The Last Housewife

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This piece was created for and submitted to the “Hampshire Life” Short Fiction Contest in 2001.

Yet another piece of clothing is presented to her. “I caught the pocket on something and it ripped. Can you fix it?”

She gingerly lifts the offending garment, turns it to bring the wounded part to light. Ceremoniously, she examines the damage and then agrees to take on the task, but not without a mechanical “What will you do when I’m not around?”

It’s a throwaway sentence. No one takes it seriously. The usual response is a chortle over the shoulder. She doesn’t bother to look up. These requests always seem to come when she is otherwise occupied. Of course, there is no time when she is doing nothing, like standing at a counter waiting for the next customer? But, it always feels like an interruption.

For a moment she returns to her activity, as if to emphasize the rudeness of it all. But her thoughts are now focused on the affront she feels that is mixed with a certain pride. Only she can fix those broken zippers, though she makes sure to add a disclaimer: “Well, I’ll try, but these things can be very tricky…” And, when she succeeds, she is all the more triumphant and basks dismissively in the praise that follows.

Every missing button is a challenge. Will there be a match in the button collection? Years ago, when her grandmother died, she chose to take the famous sewing box and accompanying paraphernalia. No one else saw the value in this. There were pinking shears, and sock eggs, dozens of carefully rolled and folded ribbons and bias tapes, needles of every size and design, a lifetime’s supply of hook and eyes, quaint iron-on embroidery patterns, and an old cookie tin filled with buttons.

Searches for the perfect button were many and tedious, so she needed a better storage system. She salvaged a small cardboard six-drawer item that had stored her make-up at college. It had had several lives since then, but none as perfect as the new task she assigned it. Button Center had a drawer for each color or style of button: the plain whites, the dark blues and blacks, the metallic ones, the fancy odd ones, the clear and other color buttons and the oversized ones.

Order prevailed and pleased the children when they were young. They loved to help in the search for the perfect replacement button. And, they delighted in finding the actual real match—not an approximation.

Does anyone else know what a pinking shear is anymore? Or, a darning egg? Was she the last person in her world to know how to darn a sock, or use a seam ripper, or tighten a buttonhole, or, for heaven’s sake, simply sew on a button?

She looked again at the garment deposited in front of her. Why was she offended? Wasn’t she proud to be able to do all these things? Wasn’t she pleased that her family trusted her abilities? She had heard her daughter bragging to a friend that, of course, her mother knew how to fix this or make that. The offended feeling hovered like smoke. She could not shake it to enjoy the pride. All in one motion, she cocked her head, raised a shoulder and the corresponding hand turned and opened expressively. She was commiserating with herself.

Finally, she got up and went to her sewing box. She brought out a needle, a spool of nearly matching thread, and a silver thimble that she slipped onto the fourth finger of the right hand. She had had to force herself to use a thimble; no one taught her. The year she became an avid embroiderer took as casualty the tip of her fourth finger. It became rough, tough and pitted from pushing the needle. Then it dawned on her that that was the purpose of a thimble—to protect this poor finger. So she disciplined herself to wear it. It felt cumbersome at first, as if she were playing the piano with gardening gloves, but the thimble grew on her like a second skin.

Friends were amazed that she actually made napkins, repaired the upholstery or fixed the kid’s zippers. But in that amazement she discerned a slight revulsion or disdain that she should choose to spend her time in these lowly domestic tasks. “Why bother…buy a new one…you’re wasting your time.” These were the comments she heard between the lines. Or was she picking up their envy? Was it more like: “You can sew! How do you find the time?” Were they ashamed that they couldn’t do all these things? Some female friends saw themselves devalued by her natural skills and willingness to use them.

She sighed, exasperated by the complexity of social manners. Why couldn’t people be real and tell her what they were thinking or feeling. It isn’t her task to guess all this and hide her domesticity behind a politically correct facade.

Everyone is an expert these days, she argues with no one in particular. One takes a chair to the caner or the upholsterer; clothes to the seamstress or tailor; belts to the shoemaker; porcelain to the…where does one go to have porcelain repaired? And where do you find all these experts? In an age of experts, there is no appreciation for Janes-of-all-trades. It never occurred to her that other people didn’t do what she does. After all, some men do still tinker in the basement workshop.

Where had she learned her skills? If no one shows you how to tie extension cords together before plugging them into each other… how do you learn that? After a long while, as if she had lost her train of thought, she answers herself. By trial and error: every time you reach too far with the electric drill and it disconnects…that’s when you learn. But, how much sweeter to remember her stepfather as he explained this to her the summer she was nine.

Although, her mother forgot to teach her the names of flowers, she did teach her to plant and to be careful with jewelry when working in the garden. Her lost wedding ring never came up with the Lilies of the Valley as she had hoped. But mostly, she learned that one can attempt tasks without knowing exactly what the outcome will be or should be. She knew this because she had watched her mother and all the other women in her family. Strong women, capable women, they were all willing to try.

Six years ago, she found a cast off mangle iron at a tag sale. She cleaned it and cooed over it to her family’s astonishment. A prize! For years she watched her mother iron all the flat laundry with this wonderful perpetual turning machine. She was eleven then, but allowed to use the mangle after careful instructions, because it was a dangerous contraption. These lessons stayed with her all these years, awakened happily by the tag sale adoption. She knows no one who owns a mangle iron. Hardly anyone knows how to use a regular iron. Her children will leave items that need ironing in the laundry room forever…until in half-hearted surrender she irons them and hangs them on the doorknobs of their bedrooms.

Is it foolishness to take an old worn bath towel and turn it into ten face cloths on a rainy Sunday afternoon? Is it crazy to find a way to punch an extra hole in a belt? When you cannot find the right shaped desk…build it. Saving remnant fabrics guarantees success when a daughter needs a new look for her bedroom. These animated thoughts kept her busy as her fingers finished the sewing project.

No one is watching and she’s not wearing lipstick, so she reaches with her teeth to cut the thread. She tucks the needle into a wad of cloth and presses out the garment to survey the surgery. It is a clever camouflage; ripped pockets are the worst; no seams to re-sew, only an ugly tear to rejoin like a scar. She was tempted to use her love of embroidery to create a matching “scar” on the other side and decorate them both. But no one asked for that and she would have no one but herself to blame later when she felt resentful of time she had spent. And the owner might not appreciate her efforts. What she really wanted was for the kids to find interest in these skills and ask to be taught some of them. Not a likely possibility. Her eyebrows arched to punctuate the thought. Later maybe, when they have their own homes…and she let the thought drift.

She stood up to put the convalescent garment on its owner’s bed. This gesture was as old and familiar to her as married life. She put her needle and thread away and acknowledged the nearby basket filled with clothes to be mended.