Friday, 2 February 2018

The Sewing Machine

The Bernina 730

While my mother lay dying of a brain tumour last summer, in a secluded Norfolk nursing home, hidden away in a suburb of Norwich, I would drive blindly up and down the M11 each week to be with her.

On each trip, I would return down the motorway with things hopelessly ransacked from a home no longer occupied, cold and still. I brought her jewellery back for safekeeping, and some of her scarves to tuck in a bottom drawer. Later I brought thick blue wineglasses from Teheran, tea towels, handkerchieves, her pots and pans, even the cutlery I had grown up using, nearly five decades earlier, much to my children's annoyance.

On one of these return trips, I don't remember when, I brought her Bernina sewing machine back to our home in London. For some months, the machine sat, squat in a pristine cream box, on top of her previous machine, which was in its own worn but sturdy green case, a clamp for its slide-on sewing table attached to the inside of the case, and a compartment for the electric foot-operated pedal. This older machine was also a Bernina, a 730. My mother had given me this model quite some years earlier, when she splashed out on her spanking new bells and whistles model in its cream plastic box.

The elderly Bernina 730 was manufactured in Switzerland, somewhere between 1963 and 1986. I do not know when my mother became its proud owner, but I can picture it sitting on a white desk, in front of a window with net curtains, in the room she used as a guest room, in the house she bought when we moved from Iran to Norwich in 1974. On it she sewed my A-line above-the-knee flowery dresses, worn with long white socks and sandals. Later it churned out khaki Clothkits dungarees, and eventually a spangled midnight blue skating skirt, worn with breathless trepidation and stomach held in, to a school disco in Cringleford church hall.

I remember turning perfectly serviceable skirts into baggy trousers on this machine, after a university-era trip to Turkey, with single lopsided seams and very poor hemming.

After my mum passed it to me, I would occasionally haul the machine out and set it up to make botched and impatient repairs, the needle thrumming madly up and down as I yanked material through. My mother would sigh at my carelessness, and say nothing.

After I had children, the machine came back into play to try to make our son's scuffed trousers last a little bit longer. On her other, newer machine, my mother turned out broderie anglaise-trimmed smocks and culottes for our baby daughter, who proudly paraded them as she waddled about on a Cambridge lawn, stuffing strawberries into my undergraduates' mouths, one summer's day after exams.

But now, here I was with two bulky machines, in a small house, rapidly filling with all the books, photo albums, silver, paintings and weaving of my mother's that I could not bear to let go. I knew I had to draw a line. A non-sewer did not, for heaven's sake, need two electric sewing machines.

I mentioned it to a local friend, a vintage and mid-century textiles designer, herself originally from Norfolk, wondering if she might know of anyone in need of a machine some five decades old but still going strong. She smiled, came and tried out the machine herself, bit her lip, but knew that, like me, she did not have the room. She put the word out.

Barely a day later, someone had written to her — a seamstress from Staffordshire. She was asking would I be prepared to courier it, and how much it would cost. My friend did some online ferreting, and came up with a price for me. The seamstress and I were duly put in touch by mobile. That evening I received my first text:
Hello Ingrid, I hope it's ok for me to contact you at this time. I work as a seamstress on industrial machines, but need a domestic for buttonholes and for sewing in my home when it's too late to be in my workshop!
The next day, sitting in a cafe, I sent her back a text with a price for the machine and for the courier.

To my dismay a message flashed up immediately:
Hello Ingrid and thank you so much for getting back to me. Had I seen the machine last week it would by now have been on way to me! however, poor weather conditions have taken their toll on my conservatory roof, and yesterday I had a roofer over to assess damage. I'm afraid that due to the fact that it's going to cost in excess of £900 I'm no longer in a position to purchase the machine. I'm so sorry as it would've been treasured here. I hope you manage to re home it to someone who will love and appreciate it.
Gutted, I texted back:
If you would really like the machine, I'd be happy to drop the price, and wait until you felt in a position to take it.
Minutes later came her reply:
Ah Ingrid that's so kind of you to offer to wait for me. The problem is that that would probably bother me more than the roof issues! I'm not sure when I would be able to afford to buy it as I'm on my own with my children and although I work very long hours my spare cash doesn't mount up very quickly!
I read the text. A minute passed. I thought, but it was not thought. There was no time to think. I typed:
I'd just like to give it to you if you would be able to use it. If you would be happy to pay for the courier cost, it's yours. 
Seconds later, a text pinged back:
Oh Ingrid I'm crying! This is so very kind of you I can't believe it but I'm feeling uncomfortable about not being able to pay for it. xx
I sat stunned in the cafe, surrounded by chinking coffee cups and chatting people, tears running down my face. The whole drama had played out in a matter of minutes. We had never spoken, never met each other, and now here I was, pressurising a complete stranger in another city to take my mother's old sewing machine. She must think I was mad.

