One of the places my mom loved most was her sewing room. It was just a little room, tucked away at the end of the hallway, a place too small for much more than a desk where she could put her sewing machine, and a closet where she could put all her projects. When we were kids, I often came home from school to find her in there. She taught me how to sew in that room.
When she died, we closed the door of the sewing room. I mean, sure, every once in a while my sister or I would go in there to get a needle and thread, but neither of us really used it. My dad stored things in there – luggage and old filing cabinets – but the desk with her sewing machine and the closet with her projects? We just let them be.
My sister has spent a lot of time over the past two decades trying to go through my mother’s things. Both she and I are minimalists, likely because our mother was not. The house where we grew up had more closets and cabinets and attic space than four families would need, and she kept everything. Those boxes of notes I wrote to my friends in middle school? Until a few years ago, they were still in the house. And that’s just the beginning.
Anyway, my dad never cared about the extra stuff, but my sweet sister knew that someone needed to go through it all and sort, donate or trash it. Each time she’d come home, she’d tackle a new cabinet or closet. When I was home for jam making and quarantine, I called her to say thank you for all the work she’s obviously done. In previous trips, I’d always had my kids and hadn’t stopped to realize how the house had changed. But she’d clearly put in the work.
I told her I was thinking about looking through the sewing room. “The sewing room is my white whale” she said, and I laughed. I knew what she meant – it was really packed with stuff. “Well I have nothing better to do!” I said, and decided I could at least try and go through everything.
Inside the closet, I found bits of fabric remnants from a dress my mother had made me, the cloth from the stockings that I still hang up every Christmas, an extra set of napkins that needed some trim, along with pillowcases and doll dresses and pieces of old clothing that she thought could be useful someday. There were dozens and dozens of patterns, a whole area for Christmas-themed things, embroidery hoops, stuffing and bobbins of thread (so much thread). There was a whole shelf of sewing books, with titles like New Discoveries in American Quilts, Fabric Magic, and Living with Lace.
It had been 24 years since I – or anyone – had meaningfully looked in this closet, and yet I still paused when I picked up her half-done projects. There were patterns taped to fabric and baskets half-woven and a quilt with all of the squares cut out and a half-dozen finished. Holding all of these bits of fabric and pieces of projects made me think of her and all her incredible creativity. I thought of all that could have been and wasn’t.
It’s been so long. And yet, I could feel her as I held her work in my hands.
I tried to throw some things away. I texted Lindsay for some inspiration and I sorted through the things that actually were trash. But there was still so much.
I pulled out a few squares of the quilt. The pattern was too flowery for my taste, but it felt so much like my mom. Maybe I could make it into something else, I thought.
I texted the friend from my hometown who helped me turn Shawn’s t-shirts into a quilt. Could she help me make a few of the squares into pillowcases?
She thought she could. And while we were texting, I told her that she was welcome to anything in my mom’s sewing closet. She said she’d drop by and take a look.
And that was all I needed to stop sorting through the closet. Maybe my friend will take a few things, and maybe I’ll end up with a finished pillow that was partially sewn by my mother more than two decades ago. Eventually, we will empty out the closet.
But right now, I’m keeping it just like it’s always been.