a stitch in time: “the grammar of silk” by cathy song

 

Ran across this Boomer Girls anthology a little while ago, and it’s all coming back to me now. As Rita Randazzo says in the opening lines of her poem, “The Sixties,”

I remember them/which proves I didn’t/ fully participate.

I may be slightly partial, but I think Baby Boomers are the finest generation. After all, we had the Mickey Mouse Club, Barbie, Beatlemania, bell bottoms, princess phones, saddle shoes, hula hoops, Woodstock, the counterculture, the civil rights movement, and were generally associated with individualism and social activism. 🙂

Since it’s Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, thought I’d share a poem by boomer girl Cathy Song, a native of Honolulu. Until I read her poem, I had almost forgotten about a special summer.

 

 

THE GRAMMAR OF SILK
by Cathy Song

On Saturdays in the morning
my mother sent me to Mrs. Umemoto’s sewing school.
It was cool and airy in her basement,
pleasant — a word I choose
to use years later to describe
the long tables where we sat
and cut, pinned, and stitched,
the Singer’s companionable whirr,
the crisp, clever bite of scissors
parting like silver fish a river of calico.

The school was in walking distance
to Kaimuki Dry Goods
where my mother purchased my supplies —
small cards of buttons,
zippers and rickrack packaged like licorice,
lifesaver rolls of thread
in fifty-yard lengths,
spun from spools, tough as tackle.
Seamstresses waited at the counters
like librarians to be consulted.
Pens and scissors dangled like awkward pendants
across flat chests,
a scarf of measuring tape flung across a shoulder,
time as a pincushion bristled at the wrist.
They deciphered a dress’s blueprints
with an architect’s keen eye.

This evidently was a sanctuary,
a place where women confined with children
conferred, consulted the oracle,
the stone tablets of the latest pattern books.
Here mothers and daughters paused in symmetry,
offered the proper reverence —
hushed murmurings for the shantung silk
which required a certain sigh,
as if it were a piece from the Ming Dynasty.

My mother knew there would be no shortcuts
and headed for the remnants,
the leftover bundles with yardage
enough for a heart-shaped pillow,
a child’s dirndl, a blouse without darts.
Along the aisles
my fingertips touched the titles —
satin, tulle, velvet,
peach, lavender, pistachio,
sherbet-colored linings —
and settled for the plain brown-and-white composition
of polka dots on kettle cloth
my mother held up in triumph.

She was determined that I should sew
as if she knew what she herself was missing,
a moment when she could have come up for air —
the children asleep,
the dishes drying on the rack —
and turned on the lamp
and pulled back the curtain of sleep.
To inhabit the night,
the night as a black cloth, white paper,
a sheet of music in which she might find herself singing.

On Saturdays at Mrs. Umemoto’s sewing school,
when I took my place beside the other girls,
bent my head and went to work,
my foot keeping time on the pedal,
it was to learn the charitable oblivion
of hand and mind as one —
a refuge such music affords the maker —
a pleasure of notes in perfectly measured time.

~ from Boomer Girls: Poems by Women from the Baby Boom Generation, edited by Pamela Gemin and Paula Sergi (University of Iowa Press, 1999).

 

*

Do you remember when you first learned how to sew? For me it was 8th grade home economics class. We had to sew a sleeveless A-line shift with two pockets in the front. I chose a textured pink cotton fabric for the dress and a pinkish floral print for the pockets.

Though I managed to pin and cut pattern pieces, baste the facings around neck and arm holes, and machine sew the side seams, the end product left much to be desired. I wore it, though, maybe once.

That summer, I took a four-week sewing class at our local Singer store. As my skills slowly improved, I was all gung-ho about scouring Simplicity and Butterick pattern books and making dresses that I could actually wear to school. Those were the days of mini prints, kettle cloth, peter pan collars, empire waists, peasant blouses, and yes, I even made a pair of yellow bell bottoms and turquoise satin pants!

 

 

Cathy’s poem took me right back to those good times. Her images are vivid, she describes the seamstresses at the counter perfectly, and I love how her narrative unfolds so organically. Best of all, she captured the “feel” of the place; I was right there.

Of course I knew about Kaimuki Dry Goods, but didn’t get my supplies there, since it was downtown. One of my girlfriends’ grandmothers worked there — she was a whiz at replicating Cher’s outfits and I was so envious!

The dry goods store was indeed a sanctuary for women in those days, and it was usually a place of such calm and joyful purpose. I can just hear those sharp scissors cutting through cloth, marveling at how precisely everything was measured and folded, appreciative of how gentle, helpful and knowledgeable the ladies were. Back then, most of the reputable dry goods stores were owned by local Japanese. First opened in 1926, Kaimuki Dry Goods is still a thriving family business today.

 

 

Finally, I love the mother-daughter bond described in the poem, how they, like others, “paused in symmetry.” Though my own mother did not sew beyond simple repairs, she did have my grandmother’s sewing machine in her bedroom, and she encouraged me to take sewing lessons, just like the narrator’s mom in the poem. In her way, she, too, wanted me to “learn the charitable oblivion/of hand and mind as one . . . a pleasure of notes in perfectly measured time.”

