Late into the night the whining of a commercial sewing machine filled the house. The culprit was in the basement. In my bedroom, with door closed and pillows over my head, the repetitive starting and stopping sounds throbbed within my skull. An exasperated eleven year old, I wanted the noise to stop.
As months passed one machine became two. Then there were four. Four became eight. Toys and signs of family life were banished from the basement; a business was being birthed in our home.
An injury forced father to leave the ministry and move us back to our hometown. How would my stay-at-home mother with five children under age eleven, without skills or diploma, support our family? Cottage industries were an option for those that sewed. Mother couldn’t sew but quickly learned. Unconvinced of her earning potential, she realized the money lay in managing labor, not being a laborer. Outgrowing the basement, she purchased a burned-out bakery several miles away.
Late into the night the sobbing of young children filled the house. Though the commercial machines were gone from the basement, so was my mother. The youngest of five was still in diapers yet the dress factory became mother’s new baby and preoccupation. She longed to nurse her vision into reality.
Overtime I understood that the nightly basement sounds I’d heard were foretelling more than a new career. They warned me that mother, married at sixteen without prior ambitions, was going through metamorphosis, altering my family forever.
Father had to convert the dismal building into a professional place of business. My first visit was horrifying. The stench of burned timbers, melted asphalt, and debris nauseated me. It was barely safe to walk through piles of trash, damaged equipment, broken windows, and half standing walls. Small animals scurried out of nests as we toured this “great find” that now pried both parents away from home.
They rebuilt the structure but dismantled our family.
Gone was the smell of cookies baking after school. Attempts at family dinners meant my cooking and father coming to haul us and the meal to the factory. We held our plates while sitting or standing in the crowded front office, pretending it was family time. Constant interruptions shattered the fantasy. Dirty dishes and children were dropped off at home. We stopped attending church as a family. Holidays changed. At age eleven I became mother to my younger siblings.
To me entering the factory was leaving life. The closing of the heavy metal door behind me pronounced my doom. I’d never seen cold dark brown asphalt industrial floors or fluorescent lights hung on wires from paneled ceilings. Dark wood grain paneling covered the walls. Within seconds dust from material and thread penetrated my nostrils. Fine particles clung to hair and clothing. The air ranged from drafty near the windows to hot and humid at the pressing station where my grandfather worked. When fans blew pieces of material out of place they were turned off. Comfort wasn’t a priority.
Over time several work zones emerged. The main floor housed forty straight-needle sewing machines with bins on each side and the foreman’s work tables. On the paneled wall opposite the row of jalousie windows a telephone and stereo speaker were mounted. An adjoining room was designated for special machines; hemmer, button-hole, button-attaching, merrow and others. A reserved area seated hand-sewers performing highly skilled delicate details with mind-boggling speed and precision. An artist would envy the thread racks bearing an array of vivid colors so similar yet shades apart, each with whimsical names. Nearby were three commercial pressers, then the inspection area. Garments were ticketed, draped in plastic, hung on racks by size, and bundled for shipping. The employee lounge with the time-clock, bathrooms, refrigerator, coffee table, and vinyl couch replaced the original ovens.
Those seeing* the factory believed it a success.
I swore the day I married not to own a sewing machine - and I never have. Growing up in the industry left me with bitter-sweet memories. If asked which is most poignant I’d answer, “The sounds; repetitive starting, stopping, thumping machines; operators’ shouting for assistance; pressers’ bursts of steam; my heart’s sobs bidding farewell to an unlived childhood.”
The word ‘sewing’ stirs my inner child to put pillows over her head, wanting the noise to stop. Was I alone in hearing* the basement’s warning sounds?
Mother fastened and united* fabrics but tore and scattered our family.
Slowly our Heavenly Father is mending our torn lives.
*“He said, "The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of God has been given to you, but to others I speak in parables, so that, “‘though seeing, they may not see; though hearing, they may not understand.' ” Luke 8:10
*Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary; sewed; sewing; transitive verb; to unite or fasten by stitches
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