Monday, August 15, 2011

Fine Silken Stitches

by Zinta Aistars

Working it, working it, trying to thread this dang thread through that dang needle, squint, blink, squint ... wait a minute. Flashback. My vecmamīte, my Grandmamma, asking me, little Z, to come thread the needle for her, because my young eyes are better than her old eyes ... oh, I miss her. And my young eyes.

Does anyone sew anymore? I had once owned a sewing machine, long long ago, when I was a young wife and all things seemed to flow so easily from my hands. I would sew dresses for myself, and a dress I sewed for my mother, a summer shift of light white material with tiny sprigs of green leaves, still hangs in my mother’s closet these several decades later, even though she no longer wears it.

I knew my dresses would never compete with those that my vecmamīte would sew. Her perfectionism was legendary. She would at most glance at a pattern, but freely design the dress herself, combining fabrics, adding flourishes, revising the angle of seams and darts, until it was entirely her own. Down to the final stitch, just so, and if something struck her wrong, she would sputter in fury and pull out the thread, unraveling the entire dress and doing it all over again.

Until every stitch was just right. Her work was exquisite. When I attended a party, a dance, a gala affair in my younger days, I would wear the dress she had sewn for me, especially for that particular occasion, and I felt beautiful.

My family would travel across the country—to New York City, Boston, Philadelphia, Seattle, Los Angeles, Milwaukee, Chicago—to Latvian Song Festivals, or I would attend Latvian Youth Congress every November, and these gatherings would take place in grand hotels, drawing hundreds if not thousands of Latvians from across the country, even from across the ocean. Ballrooms lit up with crystal chandeliers, orchestras played, and couples swirled in waltzes. Women wore long gowns and the men were in dark suits, elegantly cut. And I, I was a tomboy turned princess for the night by the magic of my grandmother’s hands.

My vecmamīte made that all possible. I never saw her attend any of these dances, although she would tell me tales of her own youth, the dresses she had worn, the dances she had danced …. all cut short by the war. She was still a young woman when her family became refugees, living in barracks for displaced persons, wondering if they would ever see home.

She never saw Latvia again. The English language would always be difficult for her. She would look out from the windows of her little house on Elkerton Street in Michigan, her heart hammering in her chest, and wait for the Bolshevik troops to come and get her, tear her away once again from her life and her family.

I wondered if those tiny, fine stitches helped to keep her new life together. Out of ugliness and brutality, she would create a new life with her family, and she would sew beautiful gowns.

As I stood in her living room with a new dress draped over me for a fitting, pins prickling my skin at every seam, she would step back and gaze at me, up and down, head to toe, turning her head this way and that, looking for a fault in her work. When the dress was ready at last, I would try it on and swirl in front of her so that she could see the way the fabric would flow across my young body, how it would drape my lines and compliment them.

If it looked the way she wanted it to look, she would step back, her hands held together as if in prayer, tucked beneath her chin, and press her lips into a smile. Her blue eyes would shine, and mist over a little.

Tu esi skaista …. you are beautiful, Zintiņ!

Because she made me so. Her love sewn into every tiny looping of the thread, cut into the bias, tucked into the ribboned trim, folded inside the hem. I would dance for her, my vecmamīte, in those beautiful ballrooms.

I no longer attend such galas. My paths seem to lead me now more often to walks in the woods. And still I hear her, see her in the slant of sunlight in those great green rooms beneath the trees. And I see her now, sometimes, when I look in the mirror. Now that I have let my hair go white, it reminds me of hers, snow white as she grew older, in glowing soft waves against her lined face.

Now that I thread my needle to take up a hem, I think of her. As her years accrued, she would call me to her to thread her needle when she had trouble seeing its tiny eye. Tev ir jaunas acis, Zintiņ, you have young eyes, will you thread this for me?

When she died, we held onto her old Husqvarna sewing machine for several years. It was a beautiful machine, black and decorated with gold swirls, powered by a pedal below it that she pushed back and forth with her foot according to the speed she desired. But none of us had the time or wish to sew. I abandoned my new Singer machine once I graduated from college. Eventually, a small shop in Chicago that collected vintage sewing machines bought the Husqvarna and put it on display in their window.

Her dresses no longer fit me, nor I them. Those ballrooms have faded into darkness, the tinkling of crystal has the distant echo of dreams. My grandmother is seamed into my heart, with fine silken stitches. I finish my hem, loop the thread and bite it off, just as she did. I tuck my hands beneath my chin as if in prayer, counting the stitches, and smile, because she is so beautiful, her glowing white hair like a halo, her bright blue eyes, her laughter to see me dance and the dress she’d sewn swirling around me, the fabric come alive.

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