"You always write about me. Why don't you write about yourself?" my Darling Wife asked. She was basting the edge of her Amish Quilt. She was very careful.
"I don't sew," I said.
"You used to sew," she said.
"That was many years ago."
"All right, but just this once because you asked," I said, giving in easily. She flattened the edge of quilt, which was spread out over three banquet tables. "It doesn't have to be perfect," I said as she inspected each block. "Remember what all your sewing friends on the Net say. A tiny flaw makes you human. Quilters often leave a tiny flaw on purpose...."
"I make enough mistakes not to have to worry about that. Go away. Write your story."
My father was a tailor in Russia just after the Russian Revolution. When he was about twenty-one, he was successful enough to hire two apprentice tailors to help him. For that he was arrested by the police for exploiting labor. He was put in jail. Two nights later his girl friend flirted with the guard while a male friend "borrowed" the keys to the cell and walked my father out of the jail house while the guard was otherwise "busy." My father moved to another town where he later met my mother who was a woman's tailor. Some time later, my father bribed the local commissar to obtain a visa for him and my mother to come to America. My father went to work for a tailor in Philadelphia, but he was soon successful enough to open his own shop. Eleven years later, I was born.
"How does that sound," I asked her.
"Are you going somewhere with that?"
"I needed some background."
"Well, snap it up. Get on with it. Put in some action." My director. I took her advice.
As my father worked in the shop all day and my mother was now a dressmaker and also worked in the shop all day, I spent my childhood around the shop. My best friends were the Singer my mother sewed on, a treadle machine with a leather belt that turned the wheel that made the needle go up and down (a wonder to a five-year-old) and my father's heavy duty "man's machine." His Singer had an electric motor with a knee pedal and could sew through the heaviest material. I loved to hear the machines working and saw my parents as being lucky to sew all day long. I didn't know much at five.
But I soon learned to sew with a needle and spent time stitching scraps of cloth together, my mother's warning always in my ear not to put the needle through my eye (or any other part of my body). I did manage to thread my thumb twice.
By the age of nine I helped out in the shop and was allowed to open seams on men's pants with a razor blade to allow my father to take in the waist or let out the waist. "Don't cut yourself," was my constant warning. I could operate my mother's Singer by then, though I could barely reach the treadle. I could sew on buttons, though most of the time my job was to remove buttons from dresses before they were sent to the cleaner where the delicate buttons might be destroyed. My mother sewed them back on. My parents were proud of my skills, but when it came to working on real clothes for customers, my parents forbade it. "You don't want to become a tailor. Go sit and read your books," they would tell me.
Yet I hungered to be like them, to make them proud, to show them what I could do after watching them work every day, after I practiced on thousands of scraps. I watched my mother and marveled that she could see a dress in a department store window and come home and cut out a pattern from memory using old newspapers. I watched my father particularly because he could remake a man's suit from top to bottom to accommodate any man's changing size. I especially watched him alter my clothes, for I was the youngest of four sons and inherited almost all my clothes from my brothers. The clothes always started out too large, but they were always made to fit me. I watched how my father took in the waist, shortened the legs, and put in new buttons on the fly. (My childhood was zipperless.)
One day, I could no longer stand being an apprentice and wanted to achieve my manhood. Age nine was old enough. I needed to prove myself. So, I got up early in the morning and went down to the closed shop and found the pants my father had planned to shorten for me "in a day or two" and took them, along with scissors, needle and thread, a yardstick, tailor's chalk, some pins, and my dream of making my parents proud, upstairs to my parents' empty bedroom, both of them down eating breakfast. There on the far side of the bed, in hiding, I began my life as a tailor.
A long while later I heard my mother call me to breakfast, but I wasn't hungry. I was too involved in my sewing project. She called twice more and then gave up. She would later tell me, "You don't come to breakfast, you don't eat," but she would feed me anyway. Two hours from when I had begun, I was finished.
I had laid out my project, measured carefully, chalked lines across the material in the right places, pinned the cuffs (real cuffs, none of this modern sissy stuff), cut the material, folded and hemmed the cuffs, and puffed out my tiny chest with pride at what I had accomplished. All by myself! I was so proud, so eager, that I gathered the pants up, left all the mess on the floor behind me, and ran down the stairs to the shop where my father and mother sat at their machines already well into their working day.
"So there you are," my mother said. And there I was, pants in hand, my face flushed, my heart beating in time with the treadle of my mother's machine as she pumped her legs up and down.
"Look," I said to her. "Pop, look!" I said to my father.
The machines stopped, the room became still. Time stopped. I displayed the pants, opening them up so the legs hung down in front of me, my creation unfurled. "Look," I said again.
They looked. There was a long moment of silence between them, and then it came. Though I expected exclamation, praise, admiration, and glory, there was instead tumultuous laughter. My mother and father, my mom and pop, both let out a cascade of laughter.
Puzzled, afraid, bewildered, I tried to explain. "I made the cuffs," I said.
"Yes, they are wonderful," my mother tried, but it was too late. Something was wrong. I looked at my parents and then down at the pants I held. One leg was shorter than the other. One leg was longer than the other.
I don't remember which leg was longer then, and though I later was able to learn patience and how to measure twice before cutting, and still later I learned to laugh at myself, I do remember that after the laughter stopped, my mother hugged me and my father patted my frail soul when he took the pants from my embarrassed hands and examined the cuffs and checked the stitching and said, "Almost perfect. Next time will be better."
There was going to be a next time, he promised, and I did learn to sew on his machine, though I never became a tailor. Twelve years later when I was in the army, I taught others how to hand sew on their own buttons and make minor repairs to a split seam, but I never sewed much again after that.
"So, don't worry about a tiny flaw," I said to my darling wife after finishing "My" story. She had fully inspected her dress and was smiling. "After all, when I made my first cuffs, there was a tiny flaw. It's a way of saying we're just human."
"How many inches shorter was one leg? You never told me."
"Two inches. Now can I write about you again?"
Copyright A.B. Silver 1996-1998
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