(Part of a series inspired by my grandmother’s sewing basket.)
In the novels of Jane Austen, well-to-do ladies periodically bring out a “workbasket” of fine linen to embroider or hem. It keeps their hands busy while they socialize, but it doesn’t put food on the table, so it doesn’t fit my definition of work, which is what you do to pay the bills. Right? I mean, how can delicate embroidery count as work?
The truth is, there’s no other “work” for Austen’s ladies to do. Even their wealthy husbands and suitors don’t have much to do except maintain their social standing; that’s exactly what Austen is satirizing. When I was growing up, more than a century after Austen, most women in my white, ranch-house-subdivision world still didn’t “work.” As more women entered the job market in the 1960s and 70s, a common question at cocktail parties was, “Do you work?” Stay-at-home moms rebelled: “Hell yes, we work!” Thus was born the more politically correct question, “Do you work outside the home?”, along with its corollary slogan, “Every mother is a working mother.” (How true.) But dishes and laundry and diaper changes are tasks that must be done over and over, leaving no permanent evidence of one’s labor.
My mom worked – inside and outside the home – for decades. She started working as a researcher in nuclear medicine straight out of college in 1948. By the time I was born she was teaching high school; after a brief hiatus during my nursery-school years, she went to work as a college math professor and never looked back. She loved it.
I was proud of my “working mother,” who earned a paycheck and helped struggling math students graduate from college. She still managed to bake cookies and sew Halloween costumes, but she put aside her needlepoint projects and fancy frills. I thought she was above all that crafty-stitchy nonsense. My mom was a professional. So I was shocked when, in retirement, Mom joined a quilting society and a chapter of the Embroidery Guild of America. What??
Suddenly I was being asked – forced – to reconsider my definition of work. Mom became an uber-volunteer, working for the food bank and Meals on Wheels, visiting nursing home residents long after her own mother had passed away, and sewing constantly. She belonged to a group called “Quilters for Others,” who made lapquilts for the elderly and blankets for the homeless. And she made the most exquisite pieces of needlework I have ever seen.
What was this tedious, mind-numbing hobby that was taking up so much of my mother’s time? How could she, who had raised me in chemistry labs and math classrooms, be content on the sofa with a piece of linen and a basket of fancy threads?
As it turned out, she was crafting much more than I knew. Like the best of Jane Austen’s characters, she was crafting relationships. Her “stitching buddies,” who met weekly to have lunch and work on projects together, became some of her closest friends. They went to classes and retreats together. They laughed at each other’s jokes and supported each other through challenging times: a husband’s cancer, a grandchild’s deployment to Iraq. All the while, they kept their needles busy.
And she was leaving a legacy. The fruits of my mother’s labor with a needle now hang on my walls. I marvel at the works of art she made for each of us. I’m already wondering which ones my daughter will want, and which will go to my niece and nephews, and whether they’ll want them now or later, when they’ve bought homes and settled down. These are tangible signs of a woman’s love for beauty, friendship, family, and community. They’re not her original designs, but they are her work, the work of her hands.
My mother taught me volumes about work. She changed my definition of the word. And she did it with nothing more than a needle and thread and a sewing basket.