The Tale of a Singer and the pincushion

It’s funny, all the names people come up with for their grandmothers. We called each of ours “grandmaw”, but when we spoke of them we added their last name. It was like they played on grandparent sporting leagues or something. Sometimes we would call them by name; “Grandmaw Barton, can I go…. or Grandmaw Edge, can I have a…”. We did the same with Granddad. Sometimes we called them Granddaddy too.

I’ve been thinking about grandmaw Barton this past week. It’s been two years now since she passed. She was 97 years old. Next month will be her 100th birthday. I should make her Applesauce Cake, only she never gave out the recipe, to anything. She just knew how to make it, make anything. I spent a couple of weeks with her the summer after granddaddy died and I asked her how she knew to do this or that. She always replied “I just figured it out. Somebody did it before I did, so I figured I could.”, and she did.

She had a wooden nativity set that she made and painted herself, furniture that she reupholstered, chairs that she re-wove, and she could sew anything. I like to think that I get so much from her. I look at something and I think “I can do that”, and then I do it. I too have taught myself to reupholster furniture, cane chairs, refinish, knit, build, sew, wallpaper, paint, cook, and I guess basically survive. I know my limits and will get someone who knows what they are doing when needed, but I like a challenge too. I also have her gift of sight. She called them “visions”. She always knew when something was going on. I tend to know too. I also know which friends I will know when we grow old. I can see them as an old person. It doesn’t mean that someone won’t grow old if I can’t see them, I think we just won’t be in touch when we are old. I don’t share what I know as often as I used to. I don’t know if I see as often as I used to either.

Grandmaw Barton’s patchwork quilts. These are my Quilts of Many Colors.

I have a few of her things, some she gave me and some that were passed on to me. I have a couple of her handmade patchwork quilts. I don’t even know how many of them she made over the years, probably hundreds. She made me one when I moved out on my own and then gave me one the last visit we had before her house burned. That is another Tale for another time. I have a metal stool that she painted blue and white that she gave me. I love the folk art look of the way she painted it. It doesn’t match anything in the house, but it matches my memories of her perfectly. I also have her 1947 Singer Sewing Machine. I remember when she gave it to mom. It used to sit in grandmaw’s front room. She wanted mom to have it. Mom had an electric sewing machine, but I think it had quit working. It still sat in their bedroom as a piece of furniture for years. We loaded grandmaw’s Singer in the back of mom’s car and took it home and she put it in the living room. She actually used it a couple of times and then moved it to the hallway, where it sat for many years. Before dad got sick, he asked me to come visit, that there were a couple of things that he wanted to give me. I left with grandmaw’s sewing machine and his bookcase. He knew I had an appreciation for antiques and family history and he knew I would take care of them. I will pass them on to one of my nieces or nephews one day. I just have to make sure they understand the history behind them.

Grandmaw Barton’s sewing machine now sits in my living room.

One day I will replace the leather belt and get the treadle moving again. 

Grandmaw Barton took care of everything she had. When you grow up with very little, sometimes you learn to appreciate everything you have. In the top left drawer of the Singer cabinet, there is a box with the Singer logo on top. Inside are the original parts, bobbins, and manual. That was the drawer she kept them in, where mom left them, and where I have left them. The cabinet itself has seen some wear to the finish, but that is to be expected, and a few years back the leather belt on the wheel broke from drying out. I keep meaning to replace the belt. It will still work once I do that. I remember grandmaw treadling away on it that summer I spent and mom doing the same when it was given to her. There is an unmistakable sound to the treadle going back and forth, the wheel spinning, and the machine coming alive. I can even hear mom’s old electric sewing machine in my head. It had a hum to it just before the needle would make a whirling sound that turned into a rhythmic pounding, accompanied by the offbeat clacking of the spool of thread on top. There was also the sound of mom cussing when the thread broke. She working in a sewing factory for years when we were young but didn’t sew too much at home. I think she was a cutter at Aileen and not a sewer most of that time. Our neighbor, Anne, worked at Wrangler as a sewer, so I am sure she told mom exactly how to do it.

