The Sewing Machine
Agnes Dennison watched the delivery men unload the crate that held her victory prize. It was a hard-won battle but it was only fair that if Jefferson’s first wife, Margaret, got a brand new sewing machine, Agnes should receive one as well. What made the victory even sweeter was that, while Margaret’s machine was very basic, Agnes’s was top of the line, Singer’s best, with a fold down top, six drawers of sturdy carved oak and the Singer brand name spelled out in wrought iron letters across the knee guard.
Up until now, Agnes had been struggling with an ancient machine that you had to operate by rotating a wheel with your hand, certainly better than hand sewing with a needle and thread, but still slow and exhausting. Her new Singer, however, had a foot treadle and that was a huge improvement. You just peddled away as if you were on a bicycle. She would be able to assemble a garment in hours instead of days.
Jefferson Dennison was in the process of divesting himself of his second wife by order of the Church of Latter-day Saints. This was because, in order for the territory of Utah to become a state, all polygamous marriages had to be dissolved and the Mormon husband could only retain his first wife. As can be imagined, this was causing a lot of heartbreak and animosity. Some of the wives and children of the second, and sometimes the third and fourth marriages, could still be supported by their spouses but many would find themselves out in the cold. Agnes was going to see to it that she and her four children were well taken care of and she was going to milk Jefferson for as much as she could before statehood happened.
She would assume ownership of the house he had built for her and with the Singer sewing machine she would sew new drapes, new bedding and new clothes. This, of course, would mean she would need to buy fabrics and that would mean reaching into Jefferson’s pockets. Good thing they were deep.
Maintaining two households could be expensive but Jefferson had the capital. He was a very successful property owner and contractor. He had constructed separate homes for Margaret and Agnes, each large and ostentatious, and his visitation schedule had worked out fairly well; Monday through Wednesday was for Margaret and Thursday through Saturday for Agnes. Sunday was go-to-church day for the entire family. He alternated his visits on Sunday evening in order to give equal time to each wife. This custom would soon be abandoned.
After the crate had been opened and removed, Agnes stood admiring her beautiful new acquisition. The wooden top and drawers were finished in a satiny golden brown color. The underframe and treadle were assembled from black wrought iron. It even had tiny iron wheels so you could move it around. She slowly lifted the hinged top and let it hang to the left which revealed the machine itself nestled, on its side, in a recess built into the surface of the sewing table. Using both hands, Agnes lifted the heavy sewing machine head, which was attached to the back edge of the recess with hinges. This allowed it to rest on top of the sewing table and then swing back down to store in the recess when not in use. A continuous leather belt ran up from the treadle to a wheel on the right end of the machine which turned all the gears and the moving parts. All this to simply raise and lower a needle that would pick up a thread from the bobbin and stitch two fabrics together. Amazing!
The machine head, in itself, was a work of art. It was painted in shiny black enamel and covered with tiny red roses and gilt curlicues. The letters S I N G ER were proudly emblazoned in gold across its side. Agnes was beside herself with joy.
‘Dresses by Dennison’ was where the fashionable ladies of Salt Lake City went to have their dreams come true. Agnes Dennison could look at an illustration that you had clipped from Godey’s Lady’s Book or Harper’s Magazine and recreate that design for you down to the same buttons and bows. While most women had only two outfits, a dress for work and one for Sunday best, wealthy women needed a seasonal change of clothes in order to stay in style and to reflect their position in society. Day dresses, tea dresses, evening dresses, traveling suits, overcoats, skirts, blouses, house coats and on and on. Agnes was very busy.
Her oldest daughter, Fanny, had developed a talent for millinery and began providing chapeau to complement the outfits Agnes created. Agnes’s two boys, Thomas and Franklin, when not in school, were either sent off to the Zion’s Cooperative Mercantile Institution department store for fabrics and trimmings or to make deliveries to clients around the city. Her youngest daughter, Lily, was very skilled at hand sewing. She would finish hems, attach trims and sew on buttons. She also became known for her very fine crocheted lace.
On January 4th,
1896, Utah became the 45th state to join the
was a grand celebration with a parade and fireworks and
was now officially a single woman with four children and
a thriving business and that was alright by her. She didn’t
need a husband to depend on for room and board and to
have to clean up after.
No more having to endure sour kisses and pokes in
the bed. In
fact, as the years went by, she never formed another
relationship with a person of the opposite gender. She retired, a
‘grass widow,’ thirty years later, a rich and happy
By 1918, Agnes had begun to slow down. While Dresses by Dennison was still popular among her faithful clientele, the ready-to-wear departments at ZCMI and the other dress shops around town were able to offer the latest fashions for much lower prices. Once again, that was alright with Agnes because she found she tired easily. She liked having less work and more time for herself. Fanny had stayed on, helping with the bookkeeping and supervising the two seamstresses who worked on electric sewing machines instead of the old Singer treadle. Thomas and Franklin had both volunteered to join the American forces in Europe during World War One. Frank came back a hero. Sadly, Tom, never returned.
Lily had met a handsome young miner, Timothy O’Shea, in 1915, had fallen in love and, although he was not a Mormon, married him and had moved to Silver City, Nevada. Her mother wasn’t too happy about the arrangement but gave them a generous wedding gift of a thousand dollars and insisted Lily take the old Singer sewing machine as well. “You never know when you might need it,” she said, and she was right because the mines were soon running out of silver ore. For a while, in order to keep food on the table, Lily took in laundry and mending for the miners, but eventually the O’Sheas moved out of what was to become a ghost town and headed for California.
In Los Angeles, Lily discovered she was pregnant and she eventually gave birth to a baby girl whom they named Mary Ann. Lily’s husband, Timothy, got work as a linesman for Pacific Light and Power and she, needing to take care of her daughter, worked at home as, guess what, a dressmaker. The old Singer was put to work, spinning along, producing garment after garment. Her reputation as a skilled seamstress spread quickly and soon she was getting almost more orders than she could handle.
This all came to a sudden halt when the United States entered WW1. Timothy joined the Navy and Lily went to work sewing army uniforms. Early in the morning, she would leave little Mary Ann with her neighbor next door, ride the trolley to the factory, and sew hundreds of khaki colored wool pants and jackets. In the evening she wrote letters to her mother and to Tim, who was somewhere on the high seas, and waited for the day when he and she would be together again.
Fortunately for Lily, she was not totally alone in Los Angeles. Two years before she and Tim had moved from Nevada to L.A and into a bungalow on Colorado Avenue, her cousin Lizzy Pratt had fled Salt Lake and her Mormon heritage for the glamorous world of Hollywood. It was here she discovered cigarettes and booze, two big no-no’s in the doctrine of the Church of Latter-day Saints, as well as cowboy stunt men who were great in the saddle.
With her flaming red hair and hour glass figure she easily found work as a day player in moving pictures. Years later she would tell anyone who would listen about standing next to one of the giant plaster elephants in D.W. Griffith’s film ‘Intolerance’ or being one of the cheering crowd at the chariot race in the original ‘Ben Hur.’
When she came to visit Lily one Sunday afternoon, not long after Tim had sailed off into enemy waters, she was dressed to the nines; purple kid boots, lavender silk stockings, a bright yellow hobble skirt, acid green bolero jacket and a Caroline Reboux hat decorated with red cherries and yellow rose buds. She would have put a peacock to shame. She carried an apple green reticule with beaded fringe from which she withdrew a pack of Camel cigarettes. Lily tried not to look shocked but didn’t succeed.
“Oh, for heaven’s sake, kiddo, everyone smokes here in L.A! You want one?”
“No thank you, but you go ahead.”
Lizzy took out a small box of wooden matches and, using the sole of her boot, struck one of them and lit her cigarette.
“I was going to bring you a bottle of something but then I didn’t know if you folks were drinking, what with the church and so forth,” Lizzy explained as she looked around Lily’s parlor.
“You’ve fixed the place up real nice, very cozy. And there’s Aunt Agnes’ old sewing machine.”
Lily had turned the dining room into her sewing area, using the dining room table for laying out and cutting fabric and she had put the ironing board close to the kitchen so she could use the stove to heat up her iron. A dressmaker’s dummy stood in a corner next to the Singer.
“Where’s Mary Ann?” Lizzy asked, “I’m dying to see her.”
“She’s down for her afternoon nap. I’m sorry. I hate to wake her. It’s the only rest either of us get.”
“That’s alright. I can take a quick look at her when I leave,” Lizzy said, taking a drag off of her cigarette and blowing a spiral of blue smoke over her right shoulder, “I actually had an ulterior motive for seeing you today, I mean, of course I wanted to see you and the kiddie but I also wanted to hire you to make something for me. I know you aren’t taking any orders due to your work for the army but I thought, maybe---”
“Of course Lizzy. I’d be happy to put something together for you. To be honest, it’d be a relief to work on a fabric other than scratchy khaki wool,” she said with a small laugh.
“That’s wonderful! Thank you, so much,” Lizzy exclaimed, again opening her purse to extract a folded piece of newsprint, “I cut this out of L.A. Times. It’s a photograph of Theda Bara at the Premiere of Cleopatra and her dress is so beautiful. She’s with her husband.” Lizzy handed the clipping to Lily, “You know she can sew like you. I mean, she makes all her own costumes and wigs for her movies. She learned how to do that from her mother who was a seamstress. Isn’t that something?”
“Yes, I guess so,” Lily replied, “What do you want this dress for? What’s the occasion? It’s a very---very fancy design.”
“Isn’t it though! Well, I’m seeing this gentleman or rather he’s seeing me and he’s invited me to this big social event, some ball or concert, I don’t know exactly. I just know it’s a very formal affair and all the important people will be there, the major, the governor, actors and actresses, the crème de la crème of society, so I want to be looking my best---better than my best!”
“When is this event happening?”
“In two weeks, Saturday the 17th.”
“My, that’s not much time,” Lily said, a bit hesitant.
“I know, I know. I wasted so much time looking for the right dress. I went to Walker’s Fifth Street Store and to Hamburger and Sons and there was nothing, absolutely nothing. I tried things on at Les Damsel’s little dress shop, very disappointing,” Lizzy complained as she lit up another cigarette, “You know Mary Pickford shops for all her clothes in New York City and Gloria Swanson even goes to Paris for her gowns. Anyway, I remembered all the lovely things you and your mother used to make and, voila, here I am.”
Three days before the big event, which was being held at the Beverly Hills Hotel, which had just recently opened and was already the spot in which to be seen, Lizzy put on the gown for her final fitting.
“Oh, it’s so beautiful, Lily! Thank you,” Lizzy exclaimed, staring at her image in Lily’s full-length cheval mirror. The long gown of emerald green velvet glowed like the gem it was named after. Gold metallic lace, hand crocheted by Lily, edged the neckline. The bell-like sleeves were made of a green silk chiffon that sparkled with narrow stripes of gold sequins.
“And I have the perfect shoes to go with it,” Lizzy continued, “and I’ll wear the necklace Harold gave me. That’s his name, Harold Banning. He’s the grandson of one of the men who started the first California railroad. Imagine that.” Lizzy turned a full circle and clapped her hands. “Oh Lily, you have outdone yourself! I will be the belle of the ball.”
“You will indeed. The green works so well with your red hair---lovely. What is this event all about? You never told me.”
“Oh, right, I forgot. It’s a party to sell war bonds. All the famous movie stars will be there. It’s going to be the biggest affair of the year---of the century!” Lizzy announced with a giggle.
“Well, I’ll be waiting on Sunday for a telephone call from you with every last detail.”
“Of course, and thank you again,” Lizzy replied, delicately removing the dress and handing it to Lily who folded it carefully and slipped it into a tissue paper lined box. “Here Lily, here’s what I owe you,” she said, handing an envelope to Lily, “There’s a little extra in there for doing such a great job.”
“ Oh, no, Lizzy. You mustn’t do that.”
“It’s alright. Harold is very generous. Buy something nice for Mary Ann---or, better yet, buy something nice for yourself.” And with that she was out the door.
Late Sunday afternoon, Lizzy finally got out of bed and, after having a strong cup of coffee, another violation of her Mormon upbringing, she placed a call, with the telephone operator, to Lily,. “Santa Monica 4571, please.” The operator responded that she was ringing her party and, after three buzzes, Lizzy heard Lily say hello.
“Oh, Lily, darling, it was so fabulous! It took place in the Sunset Ballroom. So beautiful! Everyone complemented me on my gown. I thought Harold’s eyes would pop right out of his head! And I was introduced to Charlie Chaplin and I met Randolph Hearst, you know, of the newspapers and----Lily, are you alright? It sounds like you’re crying. Maybe it’s a bad connection. Should I---”
“Tim’s ship was sunk.”
“A nice man from the Navy came by.”
“Is Tim alright? Did he get hurt?”
“The ship went down with everyone on board.”
“Wasn’t anyone rescued? Surely they---"
“According to the Navy no one was---was found. They were hit by a torpedo from a German submarine. He called it a you boat, I think, or something like that.”
“When did this happen?”
After a long pause, Lily replied, “A month ago.”
“Oh, dear heavens!”
“This poor officer has been going around personally contacting each family. He said it was not proper to just send a telegram.”
“Oh, my poor Lily,” Lizzy said, her usually cheery voice taking on a somber tone, “As soon as I get dressed I’ll catch the trolley and I’ll come right over.”
“That’s alright, sweetheart. A couple of elders from the church are arriving in a few minutes. You really don’t need to come.”
“Don’t be ridiculous! You need family---that’s what family is for. The church is not family.”
