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Posts Tagged ‘paintings’

treadle sewing machine

Alzheimer's took away even the memory of the sound of a sewing machine for a professional seamstress.

I could barely hear it as my mother asked, “What’s that humming sound?” Pointing in the direction of the bedrooms she continued, “It’s coming from over there.” Having just arrived, I paused, and with neither of us saying a word I too wondered what we were hearing.  Following the hum it led us into a bedroom where there were two large oak dressers, a few chairs and an industrial sewing machine from her years of owning a custom-made-fashions shop with my sister, Janet, in San Francisco.

Mama was fast approaching the middle stage of Alzheimer’s with lots of cognitive loss, but she periodically remembered bits and pieces from her past when something familiar triggered her memory.  Apparently, she had passed by the bedroom earlier that morning, and recognized her sewing machine.  Or perhaps it was the small rip in her slacks which needed to be mended that brought her to what had been so familiar. Sitting down in front of her old “friend,” her hand could have automatically reached over and flipped the switch turning on the motor of her outdated, but still efficient, sewing machine.  With the fickleness of Alzheimer’s her reasoning probably vanished no doubt leaving her to wonder why she was sitting there. Puzzled, she got up and walked away – leaving the motor running.

Conjecture for sure, but AD is often guesswork.  I turned the motor off and pulled the plug from the wall knowing that if she had gone further in an effort to mend her slacks, the speed and power of the needle could have seriously damaged her fingers.  With the humming noise stopped my mother returned to be with my father while I lingered.  Nostalgia swept over me as I rubbed my hand over the solid wood “apron” which housed the “beast” as Janet called the powerful machine.  My thoughts were of Mama and the woman she was other than a parent with three grown daughters – the woman she was before AD had ravaged portions of her brain.

My mother, Irene, had been blessed with endless talents: articulate, funny, inventive, tall and beautiful to look upon and delicate in appearance, but strong in every practical sense.  She also had an artistic flair that touched just about every aspect in the field of fine arts.  Phenomenal designs or a painting quickly took shape as her pencil, charcoal stick or pastels skated across a blank sheet of paper.  These natural talents were gifts with which she had been born, and developing them to their utmost had been one of her goals.

While artistic design was her passion sewing came naturally from a long line of women progenitors; each woman teaching her girls the skills and practicality of stitchery in all of its forms. During the Great Depression, my mother supplemented my father’s sporadic and meager income by sewing custom-made clothes for women of means.  Her skills plus a designer’s genius and fitting expertise caused her customer’s to exclaim, “Irene is a wonder.” My sisters and I agreed, and we all looked forward to our 10th birthday when she would begin teaching us dress making and tailoring on her old treadle Singer sewing machine.  My two older sisters had already reached that pinnacle.

Being the youngest, I could hardly wait to be ten.  With small pieces of fabric from Mama’s scrap box I envisioned what dresses I could make for my dolls once I learned to sew.  Every so often when my mother was out of sight I sat in front of the sewing machine with my pieces of cloth and tried stitching them together.  Watching Mama many times as she worked, I knew the steps about putting the pressure foot in place, giving the wheel a pull and coaxing the treadle to move with my feet.  I could never do it right – the treadle thing –back and forth, back and forth so the pulley turned the wheel in the right direction.  I failed each time leaving the threads from the needle and bobbin tangled or broken.  Quietly, I would slip away never telling anyone of my attempt, but I’m sure Mama knew I was the culprit who kept messing up the threads.  I wondered if I would ever master the foot rhythm.

Months before my 10th birthday I came home from school to find Mama removing the contents from the sewing machine’s drawers.  I sensed it was more than just cleaning and asked what she was doing.  “We’re getting a new sewing machine,” she happily informed me, “a new electric Singer.”  With instant tears spilling from my eyes I plopped down in a nearby chair. Feeling betrayed, I could not share in her joy, and tears came because she was trading in the old treadle for some new-fangled electric machine that disappeared into a desk.  I just knew I would never be allowed to touch – much less sew on it until …. I couldn’t even imagine when.  My dolls would be forever naked.  “Now I’ll never learn how to sew,” I sniveled.

