The Christmas Dress
(From the book: Christmas in Dairyland — True Stories from a Wisconsin Farm; August 2003; trade paperback; http://ruralroute2.com)
From the time I was a very little girl, I had always loved to watch my big sister, Loretta, when she was sewing. So, one Sunday afternoon while she worked on the red velveteen jumper that was going to be my Christmas outfit, I didn’t want to miss a single thing.
Because it was Sunday and Loretta did not have to go to work at the electric company, she was dressed casually in a white sweater and a pair of periwinkle blue slacks that matched her eyes. Loretta was an assistant bookkeeper at the electric cooperative that supplied electricity to our farm and to many of the rural areas in our county. I could still smell the perfume that she had worn when we went to church that morning. The bottle said it was called Lily of the Valley.
As Loretta spread the fabric on the kitchen table, I stood as close to her as possible, practically breathing down her neck.
When you live on a farm and the next-door neighbors are elderly and no other neighbors live on your mile-long stretch of road with children for you play with, and in fact, no other children live within several miles, what else is there to do on a Sunday afternoon in December except pester your big sister?
“What’s this stuff for again?” I asked, taking a sheet of waxy paper out of an envelope.
“That’s tracing paper,” Loretta said. “I use it to make lines so I know where the seams should go.”
I picked up the tracing wheel. “And that’s what this is for, right?”
In a way, the tracing wheel reminded me of the spurs worn by all the cowboys in my favorite Westerns on television. I would have given almost anything to be a cowboy.
My sister glanced at me. She was busy pinning the pattern to the fabric.
“Yes. That’s the tracing wheel.”
I watched for a moment. “Can I help? Pleeeeease?”
Loretta smiled. “Sure. See how I’ve got the pins put in on this side? You can do the same on the other side.”
I happily started pinning the pattern onto the fabric. The pins were the kind with little colored balls of plastic on the end: blue, green, white, yellow and red. Pinning the pattern was easy. Push the pin through the sheer pattern paper and the fabric, and then angle it to come out on top again. Push the pin through the fabric and angle it upwards. Push the pin, angle it up.
Everything went along just fine—for about the first six pins, anyway—until I bumped the pin container and knocked it onto the floor.
I never knew pins would scatter so far when they fell from the kitchen table and hit linoleum.
My sister looked at me, looked at the pins on the floor—and sighed.
After what seemed like a long time, we managed to retrieve all of the pins.
“I’ll just finish this part,” Loretta said. “It’ll go faster that way.”
Then it was time to cut out the pattern. As my sister expertly wielded the scissors, I couldn’t help but think it looked like tremendous fun.
“Can I do that?”
She paused. “Ummmm—why don’t you find the white tracing paper for me. That would be a big help.”
I considered her suggestion.
“How come it has to be white?”
“Because it will show up better on this red fabric.”
“But wouldn’t blue be all right?”
I thought the blue paper was very pretty.
“No, the white is fine.”
“Yellow?” I asked.
Loretta shook her head.
“Just get out the white. That’ll be the best.”
I pulled the white tracing paper out of the envelope, and then, as Loretta continued to work, I kept right on asking questions: What happens if you don’t pin the pattern? (It won’t stay in place when you cut the fabric.) What’s that funny scissors for? (A pinking shears; it keeps the material from unraveling around the edges.) What are you going to do with the scraps? (Cover the buttons.) And on and on.
Finally Loretta was ready to sew the jumper. She moved into the living room to set up the sewing machine, and as she started to sew, I stood right by her elbow. Since this was going to be my dress, it seemed to me that I ought to keep an eye on the entire operation. And if I was going to keep an eye on things, then I had to ask more questions. Didn’t I?
When Loretta had finished the first seam, she pulled the fabric back…and discovered that her finger was sewn to the dress.
I was horrified.
My mother was disgusted.
“I’ve been sitting here in the living room all afternoon, listening to you,” Mom scolded. “It’s no wonder your poor sister ended up sewing her finger to the dress. Your incessant talking is enough to drive anybody crazy.”
Loretta finished snipping the thread. “No, no, it’s nothing. See? Just a little bit of skin.”
As I watched her pull the thread from her finger, my stomach did a small flip-flop.
“Maybe you’d better clean that up and put a bandage on it,” Mom said.
A little while later, with a bandage securely wrapped around her finger, Loretta began to work on my dress again.
“How come…?” I said—and then I remembered that I shouldn’t talk.
Loretta paused and looked over at me. “How come what?”
I shook my head. “Nothing.”
I watched Loretta sew for a few minutes, and then another question popped into my head.
“What happens if…”
Loretta reached for the scissors and glanced over at me. “What happens if what?”
I shrugged. “Nothing.”
Somehow I managed to make it through another five minutes without asking any questions.
After a while, Loretta looked over at me again.
“What’s the matter?” she asked.
I shook my head.
“You’re so quiet, I thought maybe something was wrong.”
Loretta looked at me closely. “You’re not mad at me, are you?”
I felt my eyes widen. “Mad at you? Why would I be mad at you?”
She shrugged. “You’re never this quiet.”
And without warning, tears filled my eyes. “I’m s-s-sorry I made you sew your finger. I didn’t m-m-mean to…”
Loretta shook her head. “You didn’t make me sew my finger.”
“Yes, I did. Mom said.”
“No, you didn’t. I always thought it would happen someday. And today just happened to be the day.”
For as long as I could remember, Loretta had been making clothes. Sometimes she sewed outfits for me, sometimes for herself, and sometimes for Mom. She even had a couple of skirts she kept in a trunk upstairs that she had made when she was in high school.
Loretta reached for the scissors again. “So, come on. Ask some more questions.”
“Because it’s not normal when you’re this quiet. And besides, how are you ever going to learn about anything if you don’t ask questions?”
In the end, Loretta finished the red velveteen jumper without further mishap. I wore the dress for the Christmas programs at school and at Sunday school, and for Christmas day, too, and for school when Christmas vacation was over.
But every time I put the dress on, I thought about Loretta’s finger pierced with red thread. And about how she had said that it wasn’t my fault when I knew, deep in my heart, that it was.
Maybe that’s why I loved her so much. Not because she sewed clothes for me. And not because she wasn’t angry when I spilled pins all over the floor or chattered non-stop when she was trying to concentrate.
But because, no matter what, I knew that my big sister always had time for me.
LeAnn R. Ralph is the author of the book: Christmas in Dairyland (True Stories from a Wisconsin Farm) (trade paperback; August 2003). Share the view from Rural Route 2 and celebrate Christmas during a simpler time. Click here to read sample chapters and other Rural Route 2 stories — http://ruralroute2.com.
LeAnn R. Ralph