My late grandma, Marilyn, (my dad’s mom) taught me how to sew when I was six years old. The first project she had me work on was a set of place mats for my mom. All I had to do was follow a straight line she’d drawn in pencil on each one and sew along it. When I turned eight I was old enough to join 4-H. Since my grandmother was the sewing leader for our club it was decided that I would take up sewing. It seems daunting in hindsight to think about an eight year old making outfits, but my grandmother knew no different, took me under her wing, and taught me how to read patterns, design outfits, sew, etc.
Every year they had a special competition at the Blake’s Prairie Fair for a first year sewer to win a really nice pair of scissors if they had the best overall outfit. I still remember the pride my grandmother had when I won those scissors, as each of her daughters had as well. It felt good to please my grandmother and I wanted to keep doing it.
Throughout the years we made many outfits together. We’d laugh and joke as I pinned, cut out patterns, and ironed. Grandma was especially careful with details, so she didn’t distract me while I was sewing to make sure I did a good job. If the job didn’t meet her standards you could bet she’d take a seam ripper and make me start over. There was a high level of expectation my grandmother lived by. However, even in the times I made mistakes, like when I accidentally cut a hole in a romper when I meant to cut a thread, she always had a solution on how to salvage it and make it look even better. The year that I cut a hole in my romper my grandmother had me add a belt; the hole was never seen and the judges picked that outfit to go to the State Fair.
When I was in high school the local doll and toy museum reached out to the 4-H clubs in the area and asked us to dress some dolls that could be donated to less fortunate families. My grandma and I decided to take on the challenge and I made a Badgers cheer-leading outfit (complete with yarn pom-poms), a wedding dress, and a sweatsuit for my doll. We had a great time designing patterns and being creative with it. Unbeknownst to us they had a competition associated with it and I won some money and was featured in our local newspaper. I again made my grandmother proud.
My Junior year of high school I decided I wanted to make my own prom dress. My grandmother and I found a pattern we could start with (we liked to create our own things) and material we liked. I had a blast spending time with Grandma as I made the dress and we were both very happy with the outcome. Since we had so much extra material I decided to also make my date’s matching vest and bow tie. I invited my grandma to come to prom for the grand march and to see us dressed up. Unfortunately some of my aunts and uncles (her kids) were coming home that weekend, so my mom prepared me to not be upset if she didn’t come since it wasn’t likely. When I got to prom there was my mom, her mom, and my grandma Marilyn sitting on the bleachers smiling at us. When I told Grandma I was surprised she made it she told me she wouldn’t miss it for the world.
When we received our prom pictures I ordered an extra one and got a frame for my grandma to display since she’d put in the work of overseeing my creation. When I gave it to her, one of her friends, Charlotte, was with her. Later Charlotte told me how sweet it was for me to give that to my grandma and she told me I was the apple of her eye. I loved making my grandma proud.
My senior year of high school I got engaged to my high school sweetheart (and prom date) and my grandma and I started talking about our plans for my wedding dress. My grandmother had made her own wedding dress and she really wanted to help me make my dress. About a year later I broke up with my high school sweetheart and called off the wedding. It was also the year my grandmother was diagnosed with cancer.
I’d like to say that I was there for my grandma during her fight, but I was no where to be found. I was busy with my own life and had run as far away from my hometown as I could. Plus, something about it scared the crap out of me. My grandma had a brutal fight and went into remission. Unfortunately my grandmother’s health never got back to normal.
When I was living in Madison I got the call that Grandma had pneumonia and had been hospitalized. Her health had been deteriorating for a while and my grandfather had stepped up to the plate to learn all of Grandma’s recipes and how to look after the house. I think they somehow both knew the time would come that Grandpa would lose his housewife and soul mate. At the request of my mother I went to the hospital to see her and still remember how queasy that hospital made me. I thought it had something to do with the smell and everyone could tell how uncomfortable I was. It was really because I was living in denial as I’d never dealt with anyone close to me dying. My grandfather kept telling me that Grandma could hear me and that I should go over and talk to her. I kept looking at this lady that looked like a fish gasping for air that was staring at me and wondered where my grandma was. This wasn’t the same lady that gave me my only nickname of “Matilda Jane” or that spent hours laughing and joking with me while I told stories and made outfits. I wasn’t there long before I left. I’d made plans with my new boyfriend to go to Detroit for the weekend and my mom gave me her blessing to leave. My grandma battled the pneumonia for a while and we were driving back from Detroit, through Chicago, when I got the call that she’d died.
I’m still mad at myself for leaving her when I turned 18 and then again when she was on her death bed. It pains me to think about how I probably made her feel after we’d created such a strong relationship and I then abandoned her in her time of need. Her funeral was the day before I was supposed to be married and made my wedding dress with her, had I not declared myself better than my high school sweetheart and better than the hometown I’d fled.
Life sometimes gives you second chances and I’ve been blessed with a second chance. A few months after I got engaged I decided to call my grandfather to see if there were even a slim change he still had Grandma’s handmade wedding dress. I remembered seeing it as a child in their attic, but it had been years. My grandfather confirmed that a few years ago he found it when he was cleaning out the attic and put it downstairs in his cedar chest since it seemed the mice were getting to it. Ecstatic, I asked if I could have Grandma’s wedding dress to somehow either incorporate into my wedding dress or to use to make something else. My grandpa said Grandma would have been honored.
During Christmas break I got to see the dress again and brought it home with me. I’ve been airing it out as I look at it and try to determine how I want to refashion it. I’d give anything for my grandma to still be here to help me make my wedding dress and attend my wedding. Since she’s not I’m going to instead have a piece of her at my wedding. I’m still working on what I’m going to do with it, but I’ll keep you posted as I come up with ideas. Feel free to let me know any thoughts you may have as well.