Placing the drawer back into its slot, Mama rose from her chair and knelt down beside me.  “Now, what makes you believe that?” she asked.  “The new sewing machine is too good for me to use.   I might break it,” I whimpered.  “How would you like to be the very first one to sew something on the new ‘Singer?’” Mama offered.  My tears turned off like an empty cloud.  “Could I – really?” I questioned, “even if I’m only nine,” not sure of what I was hearing.  “You will be the first,” she promised – and I was.

With my hand still resting on the “beast” I remembered my wedding dress designed and sewn by my mother, and then there was my graduation suit of light-weight pink wool featuring a peplumed jacket trimmed with black cording on the collar, cuffs and the small strip of belting attached at the waist back.  It was exquisite, and when I wore it I was stunning.  My mother had taught me to sew nearly as skillfully as she, but for special garments there was nothing like Irene’s original creations.

Standing there musing I wondered when she had stopped being that fabulous, creative person I had known.  What had been her last sewing project and how long since she had painted a meadow filled with blossoming apple trees or the ocean’s waves pounding the shore?  When was it that Alzheimer’s had stilled her artistic fingers, devouring the brain cells which fed her talents?  What subtle variations about his wife had my father noticed that brought about his decision to change their comfortable life?

My parents had moved from their wonderful retirement home in the country outside of Sebastopol, California in the late 1980s when Dad admitted they could no longer be so far from family because of Mama’s declining mental health.  Finding a house just a few short blocks from me and Ken was the perfect solution to their needs.  My father had always said, “I don’t want to live with you, just near you in our own home.”  With help a few minutes away he was able to care for most of her needs, or call us in an emergency.  Nevertheless, I didn’t wait for a call. Instead I stopped by at least once a day, knowing how lonely he was, and to make sure all was well.  Important too – I doubt my father would have heard the beast’s motor running with his poor hearing.

I was glad to be there for them, and within the next few years it would be more of the little things, the gradual changes made by Alzheimer’s insatiable appetite that Dad and I would observe in caring for my mother. Irene would regress from the woman we fondly remembered, spinning down through the years of her life eventually becoming a sweet-natured child who spent afternoons with her mother who — she insisted — was me.

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Ann Romick as matron of honor for her best friend, Julie

Ann Romick as matron of honor for her best friend, Julie

Last week my friend Bob came for a visit.  We hadn’t seen him and his wife, Julie, since they celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary the summer of 2006.  She died on Thanksgiving Day last year.  For me, it still seems unreal and difficult to grasp.  After all, it was only yesterday – or so it seems — that she and I chatted on the phone just like old times, the gaps in time and distance vanishing as soon as we began talking.

Julie and I met while working in the 22-story office building on the corner of Bush and Sansome Streets in San Francisco which was better known long before the 1950s and early 60s as The Standard Oil Building of California (now Chevron).  The two of us were employed by the mega oil company and assigned to Central Steno, located in a gigantic room taking up most of the 2nd floor.  It was filled with copy machines, typists, stenographers, Dictaphone operators, Varatypists and all sorts of other specialists in the clerical department.

Despite Central Steno’s enormity and scattered personal, Julie and I bumped into one another at the morning coffee wagon and became instant friends.  She, newly arrived from Santa Barbara, and I, a local, could have been sisters. We looked alike, we thought alike and often dressed in similar outfits, except her waist was at least three inches smaller than mine requiring alterations on all of her clothes. However, we did have one other major difference: Julie was single and I was married to Ken with an adorable little girl, Deborah, and number two peeking up over the horizon in the not-too-distant future.

We lunched together, shopped together, and talked about her latest date or current beau — none of whom seemed to be Mr. Right.  If her weekend was uneventful I invited her to spend it with me and Ken at our new home across the bay from the city.  When number two baby arrived we named the little girl Julie after my new best friend.

The following summer Julie met Bob.  It was July 1st and they were married September 8th.  A whirlwind courtship and two months after meeting they tied the proverbial knot. I was her matron of honor.  And the skeptics said it wouldn’t last – only 54 years.  Bob was career Air Force and they traveled all over the world adding a girl and then a boy to their family tree. Meanwhile, she was the officer’s good wife, but still found time to study and develop her natural artistic talents — all in addition to being the best mom in the world to their growing children.

