Tuesday, February 25, 2014

A Promise to Keep

Memories are like a loose thread dangling from a hem. You don’t remember it’s there until you feel a tickle against your leg or glimpse it in a mirror. The knowledge of that errant thread was always hidden in the nooks and crannies of memory. It just took something to niggle it to the front.
In my case, it wasn’t a tickle, but a sharp pin prick in the midst of rolling a Christmas banner for storage that called forth deeply buried images.  A speck of blood welled and blossomed at the end of my forefinger. When I got over the surprise of it, I looked for the cause of my discomfort. A slightly rusted straight pin tucked into a fold at the bottom of the banner resisted being pulled free. It had, after all, resided in the fabric for some 38 years and I suppose felt entitled to be there.
The Christmas banner is a glorious thing, 3’ x 4’ in size, and made by my mother, Melba Kent Kalkins. A tier of seventeen gathered pockets in a riot of colorful fabrics form a Christmas tree on one side. It was designed to hang flat against the wall with the aid of a painted broomstick threaded through the top of the banner and sports a golden cord and magnificent tassels.
It arrived by mail early one December. My small daughters and I were delighted in the discovery of this labor of love hidden beneath wads of tissue paper, because, you see, there was magic to it. Tucked into each pocket were two small presents––one for both little girls––to be opened every day leading up to Christmas.
A lump formed in my throat, as I lifted the banner to hang on the wall. For if our budget was tight, my mother’s was even tighter. She lived alone on a sales clerk’s salary, with employment always dicey. While the small gifts were unexceptional, a hair clasp or Tootsie Roll pop, a new pencil or pack of Old Maid cards, they were wrapped and tied with curling ribbon and might as well have been $100 bills to her granddaughters.
For years after, I restocked the pockets each Christmas until the girls outgrew the tradition. I’m not sure what made me remember the banner when my two grandsons were four and eight years old, but I pulled it out of storage and rejoiced at the still bright colors.
            The sharp prick to my finger was nothing compared to the ache I felt when the sudden image of Mom sitting in front of her old Singer sewing machine surged strong in my mind. With smoke unfurling from a cigarette held firmly between her lips, she plucked that very pin from a saucer and placed it just so in the layers of fabric. Then, without a doubt, held the banner up, tilted her head and squinted between wisps of smoke to check the placement, the even measurement, the color combinations.
            Although called a portable sewing machine, the Singer was heavy as a stove and required Herculean effort to lift. Through Mom’s many moves it always went with her and when the wooden cover became battle-scarred, she decoupaged magazine pages over the dents and scrapes. If it were not for Mom’s talent and that ancient lumbering machine, I wouldn’t have had the occasional new outfit for school or ruffled pillowcase for my bed. Indeed, I wouldn’t have had the required white dress for graduation. The old relic resides in my attic and, somehow, I’m reluctant to part with it.
How had that pin remained hidden for years, despite the banner being rolled and unrolled a million times? As I stared at my punctured finger, I wondered why now, it made its presence known. Then, I remembered––remembered finding Mom gazing out a hospital window in 1981. She was scheduled for brain surgery the next morning and conversation was hard. Not for her, but for me.
She smiled when I came up and we stood silent for long minutes. Finally I asked, “What are you thinking about, Mom?” I braced myself for the expected worry about the surgery’s success or failure. It was certainly what was on my mind.
Instead, she said, “I don’t want my grandchildren to forget me.” That so startled, so sucked my breath away that I stammered about, finally finding the voice to say, “I won’t let them forget.”
With a sigh, I resumed wrapping the banner for storage, when amid the rustle of paper, I heard a whispery query. “Do my great-grandsons know me? Have you told them who made the banner?”  Sadly, it took a pin prick to remind me of my long-ago promise. Next year, I’ll tack a picture of Mom on the Christmas banner. That way the boys will remember the ancestor who started a tradition so many years ago.
And, the pin? I encased it in a fold of scotch tape, ready to drop it in the trash can, then realized the last person to touch that pin was my mom. Would her fingerprint be on it, smudged by mine? I marched back to the bedroom and nestled the rusty, tape-encased pin in my jewelry case. Let someone else throw it away, someone that doesn’t have memories.

Did you know: The method used to secure two pieces of fabric has progressed from thorns and wooden skewers in the most ancient of times to bone, ivory, brass, and for the wealthy, silver and gold. Iron wire began to be used as early as the fifteenth century where the phrase, a “paper of pins,” signified owning possessions of the simplest nature. The process of electroplating improved durability in the mid-1800s; however, with wear the pins tended to rust and
required cleaning by stabbing them in bags of emery grit, giving rise to modern day pin cushions.