Tonight I threw away the sewing kit my mother gave me. It was a Christmas gift from around the time when I was first living on my own. The kit – more of a fancy box, really – was stocked with basic notions: pins, needles, a few spools of thread. It had flowers on the outside and the inside held a removable tray divided into small compartments. Beneath the tray there was space for the larger items like scissors and remnants of fabric.
The kit was a companion to the larger gift that year: a sewing machine. I had learned to use my mother’s long before. After graduating from tentative hand-stitched projects – the first of which was a pillowcase for my Barbie doll – I progressed to guiding fabric through the machine, controlling the speed of the stitches by foot pedal. Eventually I created the dress I wore for my high school graduation. I had taken a hiatus during college, but now, with a job and my own place, I was ready to pick up the hobby again and carry on my mother’s legacy.
There are so many jokes about women becoming their mothers, most of which involve trying to avoid the transformation. But I always knew that I would be like my mother. I had been told that I looked, spoke, and laughed just like she did from the time I was in elementary school and I welcomed the comparison. My mother was elegant; lessons learned in modeling school during her teens manifested in her perfect posture and impeccable dress. She looked sharp every day that she went to her job as a high school teacher: stylish clothes and heels, carefully coiffed hair, subtle makeup. She might sound forbidding, but she was also silly – wonderfully, uproariously silly – the emulation of which I also cultivated in myself. She made up games like drawing faces on the pads of our big toes and wiggling them to make them “talk” to one another. We usually collapsed in giggles from the tickle of the pen long before we got around to inventing conversations between our feet. She contorted her face in all different ways to make me laugh and made her eyebrows dance up and down one by one. At a young age, I found that I could raise my left eyebrow by itself but not my right, so I devoted hours to holding the left one in a frown while teaching the right to go upwards on its own. Anything to be even more like her.
I’m using past tense because, although she is alive, I have already lost her my mother to Alzheimer’s disease. She is awake and she is present, but she is no longer herself. I won’t say she is “losing her fight” against the disease; dementia is not a contest but a path to which we have been committed. We know where it leads because we watched my grandmother, who watched her own mother, travel the same path. We know that it ends in only one way.
This weekend, my husband and I have been on a cleaning kick. Boxes are being filled with clothes for donations, toys and books culled and organized. It’s partly an anticipation of the influx that occurs around the holidays and partly a reflexive need to get settled back into our home after nine days at my parents’ house over Thanksgiving. Tonight after putting the boys to bed, I tackled my sewing and craft supplies and finally made a decision about the sewing kit.
In truth, I have never loved the box itself; the flowery design just isn’t my taste and, while it fits most of my tools, the larger storage compartment isn’t quite big enough to contain the scissors. Even though I’ve known for a long time that my mother would never notice if I replaced the box she gave me – at this point she would have no idea that she had gifted it to me in the first place – I couldn’t consider parting with it because it was from her, a physical manifestation of something my family holds dear.
Tonight, though, I came across a different box, one with woven sides and a hinged lid that is more my style and easily accommodated my supplies when I placed them inside. I feel myself trying to separate from her, finally tackling the developmental task of individuation, which I seem to have skipped over while growing up. Unknowingly, she has made this easier. Last week she came into the bathroom where I was brushing my teeth late at night and did not recognize me. She let me guide her back to bed and didn’t hear me creep down the stairs to sob by myself in the dark.
My old box now sits next to the trash. The new one is tucked into a new spot and the bookshelves look a little big neater. I don’t feel tucked in or neater or settled in any way. But maybe with time, with more sifting and examining and cleaning out of the things around me and inside of me, I will get there, too.