I tried to reassure her, telling her I understood, to take her time, to sit with the idea for a bit. I tried, somehow to explain:
Thing is, you see, the kindness is not mine, it's my lovely mum's. She loved sewing, and then gradually moved to weaving and textiles. Have a think, and let's be in touch. 
Back flashed her answer, needle-quick:
What a fabulous life your mum must've enjoyed being so involved in crafting, we are very fortunate. I thank my lucky stars every day to have been blessed with this inherited gift. I'm a third generation seamstress! 
Exhausted, we took our leave of each other, the matter unsettled, broached. Later that day, I had to take my eleven-year-old son to an optician's appointment. Afterwards, we walked home hand in hand, through the cold January air. I told him the story of the sewing machine.

Before I had finished, he interrupted me. 'I hope you gave her the machine, Mum?' I said that I'd tried to offer it to her, but that she hadn't yet accepted. He was silent for a while, and then he piped up:
'You know Mum, I think you're moving on. You said you'd always know what to do because of your mum, and now you're just doing it, without asking her.'

The following day there was a new text:
Well last night I told my daughter our story. There were inevitable tears from us both but her words to me were... firstly, you are so blessed, this kind of thing doesn't happen to other people and secondly, on the day that I'm in Ingrid's position I would hope to find someone like you to gift your machines to. So, on the basis that I will respect, cherish and of course use your mums machine for the rest of my life I now feel comfortable in accepting it if you would still like me to have it. 
There followed several days in which, via a comedy of errors, the machine was taken to the courier, left behind, in an agony of nerves, to be packed and shipped, and the seamstress tried to use mobile banking to pay the charge. Text followed text between us, as we tried to understand why the money was popping up and pending, not deliverable, what was mobile, what was online. My heart was constantly in my mouth, fearing that the highwire of goodwill we had so improbably strung between us was going to come crashing and tangling down. Were we each who we said we were? Neither of us picked up the phone, all was recorded in the back and forth of blue and grey speech bubbles of text appearing on our phone screens. She could not see me, and I could not see her. We were both blind, feeling our way. In the end she had to post a cheque.

On the third day, I got the news: 'SHES ARRIVED!!!!!!! xxx'

For the seamstress, my mum's Bernina was female:
She's a real lady 😊what a beauty I'm absolutely over the moon. All polished up, test run done I just need to check out oiling points as I'm not used to that as my industrial machines sit in a bath of oil which is majorly different! I'll never forget you nor your mother for this Ingrid because this is very very special indeed xx
Oiling points! Suddenly it came back to me — my mother had shown me the little red-painted dots all over the machine, and given me a yellowing plastic bottle of oil with a long stem, many years before. She had warned me to watch out if I was sewing white fabric, as sometimes the oil could leak out, and stain. Proudly, I passed on my technical knowledge. Back came the response:
Well, I've given this very robust little lady a spring clean, she's been oiled, dressed up, had such a lot of praise already and she's even worked a little bit! She's much more forgiving than my usual work mates, that's for sure. They're definitely male, very hench and not at all sympathetic. I've many a needle up the side of my nail bed I can tell you that! None of that with my Bernina. I've a table in my garage that I need to renovate, I'll be putting her on it for when I need to work when it's dark. 
I told her how much I loved her description of my mother's machine, holding her own like a lady against the rough old male industrial machines. She laughed:
Haha she'll do that alright she's a little tank! Aside from my family I absolutely live for my work and all my aids are loved, looked after and cherished because they pay the bills and keep us in our home. Now all I need to do is find time to renovate the table!! xx


Whenever I find that I am missing my mother, which is more often than I care to admit, I take out my phone, and I scroll through this thread of messages. I think about the third-generation seamstress in Staffordshire I have never spoken to, with my mother's sewing machine on a table in her garage, oiling it, dressing it up, and talking to it, fashioning buttonholes late at night, loving her work and thanking her lucky stars for her inherited gift.

Her name was Julie Spendlove.

I look at my own life and wonder why I make such a meal of it.

My mother's final words to me were: 'Do what you have to do, Ingrid'.


Prof. LD said...

This is some of the most beautiful writing I've been blessed to read in a very long time.

Kirkegaard said...

Thank you so much for this kind comment.

Anonymous said...

O Ingrid, wat een prachtig verhaal en wat prachtig geschreven. Alsof ik door jouw ogen mocht meebeleven en voelen. Dank Nx