She flicks down the switch to start the water boiling in the electric kettle and her thoughts sink into the past. The lid is absently discarded from the jar leaving the air to leach the freshness from the coffee grinds while simultaneously wafting a dark roast scent. Dolly’s mind is adrift amidst the smell as the sun streams through the window highlighting the gentle movement of air currents resembling thin strand of sewing thread. It’s in taking up one of these strands that Dolly’s memory of being a self-sustained mother brings an impish smile to her face. Her eyes land on her Singer, “I was able to be home all the time.”
The oval of the kitchen table where she sits seems to dominate the space. Once kept so organized, it is now littered with odds and ends leaving barely any room for coffee. Regardless, she sits like a queen in the same chair she has governed for years. Her chair is the only one with a padded cushion and it is angled from the table so she can face the expanse of her kitchen. Beside her, always within reach, is a life-long friend: her Singer Sewing Machine. Its wood stand is slightly aged with a rectangular box built to house the machine supported on four spindle legs that are a bit worse for wear. The Singer itself, patented in 1851, is setup for work instead of hidden within the depths of the table. Its black surface shines in contrast to the golden letters that adorn its body. A full bobbin sits on the spool pin, it’s off white colour can be traced through the proper threading path until it reaches the eye of the needle where the thread hangs unattended. The area around the Singer is cluttered with thimbles, scissors, bits of thread and material, seamstress chalk, and various tools of the trade.
Dolly has no reservations about the intimacy she expresses for a mere object because
this object provided safety, security, and self-worth in the face of all adversity. Dolly and her Singer stitched out a wedge-shaped fold in the fabric called life.
The square photograph in Dolly’s hands depicts her childhood house as plain with tiny windows and no defining architectural features. Dolly’s blue eyes look down at this picture as her hand gently caresses the image, her fingers stroke over the image of a wood-sided house with a wrapping porch. The house is framed by lush flowers with a number of hydrangeas climbing the walls. Small clusters of tiny snowball blossoms pop throughout heart shaped leaves giving life and decoration to the house’s exterior. The boarder of the yard is trimmed with low cut shrubs, There are no figures in the photograph, but Dolly’s thoughts shift to her parents. “Mom loved her flowers,” Dolly reminisces aloud. “She always had an earthy smell of ripe manure and fresh flowers.”
The electric kettle clicks loudly indicating the promise of coffee. Dolly rises, she is giggling to herself about her youthful summers spent picking blueberries. Rosy cheeks flank her narrow nose, a nose that scents delicately at the aromatic coffee steaming in her cup. She returns to the table and memories of childhood are forgotten as she sits smiling with her eyes turned inward toward something only she can see. Her arms are crossed trying to support her tired body, and evidence of age can be seen in her shoulders as they roll moderately forward hunched with exhaustion. True to form, this aging beauty still sits with her legs properly crossed; the notch of her right knee catches the top of her left. Her body is rhythmically rocking as she gently shakes her right foot in a habit that belies hidden thoughts.
She smiles and emotions flicker across her face like a black and white movie reel. Slowly her silent period ends as colour and voice start to give shape to her memories. The coffee on the table beside her is cooling and long forgotten as she reaches without looking and places a hand on her Singer. The back of her hands are marked by tan oval spots intermixed with deep blue veined. Her fingers are permanently bent from endless hours of cutting, pinning, folding, marking, and sewing. She proudly displays the hands of a worker; strong beneath the paper thin folds of skin. “Wherever I went it went with me,” she boasts.
Her smile slowly slides from her face, and her foot stops bouncing for a moment. A shadow crosses her eyes and she stops her story. It is not the action of a lost story thread, but more of a place where the story has become tangled and difficult. With delicate picking at the threads she looks to the far corner of the kitchen and begins weaving her words again. “He wasn’t a very nice man!” There is a power to her voice that seems to stop the very fibers of time as she broaches a topic she hasn’t spoken out loud before.
