The Sewing Machine

“There’s no room for the Singer. And besides, you don’t sew anymore,” her daughter wearily said.

The Singer sewing machine had been in every apartment that Bessie lived in. This was not some modern-day portable number that could be shoved into the back of any closet. This Singer was a piece of solid mahogany furniture standing proudly on sumptuously sturdy legs that allowed for Bessie’s sumptuously sturdy legs to fit under when doing alterations. The wood had been stained and varnished to a mirror-like sheen by her husband, Joe, decades ago. With some Lemon Pledge and a pair of Joe’s old underwear it still could cast a glow over any room.

The Singer. This very machine had hemmed all her son’s dungarees and dress pants and let out her husband’s suits when he ate too much. Now the boys were gone. Off to their own lives. And her husband, Joe, was dead. It was true. Bessie never sewed on the machine anymore, but that did not lessen its importance.

“Mom, there is just no room for it”

The Singer was the centerpiece of her home for decades. The heart of three kitchens. Where else would you put the bowl of wax fruit and the collection of rubber bands left over from when her legally blind husband used them to know what glass or cup to use? One rubber band for a drinking glass. Two rubber bands for a coffee cup. And so on. A swell system until Bessie, in a clean frenzy, decided to strip all the glassware of their filthy rubber bands. The curses that came out of Joe’s mouth, when he went for a glass of water, would make a sailor blush. Now, the rubber band collection would have no place to live.

“It will fit,” demanded Bessie.

Bessie’s mother had been a seamstress during the depression. Her Singer with the heavy metal foot pedal was more ornate and elaborate than these newer models. Bessie’s eldest son remembered his old world grandmother with the thick-as-borscht accent yelling and chasing him away when, as a rambunctious five year old, he tried to play with those foot pedals.

“Get avay, you bed boy! Shoo! Shoo!”

Years later her younger son would ask, “Mom, what was the Depression like? Were you poor?”

“I never knew it even existed. My mother sewed for a living in the house and we always ate.”

“What did your father do?”

“He sat in the window and looked out at the street.”

“He didn’t work?”

“My mother worked. My father sat in the window. Now you know why I hate men.”

And now the man-hating Bessie was to be moved into her new home. The one room illegal studio apartment in the rear end of the mother-daughter house that her daughter and granddaughter shared was a far cry from the four room apartment she had spent most of her adult life cleaning.  There was barely room for a single bed, her large black leather recliner, a chest of drawers from Ikea and her kitchen set. No couch. No side tables.

No sewing machine.

This back room had once been the laundry room and now was equipped with a kitchen consisting of a sink, minimal counter space and an electric stove.

“I like gas. I can’t cook on this.”

“Electric is safer for a woman your age. You’ll get used to it.”

“Like I got used to living in the hooker motel?”

Bessie’s daughter and son-in-law had sold their house right under Bessie’s nose when Joe died. The three room apartment sat behind their house in the backyard was a comedown, but at least there was a living room, kitchen and bedroom. And room for the Singer.  Now, with no house or apartment and the delays of the builders on the mother-daughter abode, Bessie was forced to live in a motel room with her daughter and son-in-law. She slept in one double bed while they slept in the other. For months.

And now, as the piece de resistance (and boy did Bessie resist!) she was to be moved into this backroom that was slightly better than the hooker motel.

After all the furniture was moved in, the sewing machine sat waiting for its place of honor. It waited in the back yard on an uneven cement patio. It waited in despair while Bessie arranged and re-arranged the cramped room. The choices were few. The single bed could only go on one wall, leaving little space for the chair or the cheap kitchen set. And forget about the TV. It would have to sit on the dresser that took up another wall. Bessie would just have to look up when watching her shows while reclining in her chair. But with a little nudge here and there the room was set up. Her clothes were another matter.

Bessie had always been a fashion plate. Clothes were her life. Even at 87 she woke each day, put on her makeup (“Mom, one eyebrow is higher than the other. You look half surprised.”) and went to her big double closet to choose her ensemble. Now that big double walk-in closet was replaced by one small alcove with plastic shelves and a rod that held hangers. Where to put all the new Annie Sez couture?

“You don’t need all those clothes,” her daughter said. “Where do you go?”

“I go! You don’t have to know everything about my life.”

That very life was shrinking. Shrinking like her room and her closet. No space for anything anymore.

Where did she go dressed in her best and all made up? She pushed her shopping cart, which also acted as secret walker to help her balance, across a four lane highway to the Shop Rite. She stopped in CVS and complained about her daughter to the cashiers.

“She put me in a box. A little box of a room. I hate it. When she and her sister were little, my husband and I bought a Castro Convertible and slept on it in the living room so that they could have the master bedroom. Now, as my reward, I’m living in a cracker box.”

When she ran out of complaints she went home. If you could call it that.

Yes, life was shrinking.

* * *

“Mom! Mom!”

The yelling woke Bessie up from her boredom induced nap in the chair. Was she dreaming? What was that burning smell?

“You left the pot on the stove and the burner was on full force. You can’t put up a pot of soup and then go to sleep. Mom! Are you listening to me? You’ll burn the house down.”

Bessie rubbed her eyes and looked at her irate daughter yelling at her from above.

“I’m going to have to unplug the stove and you’ll have to just call me when you want to cook something.”

Bessie just sighed loudly and closed her eyes again until her daughter left to be replaced by her ten-year-old great-granddaughter.

“Do you wanna play rummy, Bubbe? A quarter a point?”

Bessie carefully and fitfully lifted herself out of the recliner and started for the door.