“Please, Lizzy, not now. Let’s not get into a wrangle.”
“Sorry, sorry---so sorry! I’ll be over later. I’ll bring something for dinner. We’ll get through this together.”
“I’m not so sure, Lizzy,” Lily replied, beginning to weep again, “How does one get over something like this? What kind of future is there for me and Mary Ann without my Tim?”
“Mary Ann! Mary Ann!” Lily shouted down the hall, as she pulled on her gloves and grabbed her handbag, “You’re going to be late for school! I’m leaving for work!” She adjusted her hat and secured it by placing the black elastic cord under the bun on the back of her head. “Mary Ann O’Shea, get out here now!’
With the slam of her bedroom door Mary Ann rushed down the hall and joined her mother at the front door. She was taller than her mom, she had gotten that from her dad. She was a senior at Santa Monica High School and counting the days until graduation. Her naturally blond, finger-waved hair was hidden under a red beret and her slim figure was dressed in a plaid skirt topped by a navy blue sweater set. She was struggling with three textbooks that did not want to stay in her arms.
“Here’s your lunch,” Lily said, handing her a brown paper bag, “I’ll cook dinner when I get home but if you could set the table I would greatly appreciate it.”
“There are auditions for the school play after classes this afternoon so I’ll be a little late,” Mary Ann announced, as she followed her mother out onto the porch and down the stairs.
“Well, that sounds exciting, but don’t be too late.” The two pecked a quick mother-daughter kiss and set off in different directions.
The Culver City trolley let Lily off at the corner of Washington Boulevard and Overland Avenue. She adjusted her hat once more and then joined the men and women heading down Washington toward the gated entrance to MGM studios. The façade of ten Greek columns that framed the wrought iron gates gave one the impression that they were standing in front of a temple to the arts. Lily and the other workers, who were entering the space, knew better. This was a factory, a huge combination of giant sound stages, scene shops, prop shops, outdoor scenery, water tanks, offices, cafeteria and costume shop, where Lily was now headed. This was an industrial complex that covered 165 acres and, every week, completed an entire movie. It was an elegant sweat shop that was prepping for, and working on, twenty different films every day. However, no one complained. It was steady employment during this time of the Great Depression and it payed the rent and put food on the table. Lily also knew that she and the other employees had been hired because they were very good at what they did, be they scenic painters, carpenters, electricians, sculptors, wig makers or seamstresses, which was the job she had been hired for.
The locker room in the large open space of the sewing department was buzzing with the chatter from the Ladies of The Needle and Thread. Lily took off her coat, gloves and hat and put them away in her locker. She put on the company-issued smock and proceeded over to the shop time clock and punched in. Her next stop was to the shop supervisor’s desk to pick up her assignment. Mrs. Rosten, a matronly lady in her late fifties, was in charge and you never wanted to get on her bad side. A crooked zipper or an uneven hem could land you in ‘The Cage,’ the area that was fenced in with chicken wire and sat in the middle of the airplane hangar-like building. It was here that all the basting of the mockups and the actual costumes took place. Hand basting was simply sewing something together temporarily with large stiches so, that after the final machine sewing was completed, the basting stiches could be easily removed. It is very tedious and boring and when Lily was hired that was where she started. Mercifully, the powers that be recognized her talent and moved her out of ‘The Cage’ and onto a sewing machine.
“Lily, you continue working on the Garbo velvet. They need it in Furrier this afternoon to add the fox collar and cuffs. Then work on the alterations on number 16 for her screen test. Some cutie of Mayer’s so it’s a rush job. Send it over to Fittings when you’re done.”
Fittings were held in a separate building away from prying eyes. It was hard enough for an actor or actress to stand around in their underwear in front of a director or a designer, while they were trying on a costume, without having fifty other faces starring at them.
Lily walked over to the pressing area and took the mahogany brown velvet gown down off the rack and carried it over to her station. It was very heavy and she had to work hard to keep it from dragging on the floor. As she removed it from the hanger she noticed the tag,’ Garbo—Anna Karenina.’
“Never read it,” she thought, “Maybe I’ll have Mary Ann get it for me from the library.” She turned the bodice inside out in preparation for inserting the sleeves. She then pinned each sleeve in the arm hole and, turning on her sewing machine, began to feed the fabric under the presser foot. It’s always tricky trying to get the cap of a sleeve to fit the contours of the arm hole but the new electric machines made it much easier. What a difference from mama Agnes’ old treadle run Singer! These industrial machines could sew delicate fabrics like silk chiffon and then, with a change of needle, pierce thick leather or heavy sail cloth. All she had to do to sew anything was to lower the needle into the fabric and apply pressure to a lever, under the machine, with her right knee. Some of the machines still had a treadle but it was connected to the electric motor and was used like a gas pedal in an automobile. You pressed it to get the machine sewing and the harder you pushed on it the faster it would sew.
After Lily finished setting in the sleeves (she had to redo one because it wasn’t as perfect as she would have liked) she returned it to the pressing area for a quick steam. Since it was silk velvet no hot iron was allowed near it as it would damage the thick nap. When the steaming was completed Lily walked it over to the area that contained the dressmaker dummies. It was here that there were about 25 manikins whose purpose was for trying on the semi-finished garments. Some of these dummies were set off to the side and these were the ones that had been padded to replicate the figures of some of the leading actresses. Lily stepped between the slim Jean Harlow and the busty Mae West and lifted the heavy plush gown up over the headless dummy that represented Miss Greta Garbo.
“Nice work, Lily,” commented Mrs. Rosten, as she came up beside her. She wrote some notes down on her clip board. “I’ll send it over to Furrier. You can go ahead and finish the alternations on screen test 16. I believe they’re shooting her around four this afternoon on sound stage 23. Some bimbo getting the royal treatment. Lord help us all.”
As Lily redid the darts in the bodice of the pink party dress, to add a little more room for breathing, she thought about the feeling of pride she got when she and Mary Ann would take in a movie. A costume would flash across the screen and she would remember putting in its zipper or attaching the trim. Millions of people would see her work and not even know it. Amazing.
Several evenings later, as Lily was fixing dinner, Mary Ann came rushing into the kitchen.
“Sorry I’m late mom but I stayed to help set up for rehearsal,” she said, catching her breath and reaching into the cupboard to retrieve two plates.
“I thought you said you didn’t get cast in the play.”
“I didn’t but I signed up to be on the stage crew. You know, build the scenery, paint, sew costumes, run the lights---that kind of stuff.”
“Well, that sounds exciting,” Lily said, a bit leery, “Will you still have time for your homework?”
“Of course. Honestly, mom, I thought you’d be pleased.”
“Oh, I am darling. I want to hear all about it while we eat.”
As they sat at the kitchen table, enjoying their supper, Mary Ann told her mother about the play, the cast and the very cute boy who was in charge of the props.
“The play is called ‘The Old Lady on The Hill’ and it’s about this eccentric old woman who lives in this house full of things like piñatas and animals that have been stuffed and bright colored furniture and lots and lots of props. So Robert, that’s his name, said he’d like me to help him so I’m going to work with him on props. I’ll probably do other things as well.”
Lily hadn’t seen Mary Ann this excited in years. It looked like romance was in the air. She would have to keep her eye out for any ungentlemanly behavior from this Robert fellow.
“Who’s taking the role of the old lady? I mean, these are High School kids, right?”
“Oh, Sarah, Sarah Friedman. She is just amazing! They’ll put her in a white wig and do makeup and everything, but even without all that she is so convincing. You’d think she was a fifty-year-old lady the way she talks and the way she walks, all bent over.”
For the next few weeks, Lily was very busy at work sewing on a series of dance costumes for this new starlet Eleanor Powell, who was making her debut in a musical, ‘Broadway Melody of 1935.’ There were lots of sequins and feathers. Mary Ann was busy, as well, rounding up rainbow colored tea pots, stuffed squirrels, clocks, knitted afghans and any other of the esoteric items called for in the script. She borrowed from her neighbors, wrangled with storekeepers, bargained with the Goodwill and Salvation Army thrift stores and, with her mother’s permission, took a few things from their own little bungalow---on loan of course.
Late on a Friday evening, Mary Ann returned home after a rehearsal, tired and discouraged. Her mother was sitting in the parlor crocheting and listening to the radio.
“My, it must have been a very long rehearsal. I was getting worried.”
“Oh, everything went wrong. We open in one week and Daniel still doesn’t know his lines and Sarah has a sore throat and the set isn’t ready and we have a tech rehearsal on Sunday,” Mary Ann said, with a sigh, as she collapsed on the settee.
“Dear me. But I’m sure it’ll all come together. It always does.”
“And on top of that the director, you know, Mr. Douglas, is not happy with some of the props. He particularly dislikes the sewing machine. He says it’s too modern but Bobby, Robert, and I told him that it’s the only one available and we borrowed it from the Home Economics teacher and it is doing double duty because the costume crew is using it to sew the costumes.”
“What does Mr. Douglas mean by it being too modern?”
“It’s a portable one that comes in a case like a piece of luggage and we have it sitting on one of the tables on stage. He wants an old fashioned one, you know, like grandma’s treadle machine.”
“What difference does it make if it’s old or new? It doesn’t get used during the play does it?”
“Oh, yes, it gets used alright. In the second act Sarah’s supposed to be sewing doll clothes for all these scary dolls that are sitting around her house.” Mary Ann sat up and looked at her mother.
“Don’t even think it, Mary Ann O’Shea!”
“You know very well what! My dear old reliable sewing machine is not leaving this house,” Lily said as she stood up and turned off the radio.
“Mama, you don’t even use it anymore. Look at it sitting there. It’s covered in magazines and books and that ugly vase from Aunt Lizzy.”
“I can’t have it carted out and have it sitting alone in your school. It wouldn’t be safe.”
“It’s only for one week and I would be there watching over it every night.”
“Well, it’s not going to happen. I mean how would you get it over to the school anyway, roll it down the street on its little metal wheels?”
“Bobby said he and his dad could pick it up and drive it to the school in his father’s delivery van.”
“So, you’ve got it all worked out. Well, I’m sorry but it’s just not going to happen and that’s that!”
On opening night, that next Friday, Lily, wearing her best dress and a new hat, entered the auditorium of Santa Monica High School. Mary Ann had stayed after school in order to clean up the stage, set the props and to be with Bobby. She told her mother that she would meet her after the play, out in the lobby.
An audience of family and friends and fellow students were chatting and laughing as Lily took her seat. Mary Ann had recommended that her mother sit about four rows back on the left side of the auditorium for the best view. Lily squeezed in beside a large man sitting next to, what she presumed was, his wife. They both smiled politely as the lights went out and the curtain opened.
The set was, as Mary Ann had described it, a rainbow of different colors. The walls were orange, the woodwork a pale blue. One big window on the rear wall was made to look like stained glass. The sofa was bright green. The whole room was filled with furniture painted many different shades of blue and purple. On the tables and the shelves were the clocks Mary Ann had collected. The stuffed squirrel, as well as an owl, a skunk, a fox and a cobra peered out at the audience from various perches on the walls. Lily tried to spy her sewing machine among all the clutter but she was distracted by the door opening and the leading lady making her entrance.
In stark contrast to the Easter Egg colored scenery, Sarah Friedman was clothed in black, a long black skirt, black high-necked blouse, black shoes and a black shawl. She hobbled over to a table and picked up a large book with a snow white cover. It was as white as the wig on her head. In a quivering voice she began to read out loud.
At intermission, Lily was very tempted to walk out the door and head home. But she knew how upset May Ann would be if, after all the work she had put into this production, albeit a terrible production, her mother had left. From what Lily could make out of all the confusion happening on stage, the story of the play was something about an eccentric old woman, who was very rich, who loved animals and little children and decorated her big mansion like a coloring book and had a son who wanted her committed to an insane asylum so he could live off her money but of course she wasn’t crazy. The acting was just plain awful and, after staring at the kaleidoscopic set for an hour, her eyes hurt. Plus, Lily didn’t see her sewing machine anywhere on that stage.
The lobby lights flicked off and on to indicate it was time to return to their seats for the second act and Lily dutifully went back into the auditorium and sat down next to the large man. His wife leaned around him and smiled.
“Isn’t it good?!” she exclaimed, “Our son is playing the lawyer!”
“Oh?” Lily was at a loss for words, “Yes---the entire cast is---doing a great job.”
Mercifully, the curtain opened at that moment and Lily didn’t have to keep lying. Sarah, as the old lady, was seated on the green sofa holding one of the many dolls that inhabited the nooks and crannies of the set. It was a large china doll with strawberry blonde ringlets but dressed only in a chemise and pantaloons.
“Oh my poor Hemione,” Sarah said, in her old lady voice, “You must be very cold without your clothes. I think it’s time I made you something beautiful.” With this, she arose, letting the audience know for sure how bad her arthritis was, and carried the doll over to one of the purple tables. Placing it carefully on top, she turned to another table standing next to it, covered in one of the knitted afghans that Mary Ann had purloined. Like a magician getting ready to reveal his latest trick, she whisked the multi-colored comforter off the table in one dramatic move. There stood the sewing machine---but it was not Lily’s. The one exposed was not her Singer, made of warm golden oak, but an atrocity the color of an over ripe lemon. So, where was her machine? After loading it into Robert’s father’s van where had they taken it? Where had it ended up?
It was when Sarah, as the old lady, opened the desk-like table’s hinged lid and lifted the machine, with the rose buds and the gold curlicues, up into position that Lily gasped. The sound of her gasp was loud enough for the large gentleman, next to her, to ask her if she was alright. She nodded yes but of course she wasn’t alright. Her beloved old Singer had been painted bright yellow!
