My mother always told me that the nuns taught her how to sew.
You know what that means, don’t you? Every garment must be as neat on its back as its front, each running stitch identical. All dresses are lined; every pleat is tailor-pressed. If you can’t make a proper French Knot, you might find a ruler-toting nun placing one around your neck.
But my mom always laughed when she talked about her Catholic dressmaker days. When she made outfits for my dolls, she never got around to putting snaps on the backs. She remarked that my high school Home Ec teacher seemed like “an awful old frump,” and finished my final project for me, drinking a beer.
Was there more to this sartorial nun-training than met the eye? Before my mother died a couple years ago, she opened up on a number of topics, including some schoolgirl memories I’d never heard before.
She grew up, as “Betty Jo,” one of five in a Depression-era, Irish-Catholic ghetto in St. Paul. The church was the center of social life and cultural identity. A nun might be someone a young girl would look up to.
“Not all of the nuns were old, either,” Mom told me. Her sewing teacher was the youngest novice, Sister Marie, who adored— adored!— fashion.
When Betty Jo couldn’t decide on a plaid skirt or a middy blouse, Sister Marie pushed those patterns aside, and pointed to a Vogue magazine cover: “What about this?”
It was a one of those sexy Lauren Bacall numbers, a siren dancing dress.
“Sister told me she had some red silk she would give me, if I would make it.”
“She had four yards of red silk stashed in a convent?” I asked.
Mom rolled her eyes at me. Clearly I had no idea of the treasures secreted in nunneries. “Well, that was in the days when I had a nineteen-inch waist,” she said, as if that was an explanation.
“Did you have the pattern?”
“Oh no, we couldn’t afford that!” She got a cross look, like she might cut the story short because of my stupid questions, but the morphine softened her a little. “No, Sister Marie took my measurements, and drew a pattern from the photograph, just freehand, on old parish newspapers.
“It was like Coco Chanel trapped in a convent!" I said. “She lived vicariously through you!”
“I never thought of it that way, Susie, she was just so sweet.” My mom turned the pages of the photo album I brought to her lap.
“What about these hot pants? Were those her idea, too?” I said, pointing at a black and white snapshot of my mom in a polka-dot two-piece.
“Oh yes! We called those short-shorts! Look at how crooked they are!”
It seemed like every outlandish high school costume had been some inspiration tracing back to Sister Marie. Kitty-cat ears with a tail, massive fairy-tale capes, huge shoulders, peplums, and tight skirts.
“Is she the one who taught you to embroider, too?” I asked. I’d brought pillow cases to mom’s nursing home bed that were in tatters, but they were the roses and bluebirds-of-happiness on white sheeting that my mom and I had sewed long ago, when I was little.
If there is anything that is saved in one’s personal history, it’s handmade garments, or linens, that hold the most sensual memories. When your parents are gone, you’ll sleep wrapped in that cloth and dream of them.
“Yes, she did,” my mom said, answering my question. Her voice got whispery. Our conversations were brief in the last months of her life, and this had been a big one. “She taught me—"
She looked past me, as if Sister Marie was checking her from the inside out. “She taught me... how to stitch... a perfect French Knot.” Her cheek turned to the pillow, and closed her eyes, a little bluebird wing still visible under her chin.