My mother, who should write a book on motivating adolescents, once made me an offer any red-blooded teenage girl would find impossible to resist. She said, "Take home economics and learn to sew. I will buy you all the fabric and patterns for as many outfits as you can make."
My greedy mind calculated furiously, visions of a color-coordinated wardrobe overflowing my closet. Hey! I could wear a different outfit every single day! "Without limit?" I asked.
And Mom, knowing me only too well, said, "Absolutely! Just as long as you finish each garment before going on to the next."
I should point out that Mom taught home economics in another town and that she sewed most of my sister's and my clothing. And it sure didn't look difficult.
Much pondering at the fabric store later, I'd chosen cloth in my favorite color - a dark, rich purple - with a nubby weave. The pattern picture showed a slim, straight shift with long slender arms and a square neck. The promise "Easy! Make it Tonight!" screaming across the top led me to say, "Maybe I should pick out the stuff for several outfits right away and save us the trouble of coming back in a couple of days."
"Finish this one, and then we'll have the fun of returning," Mom said craftily.
In home-ec class ... well, to understate a bit, things did not go well.
Pinning the pattern pieces on the fabric turned out to be quite tricky, since the material would not lie flat no matter what I did. I spent several class periods just attempting to quell it into a submissive state. And when I finally got to the actual pinning, I ripped the delicate tissue of the pattern pieces and jabbed myself repeatedly.
"This can't be right," I told Mrs. HomeEc Teacher. "They must have given me too many pattern pieces. They don't all fit on the material."
"You just have to keep arranging them," she said. "They'll fit." She scowled at the fabric. "The blood spots will come out if you soak them, I hope."
THERE followed a week or three of pinning, calling the teacher over, watching her frown and shake her head, and unpinning. Then beginning the frustrating cycle again.
Around the fourth week, Mom developed an annoying habit of asking about my project. "Are you ready to go down and get the stuff for the next one?"
The next one! I tried not to shudder at the thought. The dress was already assuming mythic proportions in my life. When I closed my eyes, I saw nubby purple on the inside of my eyelids. At night I dreamed of impossible quests I should never have begun.
In home-ec class, where I seemed to be permanently stuck in some kind of a pinning and repinning and re-repinning twilight zone, the other girls began triumphantly displaying their completed creations. I was happy for them. Kind of.
My teacher must have had a weak moment or abandoned all reason the day I called her over, for about the 9,000th time, to approve my lumpy pinning job. She muttered something about me getting through the entire year without even touching the sewing machine, rolled her eyes, and sighed.
"OK, cut 'er out," she said in a voice underwhelmed with enthusiasm.
I was determined to catch up. This cutting-out business had just been a temporary glitch, and now I could get on with it!
Don't believe anyone who says pieces of fabric are inanimate. Those scraps of purple had minds of their own, and the one thing they did not want was to be stitched together. They slid and skittered, puckered and prowled - anything to get away from the advancing needle.
All around me, my fellow home economists were cranking out clothes like factories, cunning color-coordinated separates that they modeled in uncountable combinations. Meanwhile, I became closely acquainted with a tool called a seam-ripper, the sole purpose of which is to tear out mis-stitches so the seamstress can try yet again.
Our teacher gave my sewing machine a wide berth as I struggled for some semblance of control over the unruly fabric - although I do seem to recall her mumbling something about my mother teaching home ec. It was with a tone of wonder most often reserved for the up-close and personal observance of space aliens.
Outside, the leaves had fallen from the sycamores, and winter sky, dark and chill, shivered the skeletal branches. Still I battled onward, the will to dazzle others with an incredible wardrobe stronger than the fact of my fumbling fingers.
Just as I began to weaken, something wonderful happened. I snatched the dress from the sewing machine, leaned back, and gazed at the daffodils blooming in the spring-bright grass outside. And then I said the loveliest two words I'd ever spoken: "It's done!"
My teacher was the most animated I'd ever seen her. "Go try it on!" she said, clapping her hands together.
After I slithered into my masterpiece, I turned to the dressing-room mirror and ... hmm. Those long slim, sleeves were so tight I couldn't bend my arms. My teacher jerked the curtain open and looked me over. She spent a long, silent moment fingering my shoulders and the back of my sleeves. Her lips twitched once or twice, but all she said was, "OK."
THAT evening, Mom held the dress up and said, "Hmm." Then, "Hmm. You know, of course, that the right and left sleeves are switched. See? The dart at the elbow makes each sleeve bend toward the back of the dress instead of to the front." And then she took one look at my face and, in a true example of motherly love, said, "I'll fix them."
In the weeks to come, Mom would sometimes say, "When are you going to wear your dress? That purple is so good on you."
"One of these days," I'd answer. But I never did. Even the thought of the dress seemed to bring on a stressful flashback. And purple had long since ceased being my favorite color.
The Monday after I finished the dress, the teacher announced, "People, since you've all completed at least one sewing project," all eyes flashed to me, "we'll continue to the cooking unit of the class." She paused and said, "Terry? Have you done any cooking at home?"
"Not really," I said.
I know she didn't mean for me to hear it, but when Mrs. HomeEc Teacher murmured to herself, I caught a few phrases: "School's fire insurance" was one. Followed by "Hope they're paid up."