Three times now in the past six weeks I have found myself in a JoAnne Fabric Store, wandering up and down the aisles looking for material, threads and velcro. I have been in need of more “belly bands”, the wide, material strips I use daily on my Aussie who is now incontinent on a regular basis. I have been experimenting with homemade belly bands for months, often getting the size wrong and not affixing the velcro closures properly. It is a strange and sad feeling to be looking for cute dog-related material, something with bowls or bones, only to know I am not making a new bed or comfy throw. I am making a belt to hold on his pee-pads, a creative version of geriatric diapers for a dog who can no longer see, hear or get up on his own. I move into the depths of the stores on my quest for the right material, the right tools to begin another round of band-making, hoping this time I will finally get the sizing right.
I know these kinds of stores are popular again as the scrapbooking and crafting craze took off years ago and remains a steady hobby for so many; I also think many people are returning to the DIY phase of life in this shrinking economy; many are actually sewing their own clothes again. Being in those fluorescent-lit aisles, watching workers unfold and cut bolts of fabric, seeing the gadgets of the craft, from pinking shears to bobbins, casts me back in time to a place when I used to tag along with my mom, somewhat eager to learn how to operate her fancy Singer sewing machine. We’d head out to the mall and spend hours in the fabric shop, running hands along bolts, dreaming of all the beautiful creation we could mold from simple sheets of cloth.
In this store, late on a Friday night, I am filled with emotions; memories – both good and bad – wash over me. I see mothers and daughters looking over mega-sized pattern books and recall how my mother and I used to do the same. One woman holds the hand of a small child as she digs into the deep metal file cabinet with the other, trying to locate her pattern package. Clerks stand at the waist-high table measuring out cloth and cutting, cutting, making sure they get the appropriate length for customers. I listen to the conversations around me and imagine the projects being undertaking with the goodies from JoAnne Fabric this week.
I think back to the Singer sewing class I took when I was 10 or 11, how my mom tried to teach me to thread the bobbin, work the intricacies of her powerful machine, explain to me about biases, seem margins, top-stitching, button-holing. I recall choosing a patter after hours spent looking through the books, marveling at all the modern and grown up outfits I could create if only I could master the mysteries of sewing. If only I could get myself to spend enough time indoors to work at learning this skill in which my mother was to talented and which she seemed so keen to impart to me. She could do it all, from crochet to smocking and made most of our clothes growing up and still found time to outfit many of our Barbies for their elegant balls.
Pulling a fresh pattern out of its packet was like Christmas, only far more complicated. It was a maze of lines, arrows, dots and dashes. More like math than art class. We’d lay out the tissue-thin beige sheets and cut. The sheets, the same paper as that used in my New Testament Bible, stuck to each other and had to be coaxed to lay flat so I could cut them. It was always exciting to begin, to think that I might sew something I could actually wear. But this happened only once, I think. After weeks at a class, I actually made a pair of pants and a top that came out close to right, that fit my growing body with out too much gaping or pinching.
In the store I locate what I came for: more velcro closures, handsome cotton material with white bones stamped across it. I feel the tears welling in my eyes and hope no one notices the sad girl in aisle 10. I remember my mother and her earnest instructions, her trying hard to show love for me by teaching me how to sew. She truly believed this would be an essential part of my life-skills, something all good Southern girls knew how to do. She spent many hours encouraging me, straightening out my hems, repinning my materials to those flimsy patterns. She praised my results even when they weren’t good. I felt the tears trying to escape my eyes as I thought of her and envisioned us at those pattern tables inside JoAnne Fabric. Has it really been more than 35 years since we sat, shoulder to shoulder, and turned the pages of one of those massive books filled with illustrated models showing off what the finished product should look like?
I look down at the things in my hands and think of my current creative project, sewing belly bands for pee-pads for my aging dog. I know he is in his last stage of life, his time with me is nearing its end. I am at the register now, ready to pay for my meager purchase, my eyes bright and shiny with unshed tears. So much grief right now and there’s nothing I can do but realize this is the course of life. This is the stage where I am right now, as so many others have come before me. My father dies last year, my mother is in her eighties and can no longer sew or operate potentially dangerous machinery, and my constant companion of 15 years is so tired, so ready to give up his time on this earth.
I take my bag from the store and head out to my car. I sit in the parking lot of the small strip mall and finally let the tears, which have been sitting so patiently behind my eyes, fall onto my lap. I cry for my mother and the little girl who misses those better days so long ago. I cry for my sweet, gentle dog who is waiting at home for me. I cry because life can be so beautiful and so sad and so damn hard at the same time. And this is just the way it is. I turn the key in the ignition and begin to drive home, ready to start making another batch of belly bands to use that night.