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.
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.