If you had asked Lily what happened in the second act of “The Old Lady on The Hill’ she would have drawn a blank. All she remembered was this bright yellow image burning her retinas and her internal struggle with how she was going to stop herself from murdering her daughter. When the curtain closed and opened again, allowing the cast to take their bows, Lily leapt out of her seat and hurried up the aisle and into the lobby. She stood there, surrounded by glass cases full of sports trophies, and considered either going home or storming back stage. Neither option seemed to be a good choice so she stayed in the lobby and waited. The rest of the audience began to trickle out of the auditorium and little circles formed of proud family members anxious to congratulate their budding Barrymores and Duses. Lily waited for Mary Ann and watched as the minutes ticked by and all the happy families left the school. She used the time waiting to figure out how she was going to deal with Mary Ann. She didn’t want to diminish what her daughter had accomplished but this was a big violation of Lily’s trust. Her poor sewing machine.
The double doors to the auditorium swung open as Mary Ann and Robert finally appeared. “Hi, mom,” Mary Ann said, a big smile on her face, “Sorry to keep you waiting. Bobby and I had to sweep up and set the props for tomorrow’s performance.”
“Good evening, Mrs. O’Shea,” Robert said shyly, “Did you enjoy the show?”
“It was very---provocative.”
“And didn’t Bobby do a great job with the props?” Mary Ann asked, grabbing his hand.
“Jeez, Mary,” Robert argued, “You did most of the work, collecting, the hunting down of the taxidermy stuff—”
“I know, I know,” Mary Ann agreed, “but you pulled it all together.”
“I do have a question about something,” Lily said, trying to keep from sounding upset.
“What’s that, Mrs. O’Shea?”
“Well, it’s about my sewing machine, actually,” Lily noticed Mary Ann stiffen and stop smiling, “I noticed it had been painted---yellow.”
“Oh, yes. That was the director, Mr. Douglas’ idea,” Robert replied, “He felt it didn’t go with the rest of the design, you know, it needed to be integrated into the old lady’s color scheme.”
“I see---integrated,” Lily responded.
“Yeah, and Mary Ann said you wouldn’t mind, so we painted it---”
“Lemon yellow,” Lily said, in an icy tone, “I don’t remember you asking me for permission to paint my sewing machine, Mary Ann.”
“I---I---I didn’t think you’d mind,” Mary Ann replied, nervously, “You don’t use it anymore and---and it was looking kinda old and tired. I thought it would look cheery---kinda brighten up the place when we get it back.”
“Gee, Mrs. O’Shea,” Robert explained, “I thought Mary Ann had gotten the okay from you. If I had known---”
“It’s alright, Robert. There’s nothing that we can do. What’s done is done.”
“I feel so bad---”
“It’s not your fault,” Lily replied, “Just make sure we get it back with no further damage.”
“Of course, ma’am.”
“And now it’s time for us to go home, young lady,” Lily announced in her I’m-so-disappointed-in-you voice, and the two of them walked out the door and headed to the trolley.
A couple of months later, as Lily sat at her yellow sewing machine table, puting the final touches on Mary Ann’ graduation dress, she thought about the way people reacted when they saw the Singer’s ripe lemon color. Of course, cousin Lizzy was over the moon.
“Oh, how fantastic! What a glorious change! It lights up the whole room. You should have done it a long time ago. Welcome to the twentieth century!”
Lizzy was still living the Hollywood dream even though she was on the dark side of forty. Over the years she had been a companion to many a rich and important man. Her latest gentleman was the President of an Airline company and with whom she had flown across the nation and back. He found her beautiful and stylish and funny and she found him wealthy.
Neighbors had gawked at the strange citrus colored sewing machine when Robert and his father unloaded it and carried it into Lily’s house. Later in the day, Mrs. Leone, from next door leaned across the fence and told Lily, who was hanging out her laundry, that she thought it was really pretty. “Could almost make mending enjoyable.”
Some visitors found it an amusing novelty, kind of like a rare bird one would see at the zoo. One little girl, who had come with her mother, thought it looked good enough to eat, ‘like a lemon Popsicle.’
After receiving so many positive comments Lily had to finally admit to herself that maybe having a yellow sewing machine was not so bad after all. It still worked fine, whenever she needed to use it, which was getting to be less and less these days. Who wants to come home and sew when you spend eight to ten hours running a sewing machine at work?!
She moved it closer to the front door, where it served as place to drop your keys and packages when you entered from the street. She had also put one her large crocheted dollies on the top to dress it up. And then there was Lizzy’s ugly vase, which looked a lot better against the yellow paint than it did against the old brown wood finish.
Mary Ann, who would be graduating high school next week, had applied to the Frank Wiggins Trade School to become a beautician. Cousin Lizzy had urged her to choose Cosmetology as a career since; ‘you’re such a natural, your hair and makeup are always perfect!’ Lily would have preferred that her daughter attend a real college and be the first in the family to earn a degree but it was not to be. It was probably for the best, however, as Lily couldn’t afford to pay the four year’s worth of tuition it cost to attend a first-class university but she could scrape together enough money to get Mary Ann through beauty school.
Though they were still friends, the fire of romance had never ignited in Bobby’s heart. He had asked Mary Ann to the Senior Prom early on, and he meant to honor that request even though his interest had recently wandered to Jennifer Schwartz, a junior and one of the members of the Santa Monica High School drama club. Such is life.
Mary Ann celebrated her 40th birthday with her 14-year-old son Martin. Her husband, who shall remain nameless, deserted her and her baby boy when the child was only two. Being smart and resourceful, attributes most likely inherited from her mother and grandmother, she opened a beauty salon in downtown Portland, Oregon, where he, who shall continue to remain nameless, had dumped her before taking off to parts unknown.
The salon, known as Hair Apparent, had started on a shoestring in a narrow storefront on N.W. Burnside, near the famous Powell’s Bookstore. Within ten years, Mary Ann’s patience and hard work had turned her two station, one beautician, establishment into a thriving two-story, eight-beautician palace of beauty.
When Mary Ann got home to her apartment that day, after a long shift at the salon, she found her mother, Lily, and Martin waiting for her with a beautiful birthday cake. It was chocolate with vanilla icing and had, on the top, a marzipan figure dressed in a miniature version of the green smock worn at the beauty shop.
“Happy Birthday, mama!” Martin shouted, with a big smile spreading across his face. He was growing taller every day and his arms and legs were like skinny lollypop sticks.
“Happy Birthday, Mary Ann,” echoed her mother, giving her a big hug. Lily had moved north to Portland to live with her daughter after she had retired from working at MGM. The movie business was changing. TV was making inroads into the entertainment industry and the rental of costumes was replacing a lot of the designing and construction of original costumes. Not as many stitchers were being employed. Lily was now in her 70’s, and ready to put away the needle and thread, so all the changes in the picture-making world had little effect on her.
There were two nicely wrapped gifts waiting on the dining room table. One was round and the paper was silver with a purple bow. The other was a medium sized box wrapped in powder blue paper tied with a red ribbon.
“Open mine first, mama,” Martin pleaded, “Please!” He handed her the box. She took it and, untying the ribbon, removed the blue paper carefully so it could be used again. She lifted the lid, as Martin fidgeted with impatience. Lying, in a bed of tissue paper, was some kind of garment made of a soft pastel floral print. When Mary Ann picked it up she could see that---
“It’s a blouse! I made it for you!” Martin explained, proudly.
“He did everything from start to finish,” Lily confirmed.
“Well, I had to have grandma check everything as I went. The buttonholes were really hard to do but she showed me the attachment on the machine that helped.”
The machine he was referring to was, of course, Lily’s old lemon-yellow Singer sewing machine. When his grandmother had moved up from Los Angeles, to live with them, she had brought the treadle machine with her as well. Mary Ann was not too thrilled to see the big ugly memory of her shameful teenage misdemeanor, but, for Martin, it was love at first sight. It had hardly been moved into the spare room, which was now Lily’s bedroom, than Martin was opening the drawers and lifting up the lid to look at the magical machine.
Within days, he was rushing home from school to have another sewing lesson with his grandmother. At first, it was just the basics; threading the machine, stitching a straight line, changing the needle or winding the bobbin, but then he got to sew two pieces of fabric together. He was so excited you would have thought he had won a marathon race. He loved pushing on the treadle and watching the needle go up and down into the cloth as the material moved under the presser foot. The fabric was pulled along by tiny metal fingers in a part of the machine called the feed dog. He liked to imagine that a cute little miniature dog lived under the presser foot and moved the cloth along with his sharp teeth.
He could make the machine go slow or fast by, to quote the older boys at school, ‘putting the pedal to the metal!’ It was almost like driving a car but a lot safer and it didn’t need gasoline.
Lily could tell that Martin’s interest in sewing and the yellow machine was not a momentary infatuation. He was proving himself a fast learner and becoming more proficient with each afternoon tutorial. After about a month of working on simple projects like pot holders and pillow cases Lily decided it was time to up the ante.
“How about I show you how to draft a pattern? Would you like to do that?” Martin nodded vigorously. “Well, then, let’s clear the dining room table,” Lily pronounced, “We’ll need some large sheets of paper, a yard stick, a pencil and scissors.” And with that, a whole new wonderful world opened up for Martin.
Mary Ann had changed into her new birthday blouse and was amazed to see how well it fit. It was a simple design but the floral pattern of turquoise and lavender gave it an understated elegance.
“Martin drew a lovely sketch and then drafted a pattern for it all by himself,” Lily explained.
“I got the fabric at Meier and Frank,” Martin added, “Grandma lent me the money.”
“And now it’s time for you to open my present,” Lily said, as she handed Mary Ann the round silver package. Once again, her daughter unwrapped the paper carefully so as not to tear it but when she saw what she held in her hands she dropped the wrappings and gasped.
“This was grandma Agnes’s! I remember she kept it on the dresser in her bedroom!”
“It’s carved out of tortoise shell, the real thing, not the stuff they make out of celluloid.”
“Open it mama,” Martin said, knowing what was inside. Mary Ann slowly lifted the ornate and shiny lid and stared at the necklace that lay, like a sleeping chameleon, on the faded green velvet interior. It was made up of a chain of pearls and amethyst beads from which hung a green jade pendant.
“It was her most prized possession. Your grandfather gave it to her on their wedding day. She passed it on to me and now it’s time for you to have it.”
“Oh, it’s so beautiful! But I don’t ever remember seeing you wearing it.”
“It was not my style.”
“Put it on, mama,” Martin asked, with a broad smile. Lily helped her daughter drape it around her neck and then she closed the clasp.
“It’s heavy,” Mary Ann exclaimed.
“Full of history,” Lily said, “Loaded down with laughs and tears.”
“It looks great with your blouse,” Martin added.
“It does indeed,” Mary Ann said, wiping her eyes, “Thank you so much, both of you.” She wrapped her arms around Lily and Martin and they formed a loving triangle.
Entering high school the next year was a daunting experience. Martin had now become that lowest of all human species---a High School Freshman. As his first term progressed he found he was a mediocre student academically, algebra nearly killed him, he was terrible at sports and he was very upset when he got put into Wood Shop instead of Home Ec.
“I don’t want to build a stupid birdhouse,” he told his grandmother, “I want to learn how to cook and bake. I want to continue to get better at sewing.”
“Well, you can learn all that here at home. And I can use a homemade bird house. I will hang it outside my window.”
So Martin learned how to make pot roast and Yorkshire Pudding, how to bake an angel food cake and oatmeal cookies and, most importantly, how to install a zipper in a dress and how to draft a pattern for a pair of pants. And Grandma Lily hung a yellow birdhouse with a cobalt blue roof and red chimney outside her bedroom window. No bird family ever moved in but she didn’t mind. Watching the little house swinging in the breeze gave her great joy. As for Martin, he had never been so happy. His domestic afternoons with his grandmother made high school almost tolerable. It didn’t matter if some of the other students thought he was weird. He would come home to his yellow sewing machine and Grandma Lily’s stories about working in MGM back in the good old days. They would cook together and sew together and it was like being in a modern garden of Eden. However, as we all know, Eden doesn’t last very long.
Cousin Lizzy had moved up north during the winter of Martin’s freshmen year. She took an apartment a few blocks away from him, his mom and Lily because she said it was important to be near family.
“Being with your loved ones is all that matters. God wants us to be together.”
Lizzy, as she entered the golden years of her life, had returned to the welcoming arms of her church. Her wild youth long gone, she was now an inspiring example of Mormon womanhood, and, like all repentant sinners, she was dedicated to leading those, who had also strayed, back into the fold. Her beautiful hair, no longer kept red with henna, was a snowy white halo and her wardrobe colors were less like the hues of a bird of paradise and more like the muddy shades of a common wren. Although she still played her ukulele, songs like ‘Ain’t She Sweet’ and ‘Makin’ Whoopee’ were replaced with ‘Awake, Ye Saints of God, Awake’ and ‘Come, Listen to a Prophet’s Verse.’ No makeup, no liquor, no tobacco, no coffee---it was if the original Lizzy had been replaced with a stranger.
She visited her cousins at least every other day and this began to put a damper on the afternoon tutorials. Lily tried to encourage Lizzy to come by in the morning or join her for lunch, in order to leave the afternoons free for her lessons with Martin. But, often, her rehabilitated cousin would stay, seated in the big overstuffed chair, right into the dinner hour.
“It’s the only time I get to see Mary Ann,” she would explain.