Sometimes the right poem can help stitch together a cherished, almost forgotten memory. Sew perfect! 🙂

*

The lovely and talented Elizabeth Steinglass is hosting the Roundup. Be sure to zip on over to check out the full menu of poetic goodness being shared around the bloggy world this week. Oh, and Happy Mother’s Day (with special hugs for those like me who are missing their moms). ♥️


Copyright © 2019 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.

37 thoughts on “a stitch in time: “the grammar of silk” by cathy song

  1. I think this is a beautiful post….not only for Poetry Friday but also for our upcoming Mother’s Day. My mother was one of those Boomer Girls. I took nothing of her sewing prowess with me into life…except a lot of memories. Thank you for this poem and this experience of thinking about mothers and daughters this way, this morning.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Linda, and hooray for Boomer girls :). There’s a greater truth at work in this poem, too, I think — mothers want their daughters to have opportunities they didn’t have. I can still picture my grandmother’s sewing machine and remember learning to use the treadle.

      Like

  2. I have always loved the Boomer Girls anthology Jama, and also lamented I never submitted poems for it hahah! Thank you for this beautiful reminder about this book. 🙂 And Cathy Song is a marvelous poet.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Oh, Jama, I did love this post! It took me back, as well. The poem was so evocative, and I loved your personal memories. My first oeuvre was an A-line shift, (and how I loathed home economics!) as well, but pockets were above my pay grade! Later, I sewed all my own clothes and our daughters’ as well–until I went back to teaching full-time. My sewing machine began rusting out in Hawaii and gave up the ghost in Minnesota; I think the snow was too much for it :)Thank you for sweet memories of those times!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. You must have been a good seamstress to sew all your own clothes + your daughters’! As it turns out, I didn’t really stick with sewing so never developed into a seamstress as skilled as my some of my aunts were. It was fun while I was doing it, though :).

      Like

  4. That poem–so beautiful and moving andt I love all of the sensory language and imagery here Thank you for sharing it!

    I did learn in 7th grade home ec class, and I wish I had kept up with it. My husband even bought me a sewing machine many, many years ago now, and sadly, I’ve never even used it :(. My daughter has used it to make pillows, and things for her friends. I was intimidated by the thought of threading it…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Good to hear your daughter is using the machine even if you never did. Sewing is actually a relaxing activity — at least when things are going well. 🙂

      Like

  5. Pinned. Enchanting in the true sense of the word, I was taken back, back, back to a slice of life from those times. I’m putting this book on my list. Thank you, Jama!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s certainly been fun browsing the poems in this book. Amazing how familiar some of the experiences sound, even though these women lived in such different environments than I did. It’s reassuring to identify this commonality. Go boomers!

      Like

    1. I admire people who are good at sewing. There’s a certain calm about them, too. Any time you can see tangible results of your labors it feels good.

      Like

  6. The language chosen to make us “see” is so wonderful, Jama. Yes, I remember those times, how much we looked forward to seeing Cher’s newest outfits. I sewed with my grandmother & mother, was in a 4-h class for a while before we moved to the city & made an apron, an apron! for heaven’s sake. But I see it still, pink flowers with a long tie (the hardest to make). Ingrid got a sewing machine for her birthday last year, has been sewing a bit, but is busy, too, with all her other activities. She is learning though. I still have a few patterns of long ago, made quite a few things for my daughter in grade school, but after that, she was not interested, of course. Memory lane today for sure! Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I was amazed at how my friend’s grandmother could just look at a picture of Cher’s clothes and then draft her own patterns of the outfits. Sounds like you have pleasant memories of sewing with your mother and grandmother. Love hearing about your apron — some things we never forget! Good to know Ingrid is also learning to sew — it’s one of those life skills that is always good to have.

      Like

  7. I love this poem for all the reasons you mentioned. My mother sewed by hand, and only when necessary- to replace a button, hem a skirt, etc. The first time I used a sewing machine was in home ec class. I was not good at it, and never really enjoyed sewing. My sister took to it right away, She makes the most beautiful quilts and gifts for the family. I wish I had the patience to learn!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Your sister sounds like a whiz! I admire those who can make beautiful quilts and all kinds of homemade gifts. Sewing is not for everyone, though — we each have our own talents. I find I am less patient as I get older.

      Like

  8. She was determined that I should sew
    as if she knew what she herself was missing,
    a moment when she could have come up for air —

    Hoo, boy, isn’t this familiar. Mom is an indifferent seamstress – she can do it, she made me a white suit – but she doesn’t love it. She SO wanted me to get into it, and get those skills and loves she does not have, but alas… we had a church-based Scouts type of group where I made an apron… well, most of an apron. I ran out of time, Jama, so I …um, glued it.