We kept in touch.  Then we didn’t, then we did, and then we didn’t, but we did manage to hold on to that thin golden thread which tied our busy lives together with short notes and cards sent every once in a while. That’s how good friendships are, and that’s where we were when my phone rang nearly five years ago.  It was Julie and she asked once again if I would stand up for her as she and Bob renewed their wedding vows in celebration of a half century of marriage.  Bob’s best man and his wife would be in attendance as well as lots of friends and family.  I reminded Julie of Ken’s Alzheimer’s, but told her I would make every effort, keeping her updated through email.

In spite of Washington state’s reputation for rain, the weather that summer’s day was fabulous:  blue skies and balmy breezes.  Ken’s proclivity to be social was at its best as he made friendly conversations with the other guests minus the stumbling blocks often associated with AD.

Bob and Julie wrote their own vows for the occasion, and this time she said she wasn’t going to repeat that “obey” thing.  They pledged, we clapped and smiled in approval, and they kissed – sealing another 50 years– the fates willing. No longer the whirlwind courtship love, it was now a comfortable love, the warm old-slippers kind of love, devoted love — the very best kind of love.  And now Bob was here with me and Ken – remembering — and Julie was gone.

I don’t believe Bob really expected to find Ken as deep into the depths of AD as he is.  “Ken’s gone,” he said after attempting to reintroduce himself and reminisce about some of our early times together.  I agreed, adding that Ken had pretty much forgotten everyone who was near and dear to him.  Occasionally, he will ask if I am his wife, wondering where his mother and father have gone – and his sister Loretta.  His persona seems to be “Buddy,” his mother’s young boy, the name I often use instead of Ken.  I believe it’s in that time zone where he feels most comfortable – if AD victims can ever feel truly comfortable in their confused and frightening world.

“I write about my AD journey with Ken in my blog,” I said to Bob.  “It keeps me sane – writing is therapy for me.”  “That’s why I do this,” he replied.  “I take the celebration of Julie’s life to those people who knew her and have shared in a part of our life together.  This is my therapy.  There are so many people who couldn’t come to the service — so I’m bringing it to them.  Following the funeral there is hardly time to really talk with anyone for any length of time, and then it’s over and they’re gone.  So much is left unspoken.  When I bring the celebration to others, we get to spend time just talking.  It’s been a wonderful experience.”

As Bob and I talked I realized that while we two can empathize with each other and share our grief, the therapy part is a day-to-day process, and healing will be yet another process for both of us to achieve as individuals.  Furthermore, we can’t be forceful or anxious.  It all takes time.

And we talked about the increasing presence of Alzheimer’s everywhere.  Bob’s father was also a victim.  As the oldest son, he was elected to take his father to a care facility when he could no longer be cared for at home.  Life gives us all difficult experiences with which to cope.  I suppose in coping we become stronger. Perhaps adversity is preparing us for what might be heaped upon us at some future date.  Meanwhile, we just keep doing what we’re doing.

Julie had continued with her art and developed a rather impressive following.  Once Bob retired from the Air Force he realized she was serious about her work and told her how he had appreciated her supporting him all through the military.  He would now give her that same support with her chosen career.

Remembering their 15 years on Maui, he said that once, while gazing at a 20’ wall filled with her paintings, he stood in awe of what she was capable of creating.  In his travels he carries CDs of their life and her work.  In addition are four folding panel boards to display either photographs of the work, or small original samplings to share with those he visits.  And he tells of her early life, their serendipity meeting and San Francisco wedding as part of his informal presentation.

Before he left on his journey to Ventura, I told him his continuing celebration of Julie’s life was one of the loveliest gestures I have ever encountered.  Seeing so much of her beautiful art, and hearing stories of their years which Ken and I had missed, I felt privileged our family had been included.  I was also able to tell him a few stories of my own about his wife that he had never heard.

For a few days my focus was taken away from Alzheimer’s (for which I was grateful) and riveted on a long-time friendship and the grieving of a good man who had lost his soul mate.  Seldom do life-long partners depart the planet together which leaves the one remaining alone to mourn the separation. 

With my belief in eternal progression I am always comforted that we will meet again and be reunited with loved ones.  It’s like Samuel Butler wrote a very long time ago when people traveled to the “Continent” by way of the old luxury steamer ships, “Death is only a larger kind of going abroad.”  If you consider that, dying really isn’t goodbye – merely “Bon Voyage.”

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