As the weeks went by Lizzy watched with an eagle eye the interaction between Lily and Martin. They continued to try and explore together the complexities of such subjects as soufflés and dolman sleeves but Lizzy’s constant scrutiny was very inhibiting. When she was not busy making suggestions, about processes she knew nothing about, she was proselytizing about Mormonism.
“Lily, you really need to get active again in the church. When I see the way you work with Martin I can’t help but think your teaching talents could be put to much better use as an instructor in Sunday school. The church needs you and you need the church.”
One afternoon, after school, Martin stopped by Lizzy’s tiny apartment to drop off an envelope his mother had asked him to deliver. Martin suspected it contained some cash, as Mary Ann had been secretly helping Lizzy augment her skimpy Social Security check. He knew his mom didn’t want his grandmother to find this out so he had kept his mouth shut.
Lizzy invited him in for a cup of Postum and a sugar cookie.
“I’m a pretty good baker myself, you know. Although these are store bought. What with all the work I do down at the church I don’t really have time for frivolous activities.”
Martin was about to say that he had to get home when Lizzy grabbed his arm.
“I have something I want to show you, dear boy,” she said as she pulled him into the little alcove she used as a dining room, “I realize you know nothing about your church, since your mother has neglected your religious education, so---” She indicated a display spread out on a card table covered in a white bedsheet. The card table was usually just for meals but now it was covered in little signs and cutout figures, dressed in white, clustered in small groups.
“This is a map of heaven,” Lizzy explained, “Where, hopefully, we will all spend eternity. Please, sit down,” she said, pointing to a chair, “I’m going to sit across from you so I can explain.” And she began.
For almost an hour she talked about the hierarchy of heaven, the various levels one could attain as an angel, the seraphim and the cherubim, being able to walk with Jesus, being reunited with loved ones that had passed on.
“Now, when we die everyone goes to Heaven, all religions go there, all colors go there, although the colored folk have a section set aside just for them,” she revealed, pointing to a sign that read ‘Others.’ “Now, what happens next,” Lizzy continued, “and this is what concerns me about you, is that Judgement Day arrives and that is when everyone stands up before God and answers the question.” She stopped and closed her eyes.
“What’s the question?” Martin asked, wishing he was on his way home.
“Are you a Mormon!” she exclaimed dramatically.
“Really? God asks all of us if we are Mormon?” Martin asked, shaking his head, “What happens then?”
“Well, you answer yes or no. If the answer is yes you join the folks over here,” she explained, moving a cutout figure to a large group in the center of the table.
“And if you say no?”
“Then, you are sent over to this group,” Lizzy answered with a frown, “It’s sort of like a giant waiting room.”
“What are you waiting for, if you’re in that space?”
Lizzy adjusted her posture and folded her hands in her lap, “You are waiting for God to call you to stand in front of his throne one last time and for you to answer one last question.”
“And that is?”
“Are you ready to become a Mormon?”
“But for some people that would mean denying their---”
“ARE YOU READY TO BECOME A MORMON?!”
“And if the person says yes?”
“They are led to this area,” Lizzy said, moving the lucky cutout to a corner of the table, “where they will be taught the tenets of the Church of Latter Day Saints!”
“And if someone is foolish enough to say no?” Martin asked, even though he had already guessed the answer.
“A fearful fall into Hell!”
When Martin arrived home, he regaled Grandma Lily with the story of his guided tour of Heaven. Lily smiled as she listened to the retelling of Lizzy’s description of Paradise but she was not amused. She was glad Martin had seen the humor in the situation but she was upset at Lizzy’s attempt to scare him into joining the church. Lily had worked hard to extricate herself from the stultifying life of a Mormon woman and she had seen to it that her daughter was exposed to many different beliefs and philosophies. ‘I’m sure Mormonism works for many people, especially men,’ she thought, ‘but it didn’t for me then and it doesn’t now.’
With the end of Winter came an opportunity that Martin found so exciting he could hardly contain himself. “They’re having a Spring Fashion Show at school!” he shouted, as he rushed into the apartment, “The girls in Home Ec are going to make these dresses from patterns and then they are going to model them. It’s going to be like a real fashion show, with lights and music and an emcee! It’s a benefit for the Red Cross.”
“That is very exciting,” Lily agreed, “When is this happening?”
“Friday, April 11th at seven o’clock!”
“My, you’ve really got all the information down, haven’t you! Well, we’ll have to mark our calendars. We’ll all go, your mom and you and me---maybe even Cousin Lizzy.”
“But that’s not what’s so great! I’m going to design and build a dress for the show myself!”
“What? Really?” Lily said, surprised, “But you’re not in the Home Ec class.”
“I know, I know,” Martin replied, “But my friend, Jo Ann, is, and when I saw a poster for the show I talked to her and she agreed she would talk to Mrs. Price, the Home Ec teacher and she was pretty sure it would be okay.”
Lily loved seeing Martin so excited and had no doubt that he would rise to the occasion and come up with a brilliant design. However, at the same time she was concerned that there would be some unpleasant fallout. She knew how cruel some small-minded individuals could be and a boy interested in what was considered a feminine occupation could face a great deal of ridicule. She remembered a recent conversation she had had with Cousin Lizzy.
“Lily, can I speak with you about a concern I have?”
“Of course. What’s the matter?”
“I want to make sure that we keep this confidential.”
“My, this sounds serious,’ Lily said, putting down her embroidery.
“It is. I’m worried about Martin.’
‘Oh, dear me. What’s wrong?”
“Well, I’ve been watching you two and he seems far too interested in---how to put it---in girly things.”
“Well, yes, you know---sewing and baking and---”
“Elizabeth Marie Pratt! You have to be kidding!”
“Lily, you know it is not natural for a boy to want to make dresses, to sew and cook and bake. If I didn’t know better I’d say he’s becoming one of those---”
“You don’t know better alright! You don’t know anything!” Lily replied, angerly, “The most famous chefs in history were men! What about all the great male fashion designers, Dior, Balenciaga, Givenchy? What do you think they were doing as little boys, driving tractors? Oh, you make me so mad!”
“Well, forgive me for being honest. I’m just afraid that Martin will take the wrong path as he grows up.”
“And what path is that?”
“Well, you know, he should become a good citizen, a responsible husband and father, a hardworking businessman of some sort and---”
“And a Mormon?”
“Well, yes, that’s his heritage after all---isn’t it?”
“Lizzy, it’s time for you to go. Martin will be home from school soon and I don’t want you here when he walks through that door.”
“Fine. I’ve got errands to run anyway. But I will be talking to your daughter. This discussion is not over.”
The news Jo Ann had for Martin was not good. Mrs. Price, the Home Ec teacher, said the fashion show was only open to members registered in her class. And even if it were open to the entire student body it would be open to young women only. She was sorry but rule were rules. However, if he wanted to be part of the event, he could look into being on the running crew---sound, lights, ushering, ticket sales, etc.
While Martin was disappointed he found he was more angry than sad.
“If they had let me register for Mrs. Price’s class, like I wanted to do, in the first place, this would never be problem. It’s so unfair.”
“Yes, it is,” agreed Grandma Lily, “I’m afraid so much of life is unfair. So what are you going to do?”
“I don’t know. Jo Ann is coming over later and we’re going to talk about it.”
Jo Ann Paterson was a year ahead of Martin but they had been sharing the same lunch table since Martin’s first day at Lincoln High. They hit it off immediately. He loved movies, she loved movies. She loved fashion, he loved fashion. He could draw beautiful designs, she couldn’t draw a straight line but it didn’t matter. It was as if they had known each other forever. They looked out for one another, which was important when you were considered kind of geeky and didn’t quite fit in.
“I’m so sorry, Marty,” Jo Ann said as she sat down on the floor of his room, “I tried again. after class, but Prissy Price kept repeating ‘rules are rules.’”
“No it isn’t! The designs you draw are a hundred times better than the stupid Butterick patterns she has us working on.”
“Yes. Mine is a prom dress I wouldn’t be caught dead wearing except maybe to a funeral. Betty Hodes has this smock thingy that will make her look pregnant! I think Price gave it to her because she thinks Betty is overweight, which she isn’t. She’s just very curvy.”
Martin sat back against the side of the bed and closed his eyes. “I wish I was graduated already and had my own Salon, like Coco Chanel---”
“Boutique---I think the French call them boutiques.”
“And women would fight to be the first to have one of my designs.”
“Mrs. Price wouldn’t be able to get her foot in the door!”
“She couldn’t afford to buy even one---button!” Martin said with great glee and he and Jo Ann rocked with laughter. After they eventually calmed down, Jo Ann spoke up.
“I had this idea while I was bicycling over here. It’s kind of crazy though.”
“Crazy is always good,” assured Martin.
“Well, I was thinking that---what if you design and make a wonderful dress for me and then the night of the fashion show we switch it with the stupid one I’m working on? That way everyone will finally get to see what a really great design looks like and I won’t have to wear my dumpy old prom dress.”
“You’re right, that’s a very crazy idea.”
“I knew you wouldn’t like it.”
“No, no! I love it! I just have to think about it. It has the potential of being a big disaster.”
“I know, but it could also be a triumph.”
“But as Madam Price keeps reminding us, ‘rules are rules.”
“Aren’t some rules meant to be broken?” Jo Ann asked, “If women hadn’t broken the rules they wouldn’t have gotten the right to vote. The Boston Tea Party, the French Revolution, well, maybe that one wasn’t so great, but you know what I mean.”
“Although I’m one to usually try and follow the rules, maybe you’re right. But if we do this we have to keep it a secret.”
“And, once we begin, there is no turning back, right?”
“Agreed,” Jo Ann replied, solemnly nodding her head.
“Then let’s do it!” Martin shouted, grabbing Jo Ann’s hand and shaking it as if they had just signed the Magna Carta.
“Remember when we went to see ‘Funny Face’ and Audrey Hepburn ran down those stairs in that red dress?”
“Well, I’m going to make you a gown as beautiful as that!”
If it wasn’t as spectacular as the Hepburn dress it was certainly a close second. Martin had made a sketch, which he didn’t show Jo Ann because he wanted to surprise her, had taken her measurements, which involved a lot of giggling, had drafted a pattern and then had used the paper sections to made a mock up out of an old bed sheet. When he brought it out of the bedroom, for Jo Ann to try on, she was horrified. She didn’t say anything but Martin could tell she was upset. When he realized what she was thinking he started to laugh.
“Martin O’Shea, don’t you dare laugh at me! If this is your idea of a what a beautiful dress should look like, this ugly faded fabric---”
“No, no, calm down. This is just a mock up so I can make sure it fits correctly. Go into the bathroom and try it on.”
Jo Ann took a deep breath and did as he asked.
Martin had spent a couple of days looking for what he felt would be the best fabric for the design he had come up with. He finally settled on a burgundy cut velvet that would be lined with a ruby red satin he had already found. He had seen a gown, designed by this exciting new French designer named Yves Saint Laurent, that the newspapers had labeled the Harem look and he decided to incorporate that into his design.
He worked late into the night, for weeks, fixing certain details, changing others and worrying that he might have taken on too big a challenge. Thankfully, Grandma Lily was there to help him over the hurdles. After he had left a hot iron imprint on the velvet, she showed him how to steam the fabric instead of pressing it and when the two-foot-wide bow, he had planned to use, drooped like a dead fish she told him to reinforce it with some stiff buckram. The old yellow Singer kept on stitching as Martin pounded away on the treadle.
As April 11th drew closer he went into full battle mode. His school work fell by the wayside as his only real homework was ‘The Gown.’ He had lied to his mom and Grandma Lily, for which he felt very guilty, by telling them he had permission to enter his gown in the show. He knew he would pay dearly for that but, didn’t the end justify the means?
On the thursday afternoon, before the big day, a dress rehearsal was held in the Lincoln High auditorium so that all the technical aspects could be worked out. The young ladies of the Home Ec class were lined up in the order in which they were to appear. Jo Ann was to be last as she was going to be dressed as if attending the prom. Martin had helped line up the runway, which consisted of a row of cafeteria tables that were hooked up perpendicular to the edge of the stage.
Under Mrs. Price’s direction the parade began. Each one of the fifteen seamstress/models took her turn and walked down the runway and back up to the stage. Some of the garments were, in Martin’s opinion, nicely done if not unique. A few still had some work to be done, mostly just unfinished hems, or decorative buttons. When it came time for Jo Ann to enter the stage she was wearing the dress she made, and contrary to her dismissive description, it was very pretty. Made out of a sea foam green taffeta it had a full skirt, little puff sleeves and a sweetheart neckline. Martin was impressed. In fact, he had, for a brief moment, second thoughts about substituting his design for Jo Ann’s. After all, this was a class project that she had worked very hard on and for which she was to be graded.
“Don’t be ridiculous!” she said, as they bicycled back to Martin’s apartment, “We shook on this deal. Don’t you go getting cold feet. We’re about to set the school on its ear!”
Martin, for the first time, saw Jo Ann in a very different light, and it was a little scary.
The next evening, Lily, Mary Ann and Cousin Lizzy took a taxi to the school and entered the auditorium. The space was bursting with excited family and friends and the song ‘Volare’ was pumping away on the loud speakers. Martin had come earlier to help out, and to sneak the illicit gown into the girls’ locker room. When the seamstress/models began to arrive, he told Jo Ann the locker number and complimented her on her hair and makeup.
“As they say in the theater, ‘Break a leg,’” he added.
“With these high heels that just might happen,” Jo Ann joked, “I’m a little nervous.”
“You’re going to be great,” Martin said reassuringly, “thanks for doing this,” and he kissed her on the cheek.
