Saturday, December 15, 2012
Like most every mother of the era, mine was a seamstress of sorts. Beyond sewing buttons, darning holes, and hemming cuffs, she would tackle the bigger jobs of making dresses for my sisters. Usually, but not always, she would use a paper pattern that had been come from Roses “dime store” in Beaufort, and often ones that had been used several times before.
And sometimes, if money was especially tight, she would use the material left over from those dresses to make shirts for her boys. I wore those shirts through most of my elementary school years.
For these she didn’t need or use a pattern. Instead, she fitted them on us individually as we stood erectly in front of her. All the while she sat and swiveled in front of the Singer sewing machine on her kitchen table. Within a few minutes, which sometimes felt like an hour, she would have fashioned our sleeves, collars, and shoulders — all held in place by small straight pins saved from unpacking the “real” garments bought in stores at town.
An hour or so later after she started, a new shirt would be laid out and ready to wear.
At least to us, over time it was easy to lose track of which shirts were mom-made and which ones were store-bought. I eventually learned, however, that some others were more discerning than me.
In December of 1963, when I was in the fifth grade, my mother made Teff and me special “Christmas shirts.” She used a dark green fabric that was almost like velvet. Because they were meant to be special, I didn’t wear it out of the house until the night of the annual Christmas festival held at the school. But when I finally did, I was so proud to have a new shirt for the event, and one that was fashioned for just such an occasion.
Just after getting to the school, and as I headed through the entrance and down the hall toward the auditorium, an older boy tapped me on the shoulder. He was almost ten years older than me, but I knew who he was because he played ball on the high school team, and I knew all of the players, especially those from the Island.
As soon as I turned, he seemed to give me a “once over” that caught me a little by surprise – I didn’t recall that he had ever noticed me in any way before. Then he just looked me in the eye and asked,“Where did you get that shirt you're wearing?”
Without any hesitation I replied, “My mama made it for me.”
Just as quickly he responded, “You can tell that by looking at it,” followed by a wink and laugh.
I was so naive that I didn’t even consider that his comment wasn’t meant as a compliment! A second later he was somewhere else and it would be years afterward, when it was “me” who was playing basketball on the high school team before he ever spoke to me again.
That was it! I paid little or no attention to it then and not much in the years that followed. But recently, especially as I have observed the emphasis of a new generation of children on brand names and logos, my mind has been drawn back to that encounter.
Reflecting upon that occasion, and perhaps countless others that I may simply not have noticed, I have come to a simple conclusion. Just as I had no misgivings at the time I wore those “tailored” shirts to school, I have concluded that even if I did, those feelings now have been replaced with an appreciation and even a pride for both the rough cloth that became my shirts, and even more for the hands that fashioned them for and on me.