The women who came before me have come to rest in this cabinet. My one grandmother’s fabric stash, the memory of a hundred projects whose hopes outlived her. My other grandmother’s measuring tape, having wrapped all our waists. The electric scissors my mother used to shape dresses and doll clothes. My aunt’s seam ripper, which I have yet to grasp. I am well equipped to sew.
But I have sewn very little. Replaced a few buttons, messily repaired a hole in my husband’s yard jeans, hemmed a burlap Advent calendar.
My mother gave me a sewing machine for Christmas one year because I had said I wanted one. Visions of old-fashioned homemaking danced in my head. But I was working full-time at the big college, teaching and writing. It seemed that I hardly had time to keep our 1,300-square-foot house clean, much less full of home-sewn décor. Mom promptly borrowed the machine, soon using it to piece a quilt for our first child, her first grandchild.
My mother’s mother had kept all her sewing goods in a brittle yellow plastic box formed to look like wicker; my aunt had it stowed in a closet and gifted it to me when she realized that the sewing machine needed equipage. Who knew then what buttons were Grandma’s and which were my aunt’s, for they were all gathered together now near the threads.
The box has three layers — a toolbox for quiet work. The top tray holds a standard red pincushion. The middle layer holds buttons and clasps, the measuring tape, and the seam ripper. The base holds two sets of precise scissors, two sets of pinking shears, and the electric scissors. Everything you need to cut anything.
There it sits, fully equipped and thoroughly underused. My distaff in a box.
Then my other grandmother joined the mix. When my sister and I inventoried and divvied all of my father’s mother’s worldly goods after her death, the chest of drawers in her back closet made us spin with all its fabric, patterns, and notions. I wanted to be the kind of woman who knows what to do with it all, but I was not yet. “Take it all,” my mother said. “You’ll figure it out.”
So I did. Collected her whole stash and took it home. I hardly even knew how to sort it, so it sat in boxes for several months. Finally, I found the space to store it all and the courage to reopen the boxes. Grandma’s Depression-era upbringing taught her to save everything, but her obsessions would have forced her to do it anyway. Some of the fabrics have not been in fashion for decades, but they were neatly folded and wrapped and tied. The coffee tins into which she sorted buttons and clasps contained surprisingly messy offerings, though: some buttons still retain their thread, and I refused to count the number of bra clasps that she had clipped from their original garments and saved for possible reuse later. Because I think there may have been some method to her madness, I keep it all. One day, I tell myself, I might want to use it.
After all, I sometimes find myself hinting at the homemaker I would like to be. Last night’s quiche with leftover brisket, this morning’s flaxseed muffins, tomorrow’s baking-soda-vinegar toilet scrub (the Mr. Wizard moment makes me smile every time). But the laundry is piled on the couch again. The napkins I have lately realized must be ironed regularly need ironing again. And I bribed my children with popsicles in order to get a quiet walk around the block this afternoon.
It seems that nostalgia for such simpler times has lately taken over my Twitter feed: the olden days are the new cool. Most of my friends under the age of 40 have recently discovered some back-to-basics way of doing things that would have made their grandmothers roll their eyes: “Honey, I could have told you that.” We hunger and thirst for slow grittiness and real ingredients. We think we want the leisure of time and excellence that our grandparents must have had. Or is it that we want the presence to one another and the created world that we only gain by distance from one another and quiet practice?
Yes, it’s cool that some of my high school acquaintances might read this essay because they’ll click the link on my Facebook page. (Some of them have virtual photo albums that inform me they are actual seamstresses rather than wishful ones.) But if I am present to them in Kansas City and Seattle more than I am present to those warm bodies with whom I share three bedrooms and two baths, then the Gnostic heresy has taken up residence in my kitchen and threatens to infiltrate the toy boxes. We live in the body and must be present to the other bodies around us. It is a blessed spiritual discipline.
As is making things and caring for things made. Of course, others have said this . . . but I see its truth in my world every day. We are strangers in a strange land, looking for a homeland, a better country — and God prepares such a place for those who long for him (Hebrews 11:13-16). In the meantime, we should bear the image of our Creator and make homes where we can rest and offer refuge to others. As Margaret Kim Peterson wrote in Keeping House, we should construct spaces for people to flourish as God has made them to do.
There is much to say about what that means we must actually do. And it can be overwhelming. For my part, I see the task as stretching out before me primarily on the canvas of my physical home. At least during this season of my life, when young children constantly make a glorious mess of it. Basic tasks include keeping the bodies in our home fed and clothed with ever-increasing and ever-expansive faithfulness. If we never consider what small fingers made our cheap T-shirts or throw away more than we reuse or compost, we will have failed. So I have learned to see that these basics are glorious, not beneath my station. But we take small achievable steps.
I look back and see that my grandmothers left a legacy of truly caring for people and things, and I want to recreate that effect — not just remember it wistfully. I inherited my father’s mother’s cloth napkins perfectly ironed, because she would never have stored them otherwise. If my mother’s mother bought a new dress, she gave an old one away. My father’s mother never let a holiday pass without a special box of sweets (cupcakes, cookies, fudge) for her granddaughters; in our later years, we thought it a burden to drive out and get the gifts, but I miss now not the sweets so much as the relentless intentional kindness. My mother’s mother hung simple streamers from the corners of the dining room for each of her daughters’ birthdays — never fancy, always predictable, a simple measure of graceful consideration across the ceiling.
People don’t learn or practice these things much anymore — they have become passé, along with gender roles. My sister took one of the last home economics classes our middle school offered, perhaps because they didn’t want to insult the little women with such stuff anymore. But this is about cultivating good things, not reinstating 1950s gender roles. Let the men cook from scratch, too — our boys certainly will (even our three-year-old knows which measuring spoon to grab when we make the bread). It’s about cherishing made things and the trouble and love it takes to make them.
Nostalgia is not the new fad. Making things from scratch is not the new cool. Using your own elbow grease to scrub your baseboards the old-fashioned way is not just hip. It’s about living in a way that makes homes into places that care for the stranger and also the nearby friend. If in the process we rediscover the way they did things back then, it’s because no technology can ever replace what the time and trouble achieved. We will not stop hungering and thirsting for authenticity and presence.
I organized my sewing box and cabinet, then, as a signal to my future self — a self that wants daily to cultivate the creation (as Andy Crouch might say) with more proficiency, more ingenuity, and more delight. The women who came before me wait for me there, and I will follow them.
Jennifer Strange is the assistant editor of the Art House America Blog. Also a wife, mother, writer, editor, Twitterer, baker of bread, lover of fresh fruit, ironer of cloth napkins. She contributes regularly to this blog, and her poems have appeared recently in The Other Journal and The Southern Poetry Anthology, Volume IV: Louisiana published by Texas Review Press.