The house lights were just starting to dim when Martin took the seat Mary Ann had saved for him. A spot light came up on the podium, located on the left side of the stage, and on Mrs. Price, who stood behind it, dressed in a matronly mauve colored dress of crepe de chine. Martin wondered if she had made it herself.
“Good evening, everyone. Welcome to the Lincoln High School Fashion Show of 1958. (Applause) Let me take a moment to thank all the members of the audio visual department and the volunteers who helped us, once again, to put this production together. (Applause) And thank you, our audience, for purchasing a ticket which helps us support the Red Cross and their invaluable humanitarian mission. (Applause)
What you are about to enjoy are the creative efforts of the young ladies of the Home Economics class. They have been busy these last few months putting these ensembles together and I, personally, am very, very proud of them. (Applause)
And now, without further ado, may I present this year’s fashion show, entitled: ‘Catch a falling star!’” (Applause)
To reinforce this theme, the voice of Perry Como came oozing out of the loud speakers singing ‘Catch a Falling Star.” The first model stepped out from the wings and walked, a little stiffly, to the edge of the stage and then on to the runway, which extended out into the center aisle. She was wearing a striped sundress that Mrs. Price, reading from her stack of 9 x 5 cards, described as ‘a breath of Spring.’ By the time she had said the name of this student, the second model was on her way and this was the way the evening progressed. When the seventh model appeared, dressed in a pink shantung jacket dress, Martin realized they were half way through the show and he was getting quite nervous.
Backstage, one of the teachers, who had volunteered to help, was busy lining up the rest of the models. Looking at her list, she saw she was one person short.
“Where’s Jo Ann Paterson?”
“She’s still in the dressing room,” piped up one of the young ladies, “Probably putting on more makeup. She needs as much as she can get her hands on to cover those---”
“Shut up, Francine!” hissed Betty Hodes, “You should talk, what with that nose of yours!”
“Quiet, girls,” the teacher whispered as she hurried off to track down Jo Ann.
Betty Hodes was number 13 in the order of the lineup and, as she stepped out onto the stage, she heard some sort of disturbance behind her. Choosing to ignore it, and hoping it wasn’t some sort of bad luck associated with the number she had been assigned, she marched proudly across the stage and down the runway.
“Betty is wearing the traditional garment of the islands of Hawaii, the Mumu,” Mrs. Price announced, “Hawaii is soon to become the fiftieth state in this great country of ours and Betty has chosen, as her fabric, a polished cotton with red, white and blue blossoms, to honor our neighbor from across the Pacific.”
After spinning slowly at the end of the runway, Betty turned and started back towards the stage. Number 14, decked out in a tennis outfit of pastel yellow and carrying a racquet, passed her as she exited the stage. Once Betty was in the dark of the backstage area she heard a lot of whispering and hissing. She felt her way back to the line of models getting ready to go on stage for the big finale.
“What’s going on?” Betty whispered to number 12, who had earlier modeled a polka dotted raincoat, “What’s all the hub bub about?”
“Jo Ann is missing. They can’t find her.”
Martin felt like he was going to pass out. This was it. Number 14 was heading back onto the stage and Jo Ann would be appearing at any moment.
“And now,” Mrs. Price began, “to end this year’s fashion show, let us see what the smart young lady of today will be wearing to the prom this Spring.”
The follow spot hit the center of the stage as Pat Boone’s hit “April Love” rang out over the speakers. And there stood Jo Anne, in all her glory.
Reading from her last 9 x 5 card, Mrs. Price started her spiel: “Miss Jo Ann Paterson is dressed in a gown she made---” She stopped and stared in confusion at the figure in front of her. Where was the sea foam green taffeta?
What she saw instead, as did the entire audience, was something only a Las Vegas showgirl would wear. It was a skintight flaming red satin sheath covered in wine-colored cut velvet so that the red peeked through and with unlined sleeves so that the flesh peeked through. It had an asymmetrical hemline that started at just below the knee in the front and dipped down to the floor in the back. The neckline dipped down dangerously in the front as well.
Jo Ann began to walk toward the runway, which allowed the crowd to see the giant red satin bow attached to her upper back from which trailed a ten-foot-long cut velvet train. She wobbled a bit as she strode down the runway but recovered quickly and resumed the walk like she was Suzy Parker or Jean Patchett. Martin was so proud of her. But there was a lot of confusion manifesting both on stage and in the audience.
“That teacher just said that your dress was made by Jo Ann. I don’t understand,” remarked Grandma Lily.
“How come they didn’t announce your name, Martin?” asked his mother.
Cousin Lizzy finally felt vindicated. “I told you, Mary Ann, no good would come from this girly nonsense.”
To her credit, Mrs. Price didn’t stop the show but treated the unexpected event as if it were planned and called for all the seamstress/models to return to the stage one last time. As the McGuire Sister’s song ‘Sugartime” rippled out of the loud speakers, the young ladies joined the offensive red apparition on the stage, bowed and quickly exited.
It would be great to be able to say that the event turned out to be a success for Martin and Jo Ann, that Mrs. Price was okay with the switch, that Martin was recognized for his amazing talent, that he would be allowed to take Home Ec next year and that the student body recognized this as a step toward a stronger voice in the running of their school but, alas, it was not so.
Jo Ann got a D in Home Ec.
Martin was suspended from school for the rest of the semester and had to go to summer school.
Mary Ann grounded Martin for lying to her and to Lily.
Jo Ann’s parents forbade her from ever seeing Martin again.
But, despite all the negative feedback, down deep, both Martin and Jo Ann knew they had accomplished something very special and something that they, and maybe a few other fellow travelers, would remember fondly in the years to come.
Summer school was an agonizing bore but Martin always had Grandma Lily and his yellow sewing machine to come home to. After proving to her he’d done his homework, he was allowed to cut and sew to his heart’s content. Cooking had slowed down due to the warm summer weather and baking was out of the question, but sewing was going ahead full throttle. Martin had begun to experiment with tailoring, learning about padding and pleats and Lily introduced him to cutting fabric on the bias so that it would cling to the body. He worked with many different kinds of fabric, thanks to the generosity of his grandmother, from lame to jersey to flannel to corduroy---wool, silk, cotton, rayon and even nylon. His closet began to fill up with some very wild creations.
As the summer began to fade into fall and the last day of summer school approached he began to get anxious about his upcoming Sophomore year at Lincoln High. He wasn’t looking forward to the ridicule he was sure would be headed his way and he was nervous about seeing Jo Ann again. And then there was Geometry. He had no trouble applying math to the drafting of a pattern or in figuring out yardage but the calculation of the angle of a triangle was like climbing Mt. Everest.
After bicycling home from summer school, on a particularly hot day, he entered the apartment ready for a shower. Dropping his books on the sofa he called out to Grandma Lily. There was no answer. He checked the kitchen, her bedroom and the bathroom but it was obvious she wasn’t there. It wasn’t unusual for Lily to be out for some reason but she usually let him know, before he left for school, where she’d be or he’d find a note when he got home. There was no note.
After showering and grabbing a snack he sat down at the sewing machine and began stitching up the front panel of a vest he was making for himself. It was cut out of a plaid wool and he was planning to wear it on the first day of school.
By five o’clock he had the vest assembled and was ready to add the sky blue lining but he was becoming concerned that Grandma Lily wasn’t back yet. Mom would be home around seven and dinner hadn’t been started yet. Something was wrong. He decided to phone the salon.
“Hair Apparent, this is Shelia. How may I help you?”
“Oh, hi Shelia. This is Martin. May I speak with my mom, please?”
“Oh, I’m sorry, honey. Your mom’s not here. She’s up at St. Vincent’s.”
“What? The hospital?”
“Yeah, she left a couple of hours ago. Something about your grandma.”
Martin didn’t even make it into the lobby of St. Vincent’s. By the time he had gotten off the bus, raced down the sidewalk and started up the steps his mother was exiting through the front entrance. She was very pale and her eyes were red and puffy. When she saw Martin, her face melted into a mask of grief and he knew.
“Congestive heart failure,” Mary Ann explained, as they huddled together over coffee in a greasy spoon near the hospital, “She had it for years. Runs in the family. It’s so awful. I mean you know it’s going to happen eventually but then when it does---”
“What happened? Where was she?”
“Well, I got this call from the hospital. They said she collapsed in Safeway, you know she was probably getting something for supper, and by the time the ambulance got there she was unconscious. Her lungs were filling up with fluid,” Mary Ann stopped to wipe her eyes, “and they tried to pump it out but by the time I got to the hospital---her heart had stopped,” Mary Ann couldn’t hold it together any longer. Martin put his arms around her as she sobbed and he wept as well.
“Oh, my sweet boy, I know how much she loved you and---and how much she meant to you.”
Martin nodded but he realized his mom had no idea how much Grandma Lily meant to him. It was as if his heart had been torn out of his chest. What was he going to do now? How would he survive in a cold empty apartment with no more bakery smells, no more sewing lessons, no more stories about Hollywood, no more---grandma.
After the funeral, friends and family gathered at Henry Thiele’s restaurant, Lily’s favorite eatery, for lunch. Most of those in attendance were either beauticians or neighbors who had come to know Lily through her daughter Mary Ann. The few close friends of Lily’s, who were still alive, lived in Los Angeles.
Martin had invited Jo Ann but she had to send her regrets, reminding him she was still under orders to never see him again. He sat at a table in the corner with the receptionist Shelia. He should have been with his mother but she was stuck at the main table with Cousin Lizzy.”
“I don’t see any of the elders here from the church,” Lizzy commented.
“You know Lily left the church years ago, Lizzy, and you also know, but I guess you keep forgetting, that Martin and I have never been members of the Latter-day Saints.”
“That doesn’t mean you aren’t Mormon. You are the descendants of a long line of Mormons. Something you must never forget.”
“Well, I’m sure that as long as you’re around that will never happen.”
“Mary Ann, you need to show me more respect.”
“I will, if you will do the same.”
Back in the apartment Martin wandered from room to room wishing Grandma Lily would suddenly appear carrying a tray of piping hot corn muffins or modeling a dirndl skirt he had just finished sewing. He sat down at the yellow Singer and put his feet on the treadle. Overcome by the realization that what he loved was no longer, he lowered his head and wept.
School began and Martin dutifully trudged of to English 201, American History, Biology and the dreaded Geometry. He had signed up for Art Class as his elective and, while not quite Home Ec, it kept him from going off the deep end. He also found himself not always hurrying to get home after school. Instead, he would take various detours around town, window shop, visit the art museum, stroll through the park blocks, go up to the Rose Gardens and the zoo, anything to keep from walking into that silent empty space.
Cousin Lizzy had taken it upon herself to help Mary Ann deal with her mother’s estate, if you could call it that. There was Lily’s small bank account, a handwritten note with some instructions that sort of served as her will, her clothes, her jewelry, her books and her sewing paraphernalia. There were, as well, her photo albums and a couple of boxes of letters and greeting cards but Mary Ann wanted to hold on to those for now.
“The clothes can go to either the Goodwill or the Salvation Army,” Lizzy stated, as she threw an armload of dresses onto Lily’s bed, “but I would like to donate her books to the Indian school I’ve been helping out with. I’ll go through them first to weed out the unsuitable ones.”
“What Indian school?” Mary Ann asked, sitting on the bed and running her fingers over one of Lily’s blouses.
“I told you about it, the St. Boniface Indian School in Banning, down in California. I’ve been sending them stuff for years. I even got Lily to donate a few things once or twice.” She opened the little music box that held Lily’s jewelry, “And then there’s this junk. Except for this strand of pearls there’s really nothing---”
“I’ll take that, thank you,” Mary Ann said, reaching for the box.
“Of course, sweetheart,” Lizzy replied, handing it to her, “I can assure you I’m not interested in any of Lily’s possessions. Although, she did tell me once that she wanted me to have the quilt she made with the Log Cabin pattern. Come to think of it, I wonder where that is?” She turned back to the closet and began rifling through the blankets on the top shelf.
Martin had chosen to be away, on that Saturday, when this disposing of Grandma Lily’s few belongings was taking place. He had bicycled up to the zoo and was wandering among the cages of the monkeys and lions to try and shake off the depression that had been trailing him for days. However, when he came around the side of the Reptile building, he stopped in his tracks. There, enclosed behind a wire fence, stood a camel. Martin, staring at the creature’s strangely constructed body, began to laugh. The animal looked just like Cousin Lizzy, from her big feet, knobby knees and dowager’s hump to the fuzzy white bush on top of her head. Suddenly he was feeling a lot better.
Mary Ann and Lizzy were taking a coffee break after sorting through the last of Lily’s things. Mary Ann was enjoying a pleasant few minutes of silence when Lizzy put down her cup of Postum and resumed talking.
“While I have your ear, sweetheart, I want to take a moment and talk about Martin.”
“What about Martin?” Mary Ann asked, apprehensively.
“I worry about him now that Lily’s no longer with us. You know what I mean.”
“No, I don’t know. What are you getting at?”
“Well, she was such a strong force in his life. She got him started on this sewing nonsense and we know where that led, so---”
“Lizzy, don’t start---”
“Please, just hear me out. Martin is growing up. Right now, there is a big hole in his life, with Lily’s passing, and he needs to start to moving out into the world, socializing, being with kids his own age.”
“Get to the point, Liz.”
“The point is, he needs to shed this tendency to gravitate toward feminine things—”
“---and become a masculine young man, do what boys and men do---”
“And what, pray tell is that? Chase girls, girls like you used to be?”