“Come help me move the Singer into the room. It’s sat out there for months now being rained on. And I swear I could hear it crying at night. Crying for the old days when it had a use. Crying for the long lost times of activity and when needles were sharp and could prick your skin and prove that there was blood in you. It’s not right for a Singer to sit out in the wind and rain and weep. Help me bring it in.”

By this time, Bessie was out in the yard, followed by her great-granddaughter.

The sewing machine was gone. Vanished.

“Where did it go? It was just here. It was just here. I heard it crying last night in the windstorm. I got up and looked out the window and it called to me. How could it go so fast?”

“Bubbe, they took that old sewing machine away months ago when you first moved in. Come back in and let’s play cards. I promise to let you win this time.”

But Bessie kept looking in the yard for the Singer. She looked behind the shed with the door that didn’t close and next to the garbage cans near the broken down barbeque that was never used anymore. She could not believe her Singer was carted off without so much as a fare-thee-well. Carted off to where? Was there a graveyard for sewing machines? Was there a home where they all went to be re-purposed for another life?  Where did the Singer go? Is it now with her mother’s old machine with the foot pedals? Why didn’t she insist the sewing machine be brought in from the cold back when she moved in? Why? And if it was really gone all these months, what was the sobbing and crying she heard every night? Where did it come from?

Bessie came back into her cracker box apartment and sat down at the kitchen table. She listened for the crying, but heard nothing but a police siren in the distance. There was a plate of tilapia and wild rice sitting in front of her. She touched the fish. It was ice cold.

“Bubbe, you forgot to eat your dinner again last night?”

“I wasn’t hungry. Those dungarees you’re wearing are too long. If I had my machine I would hem them for you.”

“I don’t need them hemmed. Mom says I’ll grow into them.”

“Nobody needs anything anymore.”

“I need to play rummy with you.”

“You do?”

“It’s the best part of my day.”

“Sure. You like to steal my money. Okay. Fine.”

Bessie’s great-granddaughter smiled broadly and sat down at the table with the deck of cards across from her Bubbe.

“Come on,” said Bessie. “Don’t dawdle. Time is fleeting. Shuffle and deal.”

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About Stephen Cole 0 Articles
Stephen Cole is an award winning, internationally produced, published and recorded writer. His produced musicals include After the Fair, The Night of the Hunter, Dodsworth, Saturday Night at Grossingers, Casper-The Musical, Inventing Mary Martin, Piano Bar, The Road to Qatar!, Time after Time, Rock Odyssey, Merlin's Apprentice, Aspire (the first American musical to be commissioned and performed in the Middle East), and others have been produced from New York City to London to Australia to Qatar. Several are available on CD and have been published as well. His awards include the prestigious Edward Kleban Award, five Dallas Theatre League Awards, an Outer Critic's Circle nomination for Best Off Broadway Musical, an Honorable Mention for Best Lyrics from the NY Musical Theatre Festival and the Gilman-Gonzalez Falla Commendation for his work in Musical Theatre. His books include a biography of Noel Coward and That Book About That Girl (recently republished digitally), an official companion to the famous Marlo Thomas TV series and the critically acclaimed Marni Nixon’s memoir I Could Have Sung All Night (soon to be a major motion picture). Stephen has written material for such stars as Christine Baranski, Marlo Thomas, JoAnne Worley, Christine Ebersole, Chita Rivera, Hal Linden, Gavin MacLeod, Dorothy Loudon, Liz Smith, Mike Wallace and many others. As a producer/director he has put together an all-star tribute to Kander and Ebb for the Morgan Library starring Liza Minnelli, Barbara Cook and David Hyde Pierce, and a series of CD’s culled from his private collection entitled Mermania. Current projects include Goin' Hollywood, Merman's Apprentice The Black and White Ball for the theatre and a novel in progress about Ethel Merman and Mary Martin and their fabulous rivalry and secret friendship entitled Sacred Monsters.

7 Comments

  1. The Sewing machine, sort of , punched me in the gut. Bessie , though obviously loved, has ,unintentionally, had to deal with her physical world getting smaller. Suddenly , the realization that purging myself of hundreds of LP albums.. because my smaller quarters could not accommodate them… my “ sewing machine”. I am a Bubbe too

  2. What a wonderful story. So sad in a way that it made me think of my grandfather who was living in a home for the aged . It made me remember the card games I would make him happy with when I came to visit. My grandmother had passed away and he was so lonely even with all the people around him. I remember his face lighting up when he would see me and he immediately would take the cards out and we’d play a game called “Casino” and when I beat him, he was still sharp enough to know what I was doing.

  3. So real. So heartbreaking. Stephen Cole possesses a clear view into a natural and growing life situation. He opens the way for us to view it, too.

  4. Stephen has a talent for finding the right lens and the right focus. I feel for Bubbe. But so does the youngster. Makes me remember my in-laws playing Uno with their neglected granddaughter.

  5. This is a beautiful tale. Simply and beautifully told. And it pulled a wee heartstring here … in the 1950s I was allowed to use Mama’s Singer, which slept nights in the little cupboard under the stairs that led to my bedroom. My grandfather had been a tailor, so Mama made all our clothes. They are all dead now, but lovely warmhearted tales like this one bring it all back …

  6. A poignant story about a life shrinking and slipping away. Stephen Cole brings images of his feisty mother together with the productive and highly prized sewing machine that is wrenched away from her as is her wardrobe, her space, her pride. This should not be the aging person’s fate. Cole shows his tenderness for his mother and however he may have fictionalized the story, it rings true – a caution for all who may one day be in Bessie’s situation. Beautifully written!

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