the fashions had to be handmade and nobody in my family would be handmaking anything. Now, things were going to be different. I was going to be able to make a dress myself! Even though I was doubtful that I could still appear in the grade school fashion show, I knew I would feel somehow vindicated.
We started with cooking and I soon learned that something out of a box invariably tasted better than anything I could make. After much practice at home, I finally produced some decent baking powder biscuits. Pillsbury far surpassed me efforts, however. The rest of my attempts were even less successful. The final straw occurred when our teacher insisted we make “golden nugget scrambled eggs.” This was a bizarre concoction of eggs and orange juice scrambled together. Even for someone with a strong stomach who actually LIKED eggs, this was a stretch. As usual, the teacher insisted we eat what we made. I tried to explain that I could not abide eggs, but she was having none of it. She adamantly insisted that I at least taste the finished product. Taking a deep breath, I took a gulp. Unfortunately, the mouth was willing, but the stomach rebelled and up came the golden nugget scrambled eggs. The teacher, who decided that this was an obvious ploy to express my rebellious nature, took a strong dislike to me from that moment on.
I was delighted to see the end of the cooking segment of our Homemaking class. The next unit was babysitting. I was chagrined to learn that most of the babysitting segment consisted of decorating and filling a “babysitting box.” I used wallpaper samples to cover a cardboard box that I filled all kinds of treasures- a sock puppet, picture books, blocks, and other fun things little children might enjoy. Strange though it may sound, the existence of this babysitting box did nothing to improve my earning capacity that I could see. In my older and wiser days, I questioned why my babysitting box did not include band-aids, bactine, and snakebite anti-venom. Still, the babysitting segment of the class was a benign respite in my pre-pubescent hell of 7th grade Homemaking.
The final straw in my homemaking career was the sewing unit. It was during this unit that I first discovered my difficulty with visual reasoning. Let me digress a moment while I rail about the misunderstandings people have about gender stereotyping. Some people think that when a girl-type person says she isn’t mechanical, she is succumbing to sexism and is just not mechanical because society has determined that mechanical jobs are “men’s work.” Not so. Mechanical things can also be “women’s work.” Take, for example, sewing. Please. Take sewing and throw it in a river. The basic skill necessary to “being mechanical” is good visual reasoning. The mind must be able to get around the concept of what stuff is supposed to look like and how it compares to pictures and what might happen if this piece is shifted from here to there. Laying out pattern pieces on fabric is definitely a mechanical activity. Try as I might, I could not figure out what to do with these diaphanous pieces of tissue to recreate the pictures on the pattern instructions. Heck, forget laying out the pieces of the pattern. I could not get past how to fold the material. People demonstrating and telling me to “do it like this” were of no use to me. I stared miserably as my hands, as if they were somehow divorced from the rest of me and I had no power to manipulate them. It was as if someone were to ask me how to read Shakespeare in Portuguese.
Somehow, I eventually got the cloth folded, the pattern laid out, and the pieces cut for the mandatory gathered skirt with the elastic waist. I suspect there was Divine Intervention. The next challenge was negotiating the actual use of a sewing machine. Four little twelve-year-old girls were assigned to each sewing machine. It strikes me that twelve-year-old girls are not known for their ability to work cooperatively to the mutual good. While twelve-year-old girls tend to run in packs, their loyalty is to the pack, not to any Miss Nobody the teacher tries to incorporate into the pack. The concept that four little girls would each get a chance to operate the sewing machine during a 45-minute class period just was not realistic. If you figure that there was a five-minute timeframe to start the class and a five-minute period to wind down the class, that left 35 minutes to actually sew, or 8.75 minutes per girl. It might have been an opportunity to teach the beauty of teamwork and collaboration, but instead it was an opportunity to teach outright bitchiness. Not being a very assertive child, I did not often get the opportunity to use the machine at all. Also, I do not mean to come across as a conspiracy theorist, but it seems suspicious to me that the bobbin always needed to be threaded when I finagled a turn on the sewing machine.
Day after day passed excruciatingly and unproductively. My skirt remained two fragments of neon green cloth, printed with happy faces that stared up at me accusingly (in was, after all, the ‘70s!) in mute reproach. Every morning, I would tell myself that this was to be the day that I would succeed in sewing the pieces together. Every afternoon, I left school in a deflated and dejected state. As the due date for the project approached, I became more and more morose. I was positive my entire academic career would be ended right there in seventh grade. I could see myself being denied college admission for failing Homemaking. I considered throwing myself on the teacher’s mercy, but I was quite sure that, after the golden nugget scrambled egg incident, she would not be likely to cut me any slack.
At home, I was overcome with what a disappointment I was to my family. I was sure I would be inflicting massive humiliation on my parents. After all, who wants to tell people that your daughter flunked out of school because she could not sew a gathered skirt with an elastic waist? I fussed and worried each night about how I was going to break the shameful news of my imminent failure.
One night, my mother heard me crying in my room. She asked what could possibly be so wrong. In my own dramatic fashion, I blurted out the whole story. Curiously, my mother did not seem to understand the gravity of the situation. She suggested I bring the skirt home and let her help me with it. When I explained we were not allowed to take the project out of the classroom, my brilliant mother came up with another idea. She suggested we go to the store, buy some more of the hideous happy face fabric, and make a whole new skirt. For the first time in weeks, I thought I had a prayer of making it through the seventh grade.
The next night, we bought the new fabric and began work on the skirt. After only a few moments, my mother saw how impossible the situation was. While she was too kind to scream in frustration or hint at her dismay, she was a very bright woman and I have to believe she recognized that the skirt would never be completed if she allowed me to keep working on it. She took over the project. She is a woman of conscience, so felt compelled to explain every step to me. I nodded a lot and gratefully tried to look like I was learning something.
The next hurdle was to decide how to get the skirt into class the next day. As I was not supposed to take the unfinished garment out of the classroom, how was I going to get the finished garment into the classroom? My mother stuffed the skirt into a brown paper bag and told me to just take it to class. The next day, I contemplated how to do this surreptitiously. I ended up wrapping the skirt and my jacket around each other into a ball and furtively separated them when I got to my seat. No one paid any attention. Now, I realize my mother was much wiser than I. She knew no one else would either notice or care. She suspected, quite correctly, that even the teacher would be relieved and grateful that the problem was solved.
Even though I did not learn to sew in seventh grade Homemaking, I learned many other lessons. First, I learned how to smuggle. Secondly, I learned that there are many ways to approach problems and that there is more virtue in succeeding with someone else’s help than failing on your own. Thirdly, I learned that it is okay that there are tasks that some of just are not cut out to do and we rarely rise or fall in life based on the ability to do one thing. Lastly, and most importantly, I learned that my mother loved me very much. I never did learn to learn to sew in the years of my life, but I have never forgotten how much my mother loved me.
So how do you like Wayback Wednesdays? Please share your perspective by leaving a comment. In the alternative, you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Have a wistfully wonderful Wednesday!