“What are you insinuating?”
“Should he gamble, smoke and drink?”
“You know that is not what I mean. What I want to suggest is that he get involved with the youth group at the church---”
“Don’t start in again with the church!” Mary Ann, said angerly, getting up from the table.
“They have all these great activities; musical events, dances, ice cream socials---”
“---He’ll meet some very nice young ladies.”
“Lizzy, Martin will find his own path to manhood. Let’s leave it at that.”
“I’m only trying to help.”
“I know,” Mary Ann agreed, as she stood at the sink rinsing out the cups.
“So, one more thing. I packed up all of Lizzy’s sewing things, her trimmings, button jar, scissors, ruler, that kind of stuff and I’ll ship it off to St. Boniface. It will be such a help to them.”
“Just don’t give away the iron. I do need to press things once in a while.”
“Of course. It’s in the pantry with the ironing board.”
“Thanks. Anything else, before you go?” Mary Ann asked, hoping Lizzy would take the hint.
“Yes. What I wanted to say before was that the one thing the Indian school could really use is a sewing machine and since the old yellow Singer is just sitting around collecting dust---”
“I don’t think so---”
“I’ll pay for the packing and shipping.”
“Martin will be getting back into sewing one of these days an---”
“Exactly! And you know what happened last time. Mary Ann, he needs to find something else, some other hobby that’s---”
“More manly? What, golf? Boxing? You don’t understand! It’s not a hobby with him!”
“Alright, alright. Please just tell me that you’ll think about it. Those poor Indian girls need that machine much more that Martin does. You’re his mother and it’s your responsibility to do the right thing.”
Mary Ann did the right thing. She asked Martin if he was willing to donate the sewing machine to the Indian school. His answer was a resounding ‘NO’ and that was that.
Only that wasn’t that. Not by a long shot. Cousin Lizzy was a Taurus, and whether you believe in Astrology or not, she lived up to her birth sign. Stubborn was her middle name. She knew down deep in her heart that the sewing machine belonged in the Indian school and that Martin needed to be put on the right path. By shipping the machine south to St. Boniface she was sure she was accomplishing both missions.
Using the key Lily had given her months ago, Lizzy entered the apartment the following Wednesday and moved the old yellow sewing machine closer to the front door. She then placed the carton of sewing supplies on top and waited for the Beacon Van & Storage truck to arrive.
Aponi had only one more row of calico squares to run through the machine and then she could attach the batting and the lining. Once that was done she and her room mates could begin the quilting. It was going to be a Morning Star design using blues, purples and turquoise. Maybe this year would be her lucky year. She came so close to winning first place last Fall.
It would be much easier if she didn’t have to share the use of the old yellow machine but that’s the way it was. Until the school invested in another sewing machine, preferably an electric model, she would have to keep putting her name down on the appointment list. Aponi, which meant Butterfly, was her real name, but the Nuns forbade the use of her native language and so they called her April, which she hated. The other girls called her Pony, which was alright with her, since it was close to her Cahilla tribal name and it was much better than April. When the Sisters called her by that name all she could think of was rain.
It wasn’t as though the sewing machine was ever used to make clothes. It was used primarily to repair the ugly uniforms they had to wear (Rule: Every student must look like every other student) and to sew the sheets and pillowcases that they used on their beds (Rule: Bed linens must be as scratchy as possible.) Every summer however the machine became very popular when the annual quilting contest was announced. This was a tradition that went way back to the early days of the St. Boniface Indian Industrial School. In those days sewing was taught to all the young ladies along with knitting, crocheting, embroidering and cleaning and cooking. Today the students were still learning cooking and cleaning (Aponi worked in the laundry) but they were required to learn typing, shorthand and various other skills to help them find work when they went out into the big scary world.
Fortunately, there were only three other girls interested in making quilts this summer so the machine was a little more available than last year when ten quilts were being made. That had meant that there had been a lot of sewing going on after bed time. Even now, this summer, Aponi had sometimes taken a flashlight and snuck down to the crafts room, after lights out, to sew on her quilt. If Sister Anne was on night duty she was safe. She liked Sister Anne because she was willing to bend the rules once in a while. Not so Sister Dorothea. If she caught you violating any rule, and there were hundreds of them, woe be unto you. Sister Doom, as she was called behind her back, found Aponi, treadling away on the old yellow sewing machine one night, and, after slapping her hands with the switch she always carried, gave her five demerits. But, what was worst is that she forbade the use of the machine by Aponi, or anyone else, for five days, which put everyone behind. As you can imagine, Aponi was not very popular for a while.
Aponi wanted to win with the best quilt, not for the engraved document with her name written on it, although that was a nice plus, but for the day trip to the St. Vincent De Paul Roman Catholic Church in downtown Los Angeles. She had seen photos of this beautiful huge gothic style cathedral and had read about it in The Tidings magazine which came to the school once a month. One of the other girls said that a famous motion picture had been filmed there but she couldn’t remember the title. Someone else also said a lot of movie stars attended mass there, like Loretta Young, for instance. The trip from the school, in the town of Banning, to Los Angeles took about an hour and a half. For Aponi this would be a wonderful escape, to be away from the beige walls of St. Boniface and to be travelling through the open countryside on her way to a famous big city. Her only concern was who would be the chaperone with whom she would be travelling; Sister Anne or Sister Doom?
Aponi had been sent to St. Boniface by the Bureau of Catholic Indian Missions, as had been her mother and her grandmother before her. Like the more than 300 other Indian boarding schools across the United States, Boniface was established to help the children of the various tribes divest themselves of their language, customs and traditions and to learn how to become good Christians. At the turn of the century, Aponi’s grandmother, Rebecca, had been taken from her family as a little girl and put under the care of the sisters at St. Boniface. It was their duty to teach the ‘dirty Indian heathen’ how to become more like a civilized person. The first step was to cut off her long black hair. Next was to dress her in a simple smock, bloomers, itchy wool stockings and tight high button shoes. Aponi’s grandmother rarely talked about her years at the school but when she did the pain and anger from reliving the experience would show in her face. Once, on one of Aponi’s rare visits back to the reservation Rebecca talked about growing older at the school.
“When I was about your age, fourteen or so, I was beginning to look kind of womanly, breasts and hips, you know, so they put me in this corset. They dressed me in this long skirt and this shirtwaist with this high stiff collar that rubbed my neck raw. Dear Jesus, I hope they don’t do that to you!”
“No, but we’ve got these ugly gray uniforms. I swear they’re the same ones mom must have worn when she went to school,” Aponi said, and then confessed, “I hate it there, grandma. I wish I didn’t have to go.”
“I know, my sweet Butterfly. I wanted you to go anywhere but that place, to the Public School maybe but we are not welcome there. Your mama and I fought about it a lot. You had to have a good education so your mama allowed the Bureau to send you there.”
“Was that the reason you sent her to St. Boniface?”
“Oh, my child, I didn’t send her there. They took her from me. I screamed and she screamed and I fought them! They kept pulling me back,” Rebecca said, gasping, as if it were happening again, “and threw me on the ground! I went to our leaders for help but they said it was the law.”
“Oh, grandma, I didn’t know.”
“There’s a lot you don’t know, my child. Someday, when you’re older, I’ll tell you more. For now, just keep going like you’ve been going. Ignore the bad parts. Study, become smart, not like your old grandma.”
“You’re smart, Nokomis, very smart.”
Aponi’s day started at six a.m. with chapel followed by breakfast followed by academics. After lunch it was two hours in the hot and steamy laundry and then free time until dinner. After dinner it was chapel again and then homework until lights out. This schedule was repeated during the rest of the week except for Wednesday. This was Social Graces day where, after chapel and breakfast, the young ladies of St. Boniface worked on their home making skills and on their deportment. While the little ones struggled with knit one, purl two or how to cook oatmeal, the older girls practiced walking, sitting and talking like proper young ladies. “Like proper young white ladies,” whispered Marjorie Purcell, Aponi’s best friend, whose Native name, Chimalis, translated as Bluebird. Chimalis and Aponi had been friends since kindergarten. She was funny and smart and a trouble maker from day one. She whispered through vespers, chanted native songs as she ran down the halls, wouldn’t answer to her Christian name and had been known to stick her tongue out at Sister Doom. She had been switched, denied food, had her mouth washed out with soap and been locked in a storage room in the cold and damp basement more times than anyone could remember. Nothing stopped her. The Mother Superior, Sister Margaret, an ancient wisp of gray, who was half blind and very hard of hearing, had tried to have Marjorie sent back to her alcoholic father and mother but they had disappeared.
Saturday was gardening day with a lot of crawling around on sore knees pulling up weeds. During the Fall there was harvesting and in the Spring planting. Then, as a reward, there was Saturday evening fun time. That was TV night. That was when a small RCA television set was rolled into the Great Room and, under the supervision of Sister Bertha, the young ladies were allowed to watch ‘The Lawrence Welk Show.’ This was the only television production deemed suitable for young eyes and ears with the exception of an occasional visit to ‘The Bishop Fulton J. Sheen Program.’
Sister Bertha was one of the more senior nuns and had a tendency to nod off once in a while. Chimalis would keep her eye on the sister while everyone else was watching Myron Floren banging away on his accordion or the Lennon Sisters harmonizing ‘On Mocking Bird Hill.’ The moment Chimalis could see that Sister Bertha was down for the count, she tiptoed up to the TV set and changed the channel. Up came ‘Bonanza’ and, if the young ladies hadn’t had to remain silent, a cheer would have certainly gone up. The young ones reveled in the horse riding, the fist fights and the character of Hoss while the more mature teenagers ogled the handsome young men in the tight pants and cowboy hats. They often got to watch for at least a half an hour before Sister Bertha began to stir and then Chimalis would quickly flip back to the champagne music of Mr. Welk.
As autumn began to creep into the trees and the days got shorter, Aponi spent many long hours hand-quilting her Morning Star. Chimalis and several of the other girls joined her to help with the stitching, all of them sitting on the floor around a large hoop. The school had a sizeable collection of quilting and embroidery hoops from back when the young ladies were required to make items for sale to the public. There was a big market for ‘beautiful hand-made linens sewn by the Indian Maidens of St. Boniface School.’ Seems, back then, the school had no problem using the term ‘Indian Maiden’ in their public advertising while working hard, in private, to eradicate any trace of their heritage.
The weekend before Labor Day, Aponi had a visit from her mother, Naira. Visitors were required to remain in the Great Room until their child came to join them. All other areas were off limits. They could, however, tour the grounds, and this was a popular choice because it allowed for more privacy. After showing her mother her almost completed quilt they left the building and strolled up and down through the gardens.
“Your quilt is beautiful,”complimented Aponi’s mother, “You are sure to win.”
“Well, we’ll see. It would be great if I did.”
After a long pause, Naira spoke again. “You seem to be doing alright.”
“I hate it here, mama! I hate they way they treat us, like we’re inferior, like they’re better than us.”
“I know. You just have to forget the bad stuff and stick to your studies. That’s what I did.”
“But it’s all bad stuff. The sisters are so mean, well maybe not Sister Anne, but the rest of them. And when Father Cullum drops in we all try to hide because he has wandering hands.”
“Well, he does. He’s a creepy nasty man. And then in English class I wrote a poem about you. It was really good. I called it ‘Naira, The Woman With The Large Eyes’ because that’s what your name means in English.”
“That’s so lovely. Thank you. Can I read it?”
“Sister Florence tore it up, right there in front of the whole class. Said it was pagan writing and that it didn’t belong in an English class.”
“Oh, sweetheart, I am so sorry.”
“I can’t stay here much longer. If I win the quilt contest I’m going to fold the quilt up and bring it back home and I’m going to stay there with you and Nokomis.”
This time the pause was much longer before Naira finally spoke. “That cannot happen, my little Butterfly. That’s the reason I came to see you today. You know how your father has been away for over a year now doing steel work on those skyscrapers. Well, he’s made enough money to bring grandma and me East to be with him.”
“And me too? That’s wonderful!”
“Not yet. You need to finish your schooling first---”
“But that’s two more years, maybe more!”
“It will go by very fast, believe me.”
“Mama, please, take me with you!” Aponi pleaded, as tears began to run down her cheeks.
“Aponi, your father can barely afford to take care of us. Here, at St. Boniface everything is provided for you, room, board, schooling---”
“I’ll kill myself!”
“No you won’t. Don’t be so dramatic. You will continue your studies and graduate and then we can talk about your future. I promise I will write to you and I expect you to write to me and Nokomis. Send me some of your poems.”
“You don’t love me.”
“Yes I do, more than you will ever know and I’m sorry that this has to happen. But it is happening and that’s that. Now, I’ve got to go,” she said, reaching out to hug her daughter. Aponi turned quickly and started running back into the school.
“Aponi! Please!” But that was that.
When Mother Superior, Sister Margaret, tottered up to the podium to announce the winner of the quilt contest, Aponi held her breath and Chimalis’ hand. The Mother Superior’s voice hardly travelled more than the first two rows of chairs so everyone had to lean forward to hear what she said.
“---gathered---to honor---tradition---third place---Elaine Simpson---Irish Chain---”
Aponi’s heart was stuck in her throat.
Aponi knew she had either not placed at all or---”
April Johnson aka Aponi Litefoot had won! She hugged Chimalis and then hurried up to accept her award. Standing there, in between the other two winners, she wished her Nokomis and mother were here but a photograph would probably show up in the next issue of The Tidings. She’d clip it out and mail it to the address her mom had sent her from New York.