The top left drawer still holds the original box of attachments and owners manual, which is how I know she bought it in 1947. My mom would have been 5 years old when she bought it and my grandmother would have been 30.

The parts look brand new.

Grandmaw Edge made all of her own clothes. When we would visit, she would sometimes still have a dress pattern out on the dining room table. Since they moved from one parsonage to another, there wasn’t always room for a sewing room, so she made do. It’s funny, I don’t remember her sewing machine or ever seeing her sew. I remember one house that had a sewing room, or a room that we were not allowed in. Most of the time that was granddaddy’s office. One year for Christmas, she made all of us robes and mom a new housecoat. In the pocket of each was a small Whitman’s Sampler. Each was a different color and I don’t think I had mine for very long before I grew out of it. I probably inherited one of my brothers, as I got a few hand-me-downs if they weren’t worn out. There was a pillow that she made me when I was sick with tonsillitis. It was from a pattern she got with one of her dress patterns, I think. It was a cat with kittens. Ironically, it was under my bed when our pregnant cat went into labor and she used it to give birth on. I threw it out.

Grandmaw Barton had a pincushion that sat on a bookshelf in her kitchen. She had a chair in the kitchen, by a window, where she sat each day to watch the birds, read her bible, and do any hand work that needed done. Her bookshelf held just a few things; her bible, pincushion, sewing box, a jar of buttons, reading glasses, a couple of pictures, a place for her cup of coffee, and a few books she would be reading. We could only sit in her chair when she was up doing other things, and we couldn’t bother things. It was granddaddy’s chair before he died.

Mary kept a pincushion on her dresser and would bring it out to the living room in the evening. As she and Charlie would sit and watch Wheel Of Fortune, she would be sewing something. She had a jar of buttons too. When their grandkids were visiting for the summer or I was helping Charlie in the garden or yard, she was quick with a sewing kit to mend a tear or replace a button. She made quilts too and pillows for their front porch furniture.

Sewing was just something that they all did. It was a skill, a trade, a chore, a hobby, or a pastime. A friend, Nyla, shared a picture of her mom’s and grandmother’s button box and sewing notions yesterday, and it got me thinking about my grandmothers and Mary. These were important to them. These were necessities, but also niceties. Buttons did more than just hold something together. They had style before function. Their scissors were important and serious tools too. You could not play with them. They had specific ones that stayed in their sewing kits and they cut nothing but fabric with them. Mom’s scissors were all metal with black painted handles and seemed like they were a foot long. They were huge and heavy. She kept them in the bottom drawer in the kitchen. There was also an unmistakable sound to them. You could hear the metal against metal as the blades passed one another and then it ended in a clapping kind of sound as the handles came together.

Nyla’s mom, Cosette, and her grandmother, Pearl, kept buttons and sewing kits in an old tin. The New York World’s Fair was held in 1939. I would love to see if one of those keys fit my grandmother’s Singer. The middle drawer folds out and has a lock on it, but no key. Luckily it is unlocked.

These are now treasures that we hold close and use when we can. It gives us an opportunity to hold hands with the generations that came before us. When I buy something that has extra buttons in the pocket, I keep them. I never really thought about it, but I guess it goes back to seeing the buttons that grandmaw Barton and Mary kept. They have come in handy over the years. I just have a small bag of buttons and not a jar. I don’t think about saving the buttons from anything that I wear out, but then again I don’t tend to wear something out as much as I grow out of it and I just give it away. I know the quilts I have were made from scraps of old clothes that grandmaw had, where she kept any part of that was useable and found another purpose for. The cloth went into the rag box and the buttons went into the jar.

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The Appalachian Tale

Memories, recipes, and Tales of an Appalachian Boy.

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