When I grew up, all seventh-grade girls took Home Economics. No questions asked.
Yes, we were encouraged to attend college, but not for any sense of personal ambition. The assumption was that we would all marry but might need a profession to fall back on in case the husband died young and we became sole support for the children. College was Plan B.
Housewifing was every girl’s main duty. We had domestic skills to master.
So one day Miss Uhl explained the important task of sewing aprons because we needed to wear them for the cooking unit. My mother, a self-taught seamstress, crafted beautiful clothes that could have hung in department store windows. She put the song in a Singer sewing machine. My pleated apron, Mom explained, would be black and white gingham, sporting a pocket (to hold a hankie or tissue) with appliqued red apple and green leaf.
A row of red rickrack would grace the hem.
That rickrack was the death of me.
Outfitted with my heart-shaped wristband pin cushion (which inexplicably I still have), designed by my mother to fulfill an earlier class assignment, I was prepared. I’d been laying out patterns for doll clothes under her eagle eye for years. I was a wizard at threading a machine, and I knew about sewing in reverse to catch the last stitches. I understood that speed did not lead to accuracy. I embraced the magic of clipping seams and pressing them open, despite the extra step.
Other girls finished quickly, unconcerned with bunched gathers or wrinkled waistbands or lopsided ties. Finished was all they cared about, but I labored on as if I were seeking the approval of Coco Chanel. Well, I kind of was. My mother would know the difference between a slipshod effort and brilliant precision.
Finally Miss Uhl told me to finish mine over the weekend because we started the cooking unit next Tuesday. If I didn’t have an apron, I’d have to sit it out and be marked down accordingly. Preparing capable wives was serious business back then. Of course, she’d never looked at my project to see why it was taking me so long. The poor woman oversaw a room lined with thirty machines that had to be kept humming from 8 am to 3 pm five days a week–a suburban sweat shop of giddy girls. She was too worried about gum chewing and note passing, the kind of distractions that could lead to needle-pierced fingers. I was the least of her concerns.
My mother was distraught upon learning I was the last to finish. “How is that possible? Let me see what you’ve done,” she said, leaning against the kitchen counter. I held up my apron with its dangling trim. She crossed the room to examine it.
She smiled. “Oh, honey,” she said. “Look what you’re doing.”
You have to think about rickrack to understand this. Do you know how it angles right and then makes a sharp left? Only to turn a quick right again? And how it continues doing this for the entire length? Do you know about sewing machines? How you have to pick up the lever for the foot under the needle to release the fabric and pivot it slightly for each of these turns and then lower it and stitch again and stop and lift…?
No wonder it was taking forever.
“You’re making this harder than it has to be,” my mother said softly. And she showed me the trick to rickrack.
You sew right down the center. One straight line of stitches holds it in place.
I amazed my parents regularly where practical matters were concerned. My dad once wisely said, about a history project that was running away with me, that I couldn’t see the forest for the trees. Rickrack was yet another example of how adept I was at getting in my own way, at perceiving roadblocks that were figments of my imagination. I wish I could say I’d learned that lesson once and for all, but that wouldn’t be true.
The good news, however, is that I’m quicker now to see those random oaks and sharp turns that overwhelm me. I understand my internal compass is capable of spinning east and west simultaneously. I know that north, right down the center, is hard for me to find.
That’s a start at least.
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