The trip to Los Angeles was exciting and the cathedral was huge, beautiful and somewhat intimidating. The only down side was that she didn’t get to travel with Sister Anne. Instead her chaperone (not Sister Doom, thank heavens) was Sister Florence. Surprisingly, they got along pretty well with no unpleasant side effects.
When she got back to St. Boniface, Chimalis was waiting to hear all the gory details.
“Riding on the Greyhound bus was probably the best thing about the trip. I mean the church was great, the statues of the saints, oh, and the most beautiful painting of the Virgin Mary, all blue and purple, kind of like my quilt. But seeing the towns and the city from the window of the bus, all the colors and the signs and the people. It made me want to be away from here, more than ever,to be free.”
“But what was it like traveling with Sister Florence?” asked Chimalis, hoping for a tale of anger and humiliation.
“She was okay. A lot of her reminding me to be on my best behavior. And I guess she thought she had to explain everything to me, ‘This is the transept, this is the nave, this is the apse.’ As if we hadn’t already covered all that in Religious Studies. But we sat in a little park and ate the lunch she had had packed for us and that was nice.”
“Nice? I never thought I’d hear you use the word ‘nice’ with regard to Sister Flowpants!”
Aponi received a letter from her mom, the first since their move to New York and it made her homesick and sad. Her mother wrote about their apartment in a place called Harlem and how scared she and Nokomis were to go out on the street, ‘so many people, so noisy,’ and how worried she was about Aponi’s father running around on steel girders fifty stories up in the sky.
Writing back, Aponi let her mom know that things at St. Boniface were not getting any better.
“We’re all still treated like we’re stupid savages. If we mispronounce a word we’re punished. If we ask a question that they consider dumb, we’re punished. If we are caught reading anything else but The Tidings we’re punished. If, at meal time, we slurp our soup we’re punished. And, heaven forbid, we challenge something they say, we’re punished.
I didn’t tell anyone, when I got back from the cathedral, that all the time I was there I felt out of place, like I didn’t belong, like I was unworthy.
I swear the only way they would ever accept us was if they painted us white and bleached our hair.”
One awful day in October, close to Halloween, Chimalis committed an act of defiance that caused a scene Aponi would never forget. As they were all marching off to chapel for evening vespers the Sisters noticed that sticking up among the veils on the top of the girls’ heads was a feather. Sister Doom shouted for everyone to halt and then wove her way through the rows to the head sporting the feather. “Marjorie! I should have known,” she said, grabbing Chimalis by the ear, “And what is that on your face?” There were red stripes descending from the corners of Chimalis’ eyes like a trail of tears and a large red circle in the center of her forehead. These had been made with a contraband lipstick. The feather was a Seagull’s tail feather that she had found in the garden. It was attached to a narrow band of pink elastic that she took from one of the drawers in the yellow sewing machine.
“Everyone continue into chapel,” Sister Dorothea ordered, “Quiet! I don’t want to hear any talking.” She followed behind the group, as they moved nervously through the arched doorway, dragging Chimalis by her ear. She continued this painful journey down the aisle all the way to the sanctuary platform. She climbed the three steps, turned to face the frightened crowd, and released Chimalis’ ear.
“Remove THAT!” Sister Doom screeched, pointing to the feather. Chimalis just rubbed her sore ear.
“I said remove that disgusting thing, now!” Chimalis simply looked at her and smiled. The Sister, beginning to visibly shake with rage, pulled her infamous switch from her belt and, with one vicious swipe, knocked the gray feather off the rebel’s head.
“Now, where did you get that—that red color? Is that lip rouge on your face? Where did you get it? Answer me!” Chimalis continued to remain silent.
“You got it from someone. Tell me who you got it from!” When Chimalis wouldn’t answer, Sister Doom pulled out her white handkerchief and began to smear the lipstick all over the young girl’s face. She was not gentle and when she finally stopped, and removed the red stained hankie, there was revealed to all, a face that looked like it had been blooded in a fight. The Sister took a couple of deep breaths and stepped to the edge of the platform.
“What you see standing here is what we and the church are trying to change, through love and prayer and education. This is the animal, the savage that lives in all of you and if you do not follow the path of holiness this is what you will become.” She placed the stained handkerchief on the top of Chimalis’ head and, grabbing her arm, walked her out of the chapel. After a minute of shocked silence, Sister Bertha took over.
Chimalis spent an entire week in cold storage. She was given only one meal a day so that by the time she came up from the basement her cheeks weren’t as round and rosy as before. After showering and putting on clean clothes she entered the Great Room where most of the young ladies were seated, pretending to read their catechisms. When they saw Marjorie, aka Chimalis, smiling as if nothing had happened, one by one they stood up and smiled back. They would have cheered but that would have awakened Sister Bertha, who was on study hall duty, or, even worse, it could have alerted Sister Doom.
Chimalis saw Aponi standing by one of the tables. She was weeping quietly and when Chimalis finally reached her they embraced.
“I’m so sorry,” Aponi said, hugging her friend as if to never let her go.
“Why? You didn’t do anything. I did it all by myself,” Chimalis said, with a hint of pride in her voice.
“We tried to get you out,” Aponi explained, “I formed a committee and we went to Mother Superior.”
“That must have been a hoot,” chuckled Chimalis.
“I don’t think she heard anything we said. She told us to take it up with Sister Dorothea and you know how that would have worked out.”
“Yeah, I’d probably still be in the basement.” The two friends sat down at the table and remained there while Aponi filled in Chimalis on what had happened during the last seven days.
“Sister Doom ordered a search of the dorms, every bed, every locker, every bureau.”
“Did they find the lipstick?”
“Sister Anne found it in Barbara’s rosary case but she pocketed it before Doom saw it.”
“Remind me to thank her.”
“But they found a copy of Seventeen magazine under Diana’s mattress,” Aponi continued, “so she got twenty from Doom.”
“Twenty! But no one has ever gotten twenty switches, not even me!” protested Chimalis, “Doom did that because of what I did. Poor Diana.”
Aponi went on to talk about the other punishments that were doled out; elimination of all desserts at meal time, an earlier call for lights out, no visitors and extra latrine duty. It was obvious that Chimalis had hit a nerve.
A week later, while Aponi and Chimalis were in the garden helping harvest the last of the vegetables, Chimalis brought up the subject of escape.
“I wrote to my uncle up in Oregon,” she whispered, as she put a squash in her basket, “and I just got a letter back.”
“Is he alright?” Aponi asked, remembering that alcoholism ran in Chimalis’ family.
“Oh, he’s fine. But that’s not what’s important. He wrote that he’s coming through town on his way to Florida. He wants to get there early for the orange picking.”
“What was he doing in Oregon?”
“Well, he goes where they need workers, you know, to pick the crops. Kinda like what we’re doing now. He was up in the Hood River area picking apples. But the season is over.”
“So he’s going to stop by to see you. That’ll be nice.”
“No, dummy,” Chimalis admonished, lowering her voice again, “He’s going to take me with him to Florida.”
“Oh my god, Chimalis, really? But how will you ever---”
“I’ve got it all worked out, don’t you worry. But here’s the best part; he’s willing to take you along as well!”
Aponi wasn’t sure she heard her friend correctly. “What? Me?”
“Yeah! He travels in this trailer thing, you know, with beds and a kitchen and a tiny bathroom and when I wrote about you he said there would be room for both of us.”
“But what about---what about school?”
“What about it? You want to stay here, be treated like a slave? Think about it, riding on the highway, seeing things we’ll never see if we are kept prisoners in this---”
“But my mother will be worried. She’ll think I’ve been kidnapped.”
“You know your geography, right? Which is closer to New York, California or Florida? Right!” Chimalis said, getting excited, “Now, you have to understand that this is not a free ride. Uncle says we’ll have to work, you know, be pickers like him. But that’s okay with me. They work us here but at least out in the world we’ll get payed for what we do.”
“It does sound wonderful but I’ll have to think it over.”
“Well, don’t think it over for too long.”
“Why? When is your uncle coming?”
“Shhh! Don’t worry. I’ll take care of everything.”
Saturday Fun Night rolled around again, as it did every week, and after dinner most of the young ladies entered the Great Room for their date with Lawrence Welk. As usual, Sister Bertha was in charge and everyone was hoping she would fade early and stay asleep long enough for them to watch at least a little bit of ‘Bonanza.’ Chimalis was hoping for a much longer nap period.
She had ‘borrowed’ one of the Mother Superior’s Nembutal tablets which had been subscribed by the dioceses physician for her insomnia. That the 89-year-old sister was taking a barbiturate was a very well kept secret that everyone knew about, including the students. It was even suggested that her nightly drug use might be an explanation for her dotty behavior.
Chimalis had crushed the tablet into a powder and sprinkled it into Sister Bertha’s after dinner tea. “Oh, thank you dear child,” Bertha said, “Did you add some honey? Hanna usually brings me my tea and she puts honey in it.” Hanna worked in the kitchen and it was her job to serve the Nuns. But not this night. Chimalis had convinced Hanna to let her serve Sister Bertha.
“You’ve got enough to do, all the cleaning up and stuff. I’ll be right there in the room with the Sister.” And so Step Two of the Master Plan was accomplished.
Step One had been Aponi and Chimalis each packing one small bag and, during morning chapel, stowing them in the garden shed.
“What’s that Pony? Chimalis asked, having noticed Aponi placing a tightly tied bundle on top of her bag.
“My quilt. I’m not leaving that behind.” They then hurried off to chapel, to be scolded and given three demerits each for being late.
About five minutes into the bubbly Lawrence Welk show, true to form, Sister Bertha started slipping off to slumber land. Chimalis signaled to Aponi and, after first changing the TV channel, they exited the Great Room. For the record, that was the one and only time the young ladies of St. Boniface watched an entire episode of ‘Bonanza.’
The two escapees hurried down the long hall on their way to the back exit leading to the garden. This was the beginning phase of Step Three. But suddenly, the crow black shape of one of the Sisters loomed up in front of them. All of the Nuns were supposed to be at their prayers in the chapel but here stood---Sister Florence.
“And where are you two off to in such a hurry? Marjorie?”
“Eh---(think quick Chimalis)---Ah, we need to get to the lavatory. Aponi is not feeling too good.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. What’s the matter, April?”
Chimalis waited only second, seeing that April was struggling to come up with an answer.
“She’s got terrible cramps. That time of the month, I guess. It’s all kinda new to her.”
“I see. Well, let me help. Here, let’s get her to the bathroom.”
“Oh, no, that’s not necessary. I’ve got it. You need to get to chapel.” (don’t panic)
“Well, if you’re sure. I am running late. But call if you need help. Get her to bed as soon as you can,” and she was rushing off to chapel.
Chimalis kept guiding Aponi toward the lavatory.
“Why did you tell her that stuff? I haven’t even had my first period yet. And why are we heading to the bathroom?”
“It’s just until she’s out of sight.” And at that moment Sister Florence turned the corner and was gone. “Let’s go! Fast!” Chimalis hissed as they ran for the back door.
Pushing through the double doors they stumbled down the stairs and rushed to the garden shed. By picking up their bags and Aponi’s blanket they had completed Step Three of The Plan. Now it was on to Step Four.
“April?” came a voice from above them. ‘Caught!’ thought Chimalis, as she and Aponi turned their heads toward the direction of the voice. It was coming from an open window on the second floor. Leaning out, waving her hand, was Sister Anne.
“Leaving without saying goodbye?”
“Oh, hi, Sister. We were---”
“I saw you this morning from my window, Marjorie.”
“I guess you caught us,” Chimalis said, putting down her bag.”
“Yes, I’d say I apprehended you---what’s the term---red handed.”
“We’re sorry, Sister Anne,” Aponi replied, “We’ll come back in.”
“No. Not yet. I want to ask you a question first.”
“Yes. A simple yes or no question. Do you really want to do this?”
“You mean leave St. Boniface?” asked Chimalis.
After a brief hesitation, Chimalis nodded yes.
“And you, April?”
It was a struggle. Aponi thought about the safety of sticking to the status quo and of how kind Sister Anne had been to her but then she remembered the cruel treatment of Chimalis by Sister Dorothea and her switch and she knew her answer. “Yes.”
“Then that’s all it need to know. God speed and be very careful. It can be a very dangerous world out there.”
“Yes, yes! Now hurry up and get on your way before someone else sees you! Oh, wait,” Sister Anne said, turning back into her room and then returning with a small envelope which she threw down to them, “Catch!”
Aponi caught it and peeked inside. Tucked in the envelope were several ten-dollar bills.
“But sister, we---"
“You’ll need that. Now, for heaven’s sake, go!” and she slammed down the window.
Step Four consisted of a long walk in the dark through the fields and trees that extended from the school to the neighborhood of bungalows and Foursquare houses. They had to find the corner of Hoffer and Alessandro Streets where Chimalis’ Uncle would be waiting for them. The street lights were helpful but, at the same time, they exposed them to the eyes of the inhabitants. Hopefully, no one would pay much attention to what looked like a couple of Mexican kids out for an evening stroll.
When they finally got to their destination there was no motor home waiting for them.
“Is this the right place, Chi?”
“This is where he said he’d wait for us.”
“What time did he say he’d be here?”
“He didn’t. He just said be here Saturday night.”
They sat down on the curb and waited. Aponi kept thinking about what would happen if he didn’t show. What would they do then? Would the school send out a search party and find them sitting like stupid idiots on the edge of the sidewalk? She was about to run screaming down the street when a couple of headlights appeared about a block away and headed slowly in their direction.
“There he is! “yelled Chimalis, jumping up and waving her arms. “He’s here!”
