Esther McIlveen is a freelance writer living in Richmond BC. She has had a number of articles published in Channels.
My mother stitched her way through life. She was known as a couturier and sewed coats, wedding dresses, drapes, costumes, and kept us looking well frocked.
As a young woman she took up tailoring and after her first husband died and she was left caring for two small children, she made her livelihood by staying with a family until their whole wardrobe was finished. Then she would move on to the next family.
Her sewing machine became not only her livelihood, but an icon in our home. We came to think of the machine as an extension of mother's personality. During the Depression, I am told that after she married the man who later became my father, her sewing machine was confiscated, because some payments had lapsed. For my mother, it must have been a bit like losing an arm.
I remember sitting across from my mother as a little girl, holding the fabric of older dresses or pants, while my mother took a razor blade to cut the threads. Then she would wash the material, iron and recreate a newer model. We still have her metal thimble with a tiny hole pierced by the needles she used over the years.
The photographs we have when my mother was rearing her third family, never revealed how poor we were, because our clothes were fashionable and in vogue. My mother created her own patterns and we could point to almost any style and she could create it.
My mother lived in an era where women came together to stitch their stories and their losses into beautiful quilts. Quilters were carefully selected and in order to belong, you had to prove your craft. Quilting bees were their therapy sessions, where they shared unplanned pregnancies, deaths, or failed crops. The quilters had become sisters who laughed together and dried each other's tears. I have a peach and white quilt she made for me. The stitches are impeccable. I can wrap the quilt around me when I long for my mother's arms.
Maria was known for her homespun common sense. To me she was a summit of wisdom. When I had a three year old and then twins came along, she advised me to just keep one room as tidy as I needed to and to put my priorities into enjoying the children. "What you do for one, you must do for the other," she mused about the twins. She also gave me that wonderful freedom not to be afraid to fail. "But you must try. If you don't try, you might be sorry." I think I gained my optimism from her — her motto seemed to be, "We'll get through this as well."
I recently became the beneficiary of her baptismal certificate given to Maria at her baptism when she was twenty years old. It reads, "Maria Fast, 27 April, 1894," and showed a picture of John the Baptist sprinkling Jesus in the Jordan River. It was a rare gift, since many of her treasures have been lost.
It evoked a memory of how I had knelt at my mother's knees to pray while her warm hand was upon my shoulder. I felt the harmony of heaven. Prayer has become a cord spun from my mother's life of creativity and faith. She seemed to be able to cut the synthetics of her life to suit the patterns handed her by Destiny.