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Lessons Learned

My grandmother taught me how to sew. My mother taught me to cook. The fact that I perform neither of these tasks now, except under the most pressing circumstances, reflects not so much on my teachers' methods as on what I took from the lessons.

It was not the stitches my grandmother demonstrated that impressed me, but the way she held her fingers at a certain angle in line with the needle.

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It is not my mother's recipes that I remember, rather the way she stood with one foot tucked behind the other leg, stork-like, poised at the stove, content as a bird at rest.

They taught me skills; I took away details, images, and feelings. My grandmother Ida had come to North America from Trondheim, a city in Norway. She settled first in Chicago, where she was a professional seamstress. She shared a walk-up apartment with her sisters, Lizzie and Annie.

My grandmother refused to do dishes, because any roughness on her hands could snag the fine linens and silks she worked with.

My grandfather came to Concrete, Wash., where he worked as an accountant. He and my grandmother had been friends in Norway and began a correspondence that led to their marriage and three children. I still have some of his letters that begin with, ``My Darling Ida.''

They married in their 30s. Her sisters were ``placed,'' as my grandmother used to say, by the time she was married.

My great-aunt Annie said that Grandma just didn't want to have to do her own dishes anymore, though from what I could tell, with three children there would be plenty of dishes for years to come.

My mother, Florence, my aunt Irene, and my uncle Dick were young during the Depression. And though my mother describes that period with an utter lack of self-pity, it was not a time of plenty for the family.

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My grandmother went back to sewing after her years away with young children - a nightgown or a robe here, a thin-strapped evening gown there. I used to wear, for dress-up, a cream-colored lace dress with 50 glass buttons securing the front that she didn't sell to a customer who'd ordered it because, she said, it was ``flawed.''

Big limousines carried wealthy ladies to my grandmother's home. My mother said the regulars would come for fittings, then send their chauffeurs to pick up the finished items.

My grandmother sewed the way some people paint. She spent hours with fabric before she made the initial cuts. The smell of fabric, like the odors in an artist's studio, permeated my mother's clothing and enveloped her and my aunt and uncle as they yanked open the screen door to run into the kitchen for cookies.

Huge bolts of silk and satin would be piled in the bedroom corner like thick rainbows stacked upon one another. Occasionally, my grandmother would finger the fabric or bend in passing to smell the satin as one might smell a rose.

My grandmother was a laborer. Laboring runs strong in my mother's and father's families: fishermen, seamstresses, and delivery men. It is what makes me believe I feel best after a day of hard work.

The wealth of what my relatives did was never measured in cash. Their lives ranged from simple to average in terms of material riches.

But my grandmother taught me to take my life, no matter what the fabric, and make something out of it, something I was proud of, something that made me tired rather than weary.

My father, who left our house early every morning to sell merchandise to customers all over the Northwest, used to whistle as he tightened a blue-and-red-striped tie under a crisp white collar. ``A man,'' he said, ``has to love his work or he'll die.''

Up to the last period of her life, my grandmother woke, readied herself for the day, and turned to her sewing. My father, at age 78, continues to sell his wares.

It is not what they accumulated that gives me a measure of where I'd like to be; rather, the measure is in the whistle, in the slow movement of hands over fine cloth, or in a contented pose at the stove.

My family invested well. They left a sizeable inheritance.

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