The tan colored motor home pulled to a stop in front of them and when the side door opened the biggest man Aponi had ever seen jumped down the steps, grabbed Chimalis in a giant bear hug and swung her around in a circle.
“Hey, there my sweet Bluebird! Long time no see!”
“Yeah, but you’re here now!”
“And who is this lovely maiden, may I ask?”
“This is the friend I wrote you about. My best friend. This is Aponi.”
“It is an honor to finally meet you, little Butterfly,” the big bear said extending his paw.
“And Aponi, this is my uncle Bodaway, but everyone calls him Beau.”
“A pleasure to meet you, sir, ah, Beau. Thank you for letting me come along.”
“Oh, no. You are part of the Purcell family now, which comes with a lot of responsibilities so save the thanks.” He turned to the bags and the bundle on the sidewalk. “I gather these are all of your worldly possessions.” The girls nodded in response. “Well, then let’s get them on board.” He lifted both bags in one hand and Aponi’s quilt in the other and tossed them into the motor home. “After you, young ladies. Just take one of those comfy seats behind the driver and off we will go.”
“Yeah, we probably should get out of here before they start looking for us,” Chimalis said, as she placed herself behind her uncle. He closed the door and restarted the engine. He drove slowly to the corner and then made a left hand turn onto Alessandro Street which would take them to the main highway.
“Here we go, ladies. Next stop Florida! Well, actually we’ll have quite a few stops before we get to the Sunshine State.”
Aponi watched the lights of Banning pass by her window and found it hard to believe that she was actually in a motor home heading into the unknown. It was scary and wonderful.
“Uncle Beau, do you think they’ll try to find us and bring us back?”
“My sweet Bluebird, you probably won’t like what I’m going to say, but face it, you, and Butterfly there, aren’t worth the bother. They’re probably glad to see you go. Just two less heathen mouths to feed. Nobody will ever miss you two little Indian girls or even care.
You know, I grew up hearing this saying being repeated everywhere I went, ‘The only good Indian is a dead Indian.’ So don’t worry about being followed. To them you are dead. Being who we are will make us invisible. Okay? Now, there are some apples in the cupboard behind you and some cheese in the fridge. Let’s feast!
The motor home sped swiftly along and soon passed the Banning city limits sign. It continued moving along the highway and eventually disappeared into the night. Aponi and Chimalis were never seen again.
As the years passed, Sister Anne thought about them often, and prayed they were alright.
Mark Dennison pulled his SUV into the parking lot in front of the Beaumont Antique Mall. It was his last stop before the drive back to L.A. He had a couple of items he’d found at two other shops stowed in the cargo area; a large terracotta Buddha and a carved teakwood bench that he thought would fit nicely in his little Japanese garden. He had purchased a house in the west hills of Portland not for its architecture, which was passable, but for the garden. Having officially retired a month ago, he had decided to return to his home town and enjoy, once again, the gray skies and drizzle that he had been missing for so many decades in drought ridden California.
Mark, born Martin O’Shea, had had a very successful career as a costume designer, even though that wasn’t his original goal. He had wanted to be a famous Couturier like Oleg Cassini or Galanos or Geoffrey Beene. But life, as it usual does, had other plans for him and so, when he was attending F.I.T. in New York City, a fellow student of his told him that a friend of a friend, who was working on an Off-Broadway musical, said they needed stitchers. Thinking this sounded like it might be fun and, lord knows, he could use the extra dough, he found his way down to Sheridan Square and the WayWord Theatre Company. It was a large space located in what had been an auto repair shop, and was now a fully equipped 250 seat theatre. The sign in front said that the next production was ‘an exciting new musical based on the life and times of Robert E. Lee! THE REBEL IN GRAY.’
Martin learned a lot working on that show, more even than what he was learning at the Fashion Institute. For instance, how to get things done without the proper materials, how to complete a repair on a costume in the dark backstage during a performance, how to interpret the designer’s sketch drawn on a napkin with an eyebrow pencil, but, most importantly, how to get along with all the egos that were flying around. As crazy as it all was Martin found he liked being in this world very much.
When it was time for the names of the various members of the company to be added to the printed program the producers noticed a problem, there were two Martin O’Sheas. One was the actor playing Robert E. Lee and the other was a member of the costume crew. Of course, the leading man couldn’t change his name so Martin was asked to alter his. After some deliberation, he decided to honor his great grandmother Agnes by changing his name to Martin Dennison. Unfortunately, due to a typo when the program was printed, his first name read Mark not Martin and thus the young man, who went on to become a famous costume designer, became Mark Dennison. His name eventually graced many a Broadway Playbill and appeared in the end credits of dozens of films and television productions. A Tony, An Oscar and an Emmy shared space in his bedroom closet.
Mark stepped out of his car and stretched his back. Sitting for hours while driving was not wise. He felt he was in good shape for a septuagenarian but he often pushed the old bod a little too far. That was why, when The Sharon Show ended, after a 12-year run on CBS, he was ready to call it quits. To design and supervise the construction of hundreds of costumes every week, 25 episodes every season for 12 years---300 episodes total---that’s like designing a Broadway show every week! No wonder his back hurt.
He locked the car and headed for the entrance to the store. There was a nice collection of rattan furniture spread out in front of the windows and some large pots painted with big Mexican style flowers spotted here and there. Mark opened the door and entered. A tiny bell above his head announced his entrance.
The place was not actually a mall like one would be familiar with but just one big space packed with every kind of antique from tea pots to sofas to chiffoniers to grandfather clocks. Mark found he was alone except for a rotund middle-aged gentleman who was standing at a counter leafing through what appeared to be a scrapbook. He turned toward Mark.
“Good evening, sir. Is there anything special I can help you with?”
“Not really, thank you. Just looking.”
“Well, let me know if you need any help. My name is Harold.” the man said, as he turned his attention back to the scrapbook.
“Thank you. I will,” Mark answered, as he glanced around. So much stuff. The world was full of so much stuff. He moved to a table with marble inlays that depicted two angels playing a harp and a lute. They reminded him of Cousin Lizzy and her lecture about heaven and hell. Cousin Lizzy. He remembered her playing those annoying Mormon hymns on her ukulele. Poor old Lizzy. That last terrible year when she ended up in that facility, screaming and tearing at her hair. But what could mama do?
Mark saw something in one of the other rooms that sparked his interest. It was a silk Yukata with a shorter sleeve that indicated it was a robe for a man. There were a pair of white cranes pictured on the front and probably one on the back and they stood out beautifully against the olive green of the fabric. He thought about Douglas and how handsome he would have looked wearing it. But of course Douglas was no longer around. The man who had been Mark’s loving companion for over thirty years had gone to sleep one night and never woke up. It had taken Mark over two years to recover, if one truly ever recovers.
“Beautiful isn’t it,” came a voice from behind him. The man named Harold had joined Mark. “It’s from the 1920’s. We got it at an estate sale several years ago. It was in among a lot of other clothes in a steamer trunk we bid on. Some famous film actor, I forget his name.”
“It’s very handsome. Excellent construction.”
“Are you interested in things oriental?”
“Well, I seem to be gravitating that way lately. I’m moving up to Portland Oregon soon and I’m looking for some unusual items to serve as, I guess you’d say, accessories.”
“Well, as you can see, we have a lot of those,” Harold said with a chuckle.
“Yes, indeed. You have quite an inventory. I gather this is your store.”
“Mine and my wife’s. My father opened it in the late 70s.”
“Oh, so you grew up here.”
“Born and bred.”
“Well, it’s a pleasure to meet a true citizen of Banning.”
“I was born in Beaumont. This is the town of Beaumont. Banning is a couple blocks over.”
“Oh,” Mark replied, confused.
“That’s okay. All these towns are connected. They butt up against each other. Anyway, is there anything specific I can show you?”
“Well, I’m looking for a good warm blanket or quilt. It gets kind of chilly up in Portland.”
“Okay, we have quite a nice collection of quilts. It’s way in the back, this way.” The owner began walking down an aisle with vintage chairs on both sides with Mark following behind. Mark saw his reflection flash in and out as he passed the many mirrors hanging on the wall above and remembered the last time he saw his mother alive. She was applying her makeup in the ritual she called ‘putting on her face.’ Her reflection was still beautiful, wrinkles and all.
“Here we are,” Harold announced, pointing to a rack with dozens of colorful quilts hanging loose or rolled up like cotton telescopes. “We never fold them because they start wearing out along the creases. Was there a certain color you were looking for?”
“Not really. Could I just flip through them? You never know what you’ll find.”
“Certainly, but could I ask you to wear these?” Harold said, handing Mark a pair of white cotton gloves, “It protects them from the oil on your fingers.”
“Sure,” Mark answered, starting to pull the gloves over each of his hands, “Harold, may I ask you a question?
“It’s about Banning.”
“Well, didn’t there used to be an Indian School there?”
“Oh yeah, the old St. Boniface school. Run by the Nuns.
“Do you remember it?”
“I was just a little kid. But I remember when they tore it down. I think it was like 1974 or 75. My dad had just opened this place.”
“Why was it torn down?”
“Well, I’ve heard a lot of stories about how awful the place was. They said the Indian kids were treated badly, starved, beaten, no medical care if they got sick. Often, if a child died the parents weren’t even informed and the body was buried in the little cemetery out in the back. That graveyard is still there, the only thing remaining from that time.”
“Wow. Not a good time, obviously,” Mark sighed and began looking through the quilts.
“So what’s your interest in that school? You writing a book or a movie?”
“Oh, my no. It’s just that I had a relative who used to donate stuff to that school. I was curious. Looks like she was wasting her time and money.”
“You never know. Maybe it made a difference. What kind of stuff? Food, clothes?”
“I know she sent books and some clothes. She even sent an old sewing machine.”
“A sewing machine?”
“Well, actually it was my grandmother’s old treadle singer and she did it without my permission, I mean without my family’s permission.”
“What did it look like?”
“Oh, it was easy to spot. It was painted bright yellow.”
“You know, they were selling off all kinds of junk from the school before it was closed. My dad got some---I’m trying to remember, let’s see---lighting fixtures, a piano and---a sewing machine. Wait!” Harold turned quickly and started walking away. “Please, follow me.”
Mark had to hurry to catch up. “What is it? Where are you going?”
“Right here, downstairs. Please be careful,” Harold said, as they began to descend a set of steps that led to the dark of a basement. At the bottom of the stairs, Harold flipped a switch which turned on a long overhead row of fluorescence lights. The space was full of what looked to Mark like piles of old furniture that needed repair work or sprucing up or trashing.
“This is where we do a lot of restoration. Never ending, actually. I never catch up.” He wiggled around an old rocking horse that was missing it’s tail and continued weaving in and out of a set of chairs with faded upholstery and a circle of tables with scars and cigarette burns. He finally stopped in front of a rolling rack of old vintage dresses from, what looked like, the turn of the 20th century. With a gentle push, Harold moved the rack to the left and revealed, sitting in a dark corner---a sewing machine.
“There she is. The machine my dad bought from the sale at St. Boniface over forty years ago.”
Mark stepped closer and took a look.
“Judy, my wife, used this old thing, once and a while, to mend a garment or hem a drape but then we got one of those Phaff machines that do everything except wash dishes.”
Mark had turned on the light from his smart phone and was inspecting the dusty machine. As he suspected, this was not his Grandma Lily’s beloved old Singer.
“Thank you, Harold, for showing me this but my grandmother’s sewing machine was painted lemon yellow. This is unpainted. I mean it’s wood, dark wood.”
“Yeah, so it is. Could use a couple of coats of varnish. In fact it looks like my dad had started to work on it but never finished it. He did a lot of refinishing back then, you know, removing old shellac, or wax, using all these nasty chemicals. Probably what killed him in the end. He got cancer.”
“Did he ever use a stripper on painted surfaces?”
“I guess so. He liked to get down to an object’s original finish. Me, it comes in painted, it stays painted and goes out painted.”
Mark lifted the lid and peered down at the sewing head asleep in its nest. The familiar rose buds and gilt curlicues were there on the painted black surface but that meant nothing, they would have been found on hundreds of the same kind of machines.
“May I open one of the drawers?”
“Sure. Open them all if you want.”
“Thanks.” Mark slid the first of the six drawers open to find it empty, as were the next three. But the fifth drawer held some sewing supplies, bobbins, pins, a red ribbon, thread and some tailors chalk. The sixth drawer was bare except for a folded piece of yellowing paper which Mark gently removed. He opened it carefully and as he did another piece of paper, that was tucked inside, fluttered to the floor. Picking it up, he put it on top of the machine next to the creased and wrinkled document which he then unfolded. Using his smart phone for more light he determined it was some sort of certificate. He began to read it out loud.
“First Prize is given, on October 5th in the year of our Lord 1962, to
“Probably the winning quilt,” Harold added, looking over Mark’s shoulder, “I recognize that pattern, ‘Morning Star.’”
“I guess that’s one of the reasons you find the business of antiques so intriguing, hearing all the stories, discovering the histories,” Mark explained as he began to push the drawer back into its slot. He stopped suddenly and clicked his light back on. Aiming it at the side of the drawer, he saw a bright yellow blotch, a single small brush stroke of lemon yellow paint! A mistake, thank you, a slip of the wrist when a teenage theatre nerd was painting the front of the drawer!
“Harold, is this machine for sale?”
“Well, years ago we tried to sell it but no one was interested. Not much of a market for old sewing machines. Why?
“Because I want to bring it home.”
“What for? Wait. You mean---?”
“It’s my grandmother’s.”
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