Way back in a recess of my mind I am sitting in the backyard on East 19th Street in Brooklyn and it is early summer. My grandmother is sitting in one of those woven beach chairs with the light aluminum frame, like the one she uses when she sits out in front of her building in Borough Park, with all the other hairsprayed ladies in floral shift dresses and pointy shoes, watching the passersby.
We are sitting in the backyard with a small bag of name tags, my name printed on ribbons of fabric to sew into shirts and shorts and even socks, so that if my clothes wander off while I am at summer camp, I can get them back. My mother is there, too, and in between sewing on labels, my grandmother flips a shirt of mine inside out and shows me how to backstitch a fine line along where the collar has separated from the body of the shirt. How to leave a large loop in the last stitch and go through not one, but two times, before snipping the thread short. This is how you mend clothes, make them last longer, at least until I grow out of them and they get passed off to someone’s younger sibling.
On this day, my sister comes home from being at a friend’s house, and presents a rash on her inner elbows, on her abdomen. It is the chicken pox, which has come to our house and I am terrified of two weeks of itching, of pox in my throat, on my eyelids, of crusting scabs and itchiness and scars on my face. It’s a mild case, and in the end, nobody else catches it, not even me.
In Santiago, I sit at my desk with my computer open reading the instructions for how to make a simple mask. I use a needle threader to get the thread in the eye of the needle, a trick I used to think was funny when our next door neighbor Grace would mend clothes at the kitchen table, her ashtray never more than half an arm’s length away. She taught me how to pin two pieces of fabric together, and even how to make a hand puppet out of felt, using a decorative blanket stitch on the outside.
I haven’t done this, haven’t cut fabric or made a thing out of cloth and needle and thread since the 80s. And here I am, with needles that I bought from a vendor who came on the bus one day in Santiago after a friend had told me that she always bought things from the street vendors, un pequeño aporte, (a small way to help), so I bought some, too, though at the time, I couldn’t imagine what I’d ever use them for. Some thread that I don’t know where it came from, the white thread I found in a box of beads, the black spools in another box, the contents of which my mother might have called chazerai, random bits of junk. I imagine the tomato pin cushion with (inexplicably) a dangling strawberry filled with something that sounded like sand, used to sharpen pins and needles that used to grace everyone’s sewing basket. Back when we all had sewing baskets.
And I sew. I cut and sew and turn inside out and pleat, and when I am done I have built a piece of safety out of nostalgia and tea towels that I bought at Trader Joe’s long before I could imagine any of this, and when all of these adult women, my grandmother, Grace and my own mother were not my daily muses for most endeavors. I tie my mask on and wear it to the supermarket, to the verdulería, as I go on one of my twice-weekly allowed (for now)outside trips, and I think about how I’m thirsty, but how once I touch my mask it’s as good as contaminated, so I will wait until I am home and can properly decontaminate, stripping down in the kitchen and dropping everything I had on outside, including the mask in the washing machine and then washing my hands.
I would like any of you to get Covid-19 even less than I wanted to get the chicken pox. I want you all to be safe and smart and follow best practices, including social isolation and quarantine where necessary, and one day grow old enough to be someone’s old lady (or person) friend who teaches them to sew with uneven stitches with the thread that came from who knows where.