My Father’s Fabric
My birth certificate shows that at age 26 my father was married with three children at home, and that he was a cloth cutter, according to the words in the profession box—the same words a truant officer had scribbled a decade earlier, never giving my father a choice, chance or test, to decide, declare or learn what he could have become.
Had he been asked, my father might have revealed that—although he loved reading and respected the nuns who routinely took a ruler to his knuckles—he skipped school and sold newspapers to help his mother raise his eight siblings. Had he been asked, he might have revealed that he wanted to be an accountant, lawyer, or chef. Anything but a cloth cutter. But he was never asked, so he was labeled and boxed up in a sweatshop for 40 years, cutting fabric for ladies’ sportswear.
My father came home every night with a pack of Pall Malls in his shirt pocket, beer on his breath and several rubber bands around his wrist. At the dinner table my siblings and I belted out rounds of Look for the Union Label, while my father slurred words like imports, off shoring and layoffs, and after he collected the capital and courage to start his own cutting shop, we heard words like arson, union retaliation, and food stamps.
My Grandmother’s Fabric
The first time I entered a fabric shop, I nearly swooned. My grandmother and I had taken the train to Chinatown to buy material for my fourth grade piano recital dress. She entered the fabric shop with the authority of a preacher taking the pulpit then led me down the wide marble stairs that cascaded into the remnant room. I opened my eyes wide to soak in the beauty. Vast sheets of fabric floated from the ceiling in waves of color and texture: mint and saffron plaid, cinnabar silk and ochre tweed. I wanted to wrap myself in each magnificent panel.
At home, I watched my grandmother create my dress from the ecru linen she had helped me to choose. She laid out the fabric on our large rectangular dining table and secured the petal-thin pattern with common pins. She took out four 28-ounce yellow and red tomato cans, placed them on the four corners and began to cut along the patterns’ mysterious blue veins. As she cut the fabric, I heard words like bobbin, bias, and selvage in the background, but I just sat and studied her hands as if seeing them for the first time. Her hands were like silk as they reflected the overhead light. They were the softest hands I’d ever feel, the same hands that would—35 years later—fold and stitch the impossibly narrow side hem for my daughter’s nursery curtains.
My Daughter’s Fabric
I dread the change of seasons. It wasn’t always like this; I used to revel in swapping Irish-knit for flouncy gauze, and cutting into floral silk or camel wool. Now, the clove of each autumn and spring fills my heart with grief. Each time I open my daughter’s closet to weed out the clothes she’s outgrown, I feel the pain of my broken body, and I draw closer to the truth that she will not have a younger sibling to wear her favorite paisley overalls.
I’ve kept the strangest collection of her clothes to touch from time to time: her teal and rose dress with matching bib and newborn hat; the banana yellow cardigan stained with pureed peas; the white onesie with three pink hearts that she wore when her birthmother placed her in my arms.
With my daughter’s clothes surrounding me, I feel my grandmother and father close by. I wonder what they would say about the pattern that doesn’t match up on the back seam of her floral corduroy jumper, about the labels reading Egypt, China and Vietnam, about my sewing machine—the bobbin left unthreaded for far too long.