When my sister and I divvied up the last of the things that were part of our childhood home after my mother passed away, I got the sewing cabinet. It has been in my home, untouched, since then. I tried once to sort it out, but quickly realized after opening the middle drawer, I was not ready. Too many memories. Too raw in my emotions. Too close to the overwhelm I was still sorting out in myself.
It’s been a year and a half since my mother passed away and first today I went through and organized my mother’s sewing cabinet. It now stands near the front door in my living room. I keep my gloves, an umbrella and fabric shopping bags on it. It is an unpretentious teak piece from the 60’s, with three drawers. The handles are molded into the drawers in the way that was popular back then and the three moves it has endured chipped the underside of several of them. It matched the style of the other Danish teak furniture found in my childhood home that my parents favored of which I have, happily, several more pieces.
In much the same way as my grandmother’s spice racks did, my mother’s sewing cabinet held a special fascination for me. They both held family secrets of sorts. The sewing cabinet was a place which hid materials to fix things. Spools of thread, patches, zippers, name tags, snaps, buttons and, as I discovered, literally hundreds of sewing needles. I remember always having to rummage through the messy, tangly contents of those drawers hoping to find just the right color thread or a piece of salvaged elastic band or lace. There was a sense of adventure in that process. I never knew what treasure I might or might not find.
The drawers were vaguely thematic, but otherwise overfull and disorganized. I learned to put my favorite sewing needle in a certain spool of thread for safe keeping and so that I could easily find it again. I remember tidying the drawers on some rainy day now and then as a child, but that stopped when I left home. And over the past 40 years the drawers have not changed much. Once in a while, while visiting my mother in recent years, I would take a look but would quickly close the drawers, not wanting to elicit the response to feelings of overwhelm that had come to punctuate aspects of my mother’s life and that had, admittedly, seeped into my own. Somewhere along the line avoidance had become the least painful solution.
Today, I was not met with overwhelm when I opened those drawers but rather a sense of exploration into my childhood. Into the mystery that was my mother. And I was filled with respect. The items told a tale of frugality and earnestness. Of love and commitment. I found a couple of pin cushions. One little tan one that I had made as a Brownie. The stitches were all uneven but even now I remember the sense of pride I had in giving it to my mother. These gifts were hidden in the disorder, buried in the layers of memories that sewing cabinets hold among the new and salvaged zippers, Girl Scout badges and half a dozen thimbles. I found metal prongs for hanging curtains. Maybe she kept them as a reminder of our home from which she moved after my father died. More likely they just moved with the sewing cabinet that hadn’t been sorted out for twenty years at that point. Besides one never knows when something might come in handy again. I found buttons everywhere… in every drawer. Lots of old ones, but even new ones still in their little plastic packets that come attached to new blouses and jackets.
And, perhaps most poignant of all, I found a pair of green, metal Susan Bates knitting needles. The ones on which I learned the rudiments of knitting from my mother, when I was 7 or 8 years old.
Today I finally went through and sorted out my mother’s sewing cabinet. I’m glad I waited until I could savor the experience. A sewing cabinet is so personal somehow. The contents revealing tendencies of the owner. What was important to them. A piece of a personal history. Familial history. I sorted out the sewing cabinet for her once more as a tribute to the memory of her love for us.
And I sorted it out for me.