Renewing Grandma's Legacy of Love

I spent part of the afternoon mending a dark blue velveteen jumper. The hem had fallen out in places, and some threads of the hand-embroidered red flowers on the pockets had broken. Grandma Pearl made this jumper for me when I was two years old.

A few summers ago when I was visiting my parents, my mother opened the steamer trunk in the basement. Her wedding dress - satin with scalloped edges around the neck and sleeves - was there in a box, as were the elbow-length, ivory, fingerless gloves. Her shoulder-length veil was folded in tissue paper. When I saw my mother's wedding clothes, I imagined her as a bride at cherry-blossom time in Washington, D.C.

My mother rarely opened the trunk, and I'd forgotten what else was in it. I watched as my mother carefully pulled out flannel receiving blankets, a white-satin quilt embroidered with nursery rhymes, and the yellow corduroy coat I wore on a pier in California while telling my grandpa I was going to keep walking until I came to Japan.

She found my brother's sterling-silver rattle, my sister's cotton socks with birds on blue cuffs, and the dresses Grandma Pearl made for me when I was very small.

"I have other clothes, too, in bags in the storage room," my mother said. "I saved everything Grandma Pearl made for you children."

We looked through clothes, pouring them out of the translucent plastic bags they'd been zipped in for years: tiny coats with Peter Pan collars; white pinafores with ruffled shoulders; and plaid dresses with buttons as small as a baby's fingernail. My apricot-colored dress with English smocking and puffed sleeves, my dresses with yoke tucks and thin lace, my pleated skirts, rick-racked blouses, and tiered slips all tumbled onto the extra bed in the basement.

There were clothes that any child could wear, clothes only for girls, and clothes for boys. My mother and I sorted out the ones with stains, and categorized the rest. I didn't yet know what my baby would be. But when he or she was born in a few months, the right clothes would be ready for my mother to put in a box and send to me.

I picked up clothes I remembered wearing only because of black-and-white photos in our family albums. My mother had written dates and phrases in white ink on the black construction-paper pages: "Rachel at 22 months," "Daddy holding Rachel in Daleyville," "Rachel and cousin Beth wearing matching outfits."

"Here's the dress I wore in the pictures where I have a broken arm," I said.

"You were sleeping in a borrowed crib that fell apart, and you stuck cereal down your cast," my mother said as if I'd never heard the stories before.

"Here's the dress I wore in those Easter pictures when I was trying to decide if I liked having a baby brother," I murmured.

"You didn't really like him at first," my mother replied.

I refolded the Easter dress and put it in the "girl" pile.

"I always loved these dresses," my mother said. "Grandma Pearl had such fun finding the fabrics. Dad would send her pictures of you wearing your new clothes." She stroked a green organdy dress and a taffeta Christmas dress with a velvet collar.

My mother had saved them all.

Now, more than two years after the day my mother opened the steamer trunk, my daughter, Elizabeth, wears the clothes that Grandma Pearl made for me. My sister wore them after me, too. I pull the small clothes out of bags as Elizabeth grows.

I wash them, iron them, hang them on old hangers with pastel rabbit, rooster, and duck silhouettes, and help Elizabeth slip them on.

Grandma Pearl, my father's mother, made clothes out of remnants. She didn't need a pattern, but just kept track of my size. She went to department stores with a pencil and a pad of paper. She sketched what she liked. Then she went home and made it.

My grandmother grew up in a small town in Minnesota, one of the younger girls in a family of 14 children. As a child, she learned to tat and make doll quilts. In her early 20s, she taught home economics.

But like most young women who fell in love in the 1920s, she quit teaching before she married. My grandfather was a tailor who decided to become a minister.

GRANDMA PEARL sewed her own wedding dress - a red street-length dress (with covered buttons) that she could wear again later. She used to tell me that Grandpa Andy said he "rescued" her "from a violin player" with the excuse that "violin players never make any money." Grandpa Andy didn't have much money, either.

My grandparents lived far away, so I only saw them a couple of times a year. Until I was 10, though, Grandma Pearl sent me packages of clothes in the mail.

When she died I was old enough to miss her, old enough to remember her. I thought about her every morning when I decided what to wear.

Grandpa Andy gave me Grandma Pearl's wedding ring: two small diamonds on either side of a larger stone. I kept the ring in a velvet box for the longest time, taking it out only to hold it to the light and watch it sparkle.

When I was 16, my mother had the ring made smaller so I could wear it on my right little finger. It fit my ring finger, but I wouldn't wear it on that finger. It wasn't my wedding ring, but Grandma Pearl's.

After Grandma Pearl died, my mother started sewing my clothes. She needed patterns; she needed to relearn how to sew. For her, cutting out cloth and sewing it together was unnatural. As I became older, though, my mother taught me to sew. We both made my dresses, jumpers, blouses, and pants until I was in my early 20s. Then I took over the task.

I've never bought a dress. Store dresses don't seem quite right to me: I don't know who is responsible for them.

These days, Elizabeth says to me, "Who made this? Grandma Pearl?" about her clothes, about her toys, about her books, about her food, about the pincushion flowers my husband has started indoors for spring planting. In her own way, Elizabeth is learning that the things we need and enjoy are often there because of someone else.

I wonder if Grandma Pearl knew that my mother gently washed and saved what her mother-in-law had made from remnants. I wonder if my grandmother ever thought the little girl for whom she made velveteen jumpers and taffeta dresses would someday be repairing her stitches, readying them for a little girl Grandma Pearl would never know but perhaps had imagined.

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