JOYCE WHITIS

Mama’s old treadle sewing machine, a Singer, sets comfortably in my guest bedroom. It has been retired since my mother died, but for more than 60 years that machine was busy stitching clothing for a family of six. Dresses, shirts, and petticoats wasn’t all that old machine put together, but encouraged by my mother’s steady foot, the steel needle made its way through leather harness, put patches on canvas cotton sacks and sewed pieces of wire into window screens. I grew up believing that if Mama and her Singer couldn’t fix it, you might as well throw it away.

When my mother died in 1977 and my sisters, my brother and I were dividing up the estate, I put my hand on that sewing machine and dared the others to lay claim to it. They only smiled because they knew, had known for a long time, that the machine would be mine. Although they all related to that Singer, none of them had the memories that I did.

In the beginning, my Mother and Daddy were married as they sat in a buggy in front of the white picket fence at the preacher’s house. Their best friends sat in another buggy beside them. After they said out loud that they would love each other and stick together no matter what, they rode away into a future that included drought, flood, the Great Depression, sickness, health, crop failure, sandstorms, bumper crops, birth, death, disaster, war and success.

They began life together with very little; a horse whose ancestor was Dan Patch the great trotter and urged on by my Dad, he could take the young couple on a really fast buggy ride. They had a rented house, rented land, a cow, a dozen chickens, a fattening hog grunting in the mud down by the horse barn, an iron bedstead, a kitchen cabinet with a flour bin on the left side and a sifter underneath, a kitchen table and two chairs, an iron wood-burning cook stove and a sofa for sitting when company came by.

Sometime during that first year, a drummer came by the little clapboard house where they lived and in his hack was a beautiful Singer sewing machine. The drawer knobs were carved wood and the scrolling on drawers and on either end of the machine was a wonder to behold.

Mama ran her hand over the scroll work and thought to herself how great it would be to own that wonderful machine and be able to sew dresses for the baby that was due in September.

The drummer spent the night with my parents which was the custom in those days and the next morning he left leading a heifer calf behind his hack and Mama had her Singer sewing machine.

Growing up, I felt like the Elves and the Shoemaker story where the children would wake up in the morning and all the shoes would be sitting in a row all finished. I remember going to bed and drifting off to sleep lulled by the whirring wheel of that treadle sewing machine only to wake up in the morning with a new dress and matching bloomers often made from feed sacks but cut from a pattern that Mama designed herself. She had whipped my new outfit together while I was asleep.

When I look at that machine with its wooden knobs carved from the extended wood of the six drawers, I remember my pet chicken Freddy and that I used to place in a drawer when he was just a ball of yellow fuzz, tie a string to that knob and pull him around the house like a street car. Oh there were many games that I devised for myself while Mama was sewing.

I wrote a story about that sewing machine and my mother years ago and Country Woman magazine published it in 1977. That was the first article that I had published in a national magazine and I was very excited about it.

When a copy of the magazine came, Mama was in the hospital with what turned out to be a fatal ailment. I drove up to see her and seated beside her bed, read what I had written that an editor in Wisconsin had thought enough about to print in her magazine. As I finished, she reached across the cover and took my hand. Hers was almost as pale as the white sheet beneath it but her dark brown eyes showed the energy that I had known all my life.

“I am so proud of you,” she said.

Those words have meant everything to me.