During this Memorial Day Weekend, Nancy Townsley remembers her mom fondly and the tradition of sewing she has taken up in her stead.
If you want your project to look good, take the time to baste, and for heaven’s sake, backstitch those armholes and crotches. Never use dull scissors. And whatever you do, read the pattern instructions more than once before you start.
That’s just some of the advice Mom gave me in the 1980s, when she was sewing clothes for her grandchildren and I pretended to pay close attention to what she was doing whenever she hauled out her Swiss-made Bernina machine, with its multiple-stitch dial, embroidery attachment, and magical buttonhole-maker.
No way was I ever going to have the time or the patience to manage an entirely straight seam, let alone a legit buttonhole, so I didn’t even try. I was only too happy to sit in a chair beside her as she measured and pinned and cut the fabric, while Dad played with my oldest child and my middle one napped. I’d utter the occasional “ah yes” or “uh-huh,” munching on a sandwich and enjoying the brief, welcome break from parenting. I’m pretty sure Mom noticed my lackadaisical attitude, but she was kind enough not to say so. She’d sew on, then pull her work from the footer, snip the thread, and show me: “That turned out nice!” she might say, or, “Those stripes matched up just right,” or, occasionally, “Darn. I’ve got to do that all over again.”
Those were the days before my son was born. Lindsey and Kelly were the lucky recipients of cotton pinafores and corduroy overalls and pastel dresses with Peter Pan collars and intricately smocked bodices, but by the time Tim arrived, Mom was mostly out of the handmade outfit business.
She did sew bumper pads for his crib and curtains for his nursery window, though, and her serger attachment came in handy for those. (Until recently, I hadn’t even bothered to find out what a serger was. Now that I know—thanks, Google—I’m more certain than ever that I’ll be sticking to simpler stuff.)
May 30 marks the date, eight years ago, that Mom passed away after a long journey with Alzheimer’s disease. That the date falls on Memorial Day weekend seems significant somehow, but instead of going to Willamette National Cemetery and placing flowers on her grave, I plan to set up my sewing machine …
May 30 marks the date, eight years ago, that Mom passed away after a long journey with Alzheimer’s disease. That the date falls on Memorial Day weekend seems significant somehow, but instead of going to Willamette National Cemetery and placing flowers on her grave, I plan to set up my sewing machine and start making a second pair of shorts for my grandson Tommy, to go with the collared shirt I made him a few weeks back. This time, I might make contrasting pockets, like the ones on his cousin Ezra’s.
Say what? I’m sewing? If you’d asked me even a couple years ago, I’d have answered “no way.” I was too busy running and playing with my dog and writing, and besides, that kind of thing was for … well … grandmas. And though I already was one, in the technical sense anyway—my husband’s kids have produced seven grandchildren on his side—I didn’t get the itch to stitch until 2020, when we were mostly marooned at home because of the pandemic.
After Ezra made his appearance last October, I went into sewing-grandma overdrive. With Mom looking over my shoulder—“use the tip of the iron to press open the seam”—I’ve spent many pleasant hours making flannel blankets, little vests, and shirts-and-shorts combos Tommy and Ezzy can wear this summer, when we all meet up at the beach. I’ve enjoyed the process of it—the whirr of the machine, the challenge of reading directions, even the need to rip out unsatisfactory work—all with my mother the seamstress in mind.
It turns out that Mom’s lessons all those years ago weren’t entirely lost on me. I learned a lot through osmosis, and it’s fun to recall her techniques, plucking them from long-dormant parts of my brain so I can make things for people I care about. For his birthday, my husband got a red-and-black checkered scarf. For hers, my neighbor got a square pillow in palm-tree fabric, with a funky peace sign motif zig-zagged on top.
Who knows what I’ll make next? Maybe a tablecloth, or a duvet cover, or a pair of sweatpants I can wear next winter when it’s cold outside. I’ll sew my spouse a Hawaiian shirt for whenever we return to Kauai. And I’ll keep on making clothes for the grandkids, just like Mom did.
I’ll never master her attention to detail or achieve her near-perfect results, but the heart of the matter is in the doing, and in the remembering.
(Nancy’s mom, Lucile Lashbrook, and a wallet-size photo of Nancy’s daughter Kelly at age one in an outfit her grandmother sewed, all on top of Lucile’s sewing basket. Photo by Nancy Townsley)