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Previous Challenge Entry (Level 3 – Advanced)
Topic: Hum (06/06/13)

TITLE: Purring Penelope
By Marlene Bonney


I can still hear it sometimes in my dreams even now, as comforting as a mother’s embrace.

The old treadle sewing machine has long since stopped working and is stowed away in the corner of our attic, another retired relic of long ago, surrounded by a vintage rocking horse, a weather-beaten sea chest, and boxes of old phonograph records and yellowing photo albums.

When I was a youngster, Grandma Vi would caution me to keep my distance from that sewing machine, afraid I might get to investigating and get a stray curious finger sewn into one of her latest garments. I never told her that I had pricked my fingertip on its needle once when she was out of sight, my busy brain trying to make sense of how it poked holes and thread into cloth. Oh, the fun times we had together, when Grandma let me sort through the drawers of that sewing machine cabinet! Buttons and cloth squares for quilting and thimbles and bobbins filled with cascades of colors that could be rolled across the hardwood floor.

My bedroom shared a wall with Grandma’s sewing room (which had been Aunt Ruthie’s bedroom before she went off to college). Every night at bedtime, after saying my prayers, I would drift off to sleep, sawing logs whilst Grandma pumped the treadle and sewed and I knew all was right with the world.

Pump goes the treadle, spin goes the wheel, thump goes the needle, all purring in rhythm with each other.

I nicknamed that old treadle sewing machine “Purring Penelope”.

“Purring Penelope
Puts me to sleep;
Purring Penelope
Helps me count sheep.”

became my nighttime lullaby.

Having gone through The Great Depression, Grandma was industrious to a fault. According to Grandpa, she could stretch a dollar farther than the elastic on our fat neighbor lady’s skirt.

“Now, Paul, she really can’t help it, you know. It’s not Christian to make fun of her,” unsuccessfully hiding an embarrassed smile as she remembered how many times Mrs. Schmidt had asked her to sew longer elastic into her waistbands.

You name it, Grandma Vi could make it. Friends and neighbors were always bringing over their clothes that needed new zippers or enlarging or patching or altering in one way or another. As I got older, the humming got louder and I wondered that the sewing machine belt didn’t burn itself out. Once in a while, the old leather belt on Penelope would fly apart and Grandma would use a bent nail and some string to tie it all together again. She let me help with that, calling it a school lesson on “improvising”.

Pump goes the treadle, spin goes the wheel, thump goes the needle, all purring in rhythm with each other.

“Grandma, what’s your favorite thing to make?” watching, fascinated, as she guided material through the pounding needle, arthritic fingers dangerously close, “have you ever punched a hole in your finger? Did you ever make any mistakes?”

“Oh, Charlie-boy, what a question-box you are! Let’s see, I guess my favorite project was making Aunt Sophie’s wedding gown,” her eyes dreamy, “and, yes, I have had my share of needle stabs, but only when I am hand-sewing, like when I had to attach 500 pearls to that same wedding gown’s lace. And, heaven’s, yes! The mistakes have been many. I suppose next you’ll be asking me what my biggest mess-up was?”

I nodded vigorously.

“That would be the time I sewed your mother’s pink prom dress—I forgot to put in a zipper and we had to cut it to get it on her at the last minute, pasting it together with your pa’s electrical tape!”

Pump goes the treadle, spin goes the wheel, thump goes the needle, all purring in rhythm with each other.

I had a hard time getting to sleep on Sunday nights without the usual muffled humming of the sewing machine, since Grandma didn’t sew on the Sabbath, until I developed a rhythm with my toes sliding across the sheets in tune with another made up poem:

“Silent Penelope,
Cold and alone;
Rest, now, Penelope;
Soon ‘twill be morn.”

Grandma Vi passed away after I married, but not before making and storing away a lovely layette for my firstborn daughter. My mother not having Grandma’s gift of sewing, we lugged Purring Penelope up to the attic.

Sometimes I visit her there and think of bygone days spent with her and Grandma in Aunt Sophie’s old bedroom.

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Member Comments
Member Date
Lisa Johnson06/14/13
Your story brings back memories of my own Granny. She loved to sew and quilt, and tat and make lace. I wish I'd have known, when I was a child, how much I would miss her as an adult. I would have spent more time with her and learned all the things she knew how to do. They are lost and dying arts, I'm afaid.
Genia Gilbert06/14/13
This is touching and well done. I still have my mother's treadle machine, and although it doesn't have a name and no longer hums, it holds many memories. Great entry.
Francy Judge 06/16/13
I enjoyed your sweet story from the first sentence. A creative idea for the topic and well-written. Great job.