I have been going through many of my old writings. I’m bumping into pieces that I’d forgotten about.
This was written in 2001. It’s unedited and rough rather around the edges. I was remembering how much my grandmother loved to sew. While she never had the chance to make a prom dress for me, I wanted to create something that made me feel as though she was always there with me, sewing for everyone in the family, and creating memories for us all through her needle and thread.
Granny carefully began to stitch my prom dress from scraps of cloth she bought from the neighborhood material store, which stood on the corner of Mount Vernon’s busiest street. Her eyes twinkled as she tied off the pieces of thread being extra careful not to leave too much at the end of the knot. She slowly picked up a spool of red thread from the corner of the bed. She almost didn’t see it. Over the years her eyes have clouded with age and it becomes increasingly difficult for her to see.
The bedspread is a bright floral pattern with fully bloomed red roses that camouflaged the spool making it initially difficult for her to locate it. She pulled out a piece of thread the length of the span of her arms and broke it off with her teeth. Granny then rolled the frayed and cottony end between her fingers, licked it between her lips to moisten it so the fuzzy pieces would stick together forming a straight enough end to go through the eye of the needle, then pulled it straight with her fingers. She picked up the needle, which was amongst a dozen other sewing needles and pins stuck in a red-orange pumpkin shaped pin cushion with green stems and leaves. The cushion was as big as my fist and had lemonade juice stains from Granny drinking and sewing in the blazing heat in a room with no air conditioning. Beads of sweat ran down her face and they would glisten after just a few short hours of needlework. Somehow she never allowed sweat to fall on what she considered her masterpiece. She then closed one eye, held the needle up to the sunlight and slowly pushed the long black thread through the eye of the needle. I suppose in her day she was very good at it, but today it took her three tries before she finally got the thread through; this is after licking it two more times to re-straighten the end, which bent every time she missed. Her frustration was short lived once she was able to continue her work. She stopped to look out the window as the wind blew through the trees. She realized that the window was closed and that’s why it felt hotter than usual.
She began her ritual in the early hours, before the sun came up and just before the cock would crow. Although she is no longer in Jamaica in her country home on the hill, it’s as if she can almost anticipate when they would begin their cackling and beat them to the early morning crow. I heard her shuffling around at about 4am, her slippered feet dragging across the wooden floor. I quietly got up to see what was going on and peeked in from behind the door like a five-year-old looking for Santa Claus. She sat on the corner of the bed cutting out the delicate pieces of royal blue silk cloth, pausing from time to time to admire the lace that would be used for the v-cut collar, which hung on the headboard of her bed. It took me days to convince her that I really did want my dress to be above my knees. She simply couldn’t understand why I would want my “meager” legs to show. But she finally gave over to the idea and said that it would be my problem if I couldn’t find a decent young man to dance with because my bones were showing. So as she was cutting the skirt portion of the dress she laughed under her breath and mumbled something that sounded like “crazy gal.”
She never needed a pattern to make basic styles, but she used the pattern I chose because she knew I wanted it to be special. After cutting the main parts of the dress she tossed the pattern to the side and continued from memory. She is almost done with the major sewing and is focused on finishing the hems, sleeves and collar. She skillfully uses the sewing machine as if she were a professional race car driver and this powerful machine was her car. She would slam on the pedal of her Singer and take the curves of sleeves and hems like a pro. Speeding up and slowing down only to gather the cloth that would next receive its white and blue dashes that looked like the lines in a two-lane highway. She smiled and sang about how Christ gave his life on the cross so that she could be saved; and my dress transformed from a bundle of cloth into a beautiful, well-tailored “frock.”
She called me in to try on the dress. As I suspected and expected, Granny tried to give her final opinion by making the hem too long; well below my knees and far longer than I had requested. She argued all the way back to the sewing machine. She finally ended up cutting another three inches off the dress. And grumpily told me that it was “such a waste of good cloth.” She would later use that “wasted cloth” to make a little sachet where she kept a few extra dollars for some yams and salt fish. She sewed a string to it and pinned it to the side of her bra so that no one could steal her “food” money. It never left her side. She slept with it.
After she lowered her voice and raised the hem of my dress, I tried it on, turned to examine the finished product in the mirror, and satisfied, took my dress to be professionally pressed and cleaned. She complained as I thanked her and kissed her on her cheek. She swiftly brushed me away claiming that she would never make another dress like that for me again. As I walked off I could hear her humming another tune about God’s goodness and grace.