Her body is stiff and the arms she holds across her chest are locked against her. Her face is blank. She continues talking and builds momentum as she goes. Her story takes on a steady thunk, thunk, thunk sound. With her foot pressed flat against the floor as if pushing a sewing peddle she details a patch in her life. Her picture weaves a ragdoll image of a man made from rough burlap with black buttons for eyes and a straight red mouth stitched of yarn and pinched tight. This ragdoll man is dressed in high waist flat fronted wool pants with one pleat topped with a double-breasted jacket. His burlap hands hold two positions. The first is a fist, and the second is an open hand reaching for money earned by hours of sewing. She weaves two more words into this pattern: alcohol and gambling.
“I kept some sewing money back.” She smiles with a child’s shy cunning. The tempo of her story slows to a steady thunk sound, rhythmic and comfortable. “It was 1960 something when I told the kids to pack whatever they wanted. We loaded into my four-door purple and white 1956 Chevrolet Bel Air with my sewing machine and we drove to a new town for a new start!”
Her voice is rich with emotion as she recalls the dirty off-white paper mirroring back black letters printed from a dye that allows the ink to leach from the uncoated pages. Her advertisement brings in more sewing jobs than one woman can handle. With more than enough money coming in from sewing Dolly pays her fifty dollar a month rent for a house that allows her to be walking distance to the school her three children attend.
A heavy sigh escapes her, and her foot resumes regular pulsing. Her left hand absently smooths the placemat and the clinking of her gold wedding band against her cold coffee startles her. Without a word she stands and deliberately moves through the kitchen, her slippered feet making no noise. She places her coffee onto a piece of paper towel in the microwave and she hums softly to herself while she waits for it to heat. Comfortably reseated between her kitchen table and her Singer she sips her coffee in silence. The thoughts still shift behind her eyes and her hand folds the corner of the placemat up towards her and then she runs her hand over it returning it to its regular surface. In an action much like pulling the double strands from the back of the sewing machine and clipping them free Dolly does the same with her train of thoughts.
“I met Charles while he was in the army.” She reaches toward her Singer and with a familiarity speaking to their connection she guides open the front panel revealing a small chamber inside. There among an array of supplies is an old photograph of this army man. The photograph is a well-aged black and white image displaying a handsome man smiling with his whole face. On his head is a beret and he is dressed in an army uniform with a lanyard running down to secure his gun pouch on his left hip. He stands with his hip slightly forward and his left hand resting just above the gun pouch. He is tall, proud, and happy.
Dolly holds the photograph briefly and heartache registers on her features as she hurries to put it back in its secret place. Her hand moves to her collar caressing the material around the neck of her blouse. She is wearing a three-quarter inch sleeve of striped silk. It is a V-neck with buttons down the front. Her hair, always nicely curled by rollers, is not firmly set in place. Only a slight wave lingers in the grey thread-like strands, it is
gentle waves that she has caught back from her face with a simple comb. “I told Charles that I would not leave a town that I had sewn my life in!”
Dolly’s head nods subtly as she catches up a new thread of story, one about a man who took a discharge from the army to live in boarding houses close to the woman he loves. A man who respects a hard-working single mother who carved a niche for herself. Dolly waves her hand around indicating the house around her, a house so familiar to her it is like the warmth of a cozy quilt. “Charles bought this house when I showed it to him,” she states proudly. The house is just a brief walk up the street from the home she and her children rented.
Dolly stops talking now. She crosses her legs and begins that vigorous up and down movement with her lower leg and foot. Her eyes turn inward and she smiles to herself making the softest sigh. Her coffee cup has found its way back to her hand and she holds it now like a life line as she takes small sips peering blankly over the rim. It is unknown if she sees the building of their empire in her daydream. Her attention is turned inward long enough to relive their marriage, the rental properties they managed, the cottage that became their summer home, as well as the birth and death of their only child together. It is unexpected when she gives a conspiratorial laugh, “Now that’s a fairy-tale!”
By Shari Marshall – post in 2019
**Some names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals. **