    See, if you give me a GLUE GUN I’m fine, right? But I’m a terrible knitter, can’t get past the first line of crochet, a fairly dreadful pianist, but…still, I keep trying. Because while there’s life, there’s hope. I started practicing ukulele, and can play three chords, as of yesterday. I await the day when I can play my Mom a song – and then maybe she’ll start her guitar lessons again, knowing at least ONE of us managed. There must be hope for us still to fulfill our mother’s dreams …

    Liked by 1 person

    1. No one can accuse you of not trying new things. Love that you’re tinkering with the ukulele. Actually you can play a lot of different songs with only three chords :). Had to smile at the glue gun apron thing — at least you came up with a unique way to finish it.

      Like

  9. Such a great poem, Jama! I dabbled in sewing some, but never learned properly. I still would like to one day. I can relate “the charitable oblivion/of hand and mind as one” to other aspects of my life though… like knitting. 🙂

    Like

  10. This poem makes me want to learn to sew! I took home ec but stunk at it. (I’m sorry to say that home ec wasn’t an option for my kids.) We also took shop, and that isn’t something my kids had either. Too bad!
    I have a sewing machine that I still believe I will get around to learning to use some day 🙂

    Like

  11. I enjoyed reading your memories and the poem. I can relate through my daughter who has learned the joy of sewing, but it escaped me. My few sewing experiences ended in disaster. I do admire those who can create with needle and thread and machine.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. I enjoyed this poem and your memories. I learned to sew in high school and took classes through to grade 12 where we made a three layered winter coat. I loved mine and wore it for years until my body shape changed and it no longer fit me. Mrs T was my favourite teacher. As we sat around the table sewing, we had deep conversations about feminism.
    We had a store in town with a basement for fabric and notions. I remember the joy of wandering around admiring the different fabrics and trying to decide what to make. I still sew a lot of my own clothes and make shirts for my sons and husband.
    Thanks so much for the trip down memory lane.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wow, you sound like an amazing seamstress. Your winter coat must have been awesome. Kudos to you for making shirts for your sons and husband too!

      Like

  13. Thanks for this gorgeous poem Jama, I’ll have to hunt down the book. First sewing experiences, I remember mine–a pair of pants that ended up a bit shy on the bottom, alas my mom suggested adding a band of fabric around each leg. Well I could only improve from there. My daughter Rachel was accepted into the Fashion program in February, at the Chicago Art Institute where she’s going to school. Although I can sew quite well now, I recently told Rachel the thing that keeps me away from sewing is the frustration that emerges from that darn machine, and she knew exactly what I was talking about. Thanks for your reflections and the fun post. Happy Mother’s Day!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. So cool to hear about Rachel. Talent and creativity run in your family. Your mom had a good suggestion about adding fabric to your pants legs. Reminds me of the resourcefulness of my seamstress aunts.

      Liked by 1 person

  14. I am so glad to have read your post AND all the comments. As I was reading I was remembering my mother’s sewing and my 8th grade home ec class. i made a dark green plaid wrap around skirt. When I took home ec. the girls still did sewing and the boys did some kind of industrial drawing, but I’m pretty sure I was among the last classes that were divided up that way. i thought perhaps sewing had become a lost art, but I am happy to see from the comments that there are still many people sewing and finding enjoyment in it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Nice to hear about your green plaid skirt, Liz. Times have definitely changed — no compulsory home ec anymore. I didn’t mind taking it (the baking unit was fun), and back then it seemed normal to separate boys and girls (the boys took wood shop or auto mechanics, I think).

      Like

  15. What a lovely poem, jama. I learned a few basics in Home Ec- how to sew a button and very basic stitching by hand. However, my daughter took an interest in sewing when she was probably around 8 or 9. I enrolled her in a class at a local sewing supply store. She made some reallly lovely things, including her own Christmas dress one year. She doesn’t sew much anymore, but the poem you shared brought back some sweet memories. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Everything about this poem and post takes me back to my childhood. My mother was a seamstress extraordinaire who was trained by her absolute perfectionist home ec teacher mother. I could not be bent to a perfectionist’s will, but Mom wanted me to learn to sew, so I had lessons downtown with Rita Lounge, who was much more tolerant of my “good enough” mentality. The description of the fabric store and the ladies who work there could be of Orth’s Department store. And oh, the anticipation of buying the pattern, the material, and all the other supplies needed to make something from scratch. Sigh. Thank you for this trip down memory lane!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for sharing about your mother, grandmother, and your own sewing lessons. Seems to be a universal thing — those ladies working in fabric stores — so kind, helpful, attentive and skilled. It was definitely exciting getting to pick out a new pattern and material, envisioning another new creation.

      Liked by 1 person

  17. My mother and grandmother were both talented seamstresses. If they didn’t make me new clothing, they altered the store bought to fit better. Only now do I realize what a luxury that was! Thanks so much for sharing this poem with its evocative images, like “the crisp, clever bite of scissors
    parting like silver fish a river of calico.” I also enjoyed reading about your memory. The only thing I ever truly sewed was a dress for my young daughter, and I was lucky enough to have a good friend take me step by step through the process. Thanks for sparking that memory!

    Liked by 1 person

  18. I shopped at Kaimuki Dry Goods a few times! They were lovely! But I didn’t do very much sewing when I was raising 4 kids. I did make my daughter a few dresses. She loved the long muus.

    Like

Comments are closed.