I’m Sarah and this is my blog. That’s where “Sarah” comes in. As for Mae… I was heavily influenced during my formative years by my maternal grandmother, Elsie Mae (called Mae), a seamstress and all-around renaissance woman. It was my belief that she could do anything. I know that the “I could fix/make/do that!” fiber of my being is a direct result of her lineage. And my green eyes.
Although we only lived close to each other for two years, the rest of the time my family growing up would travel from Memphis north to Batavia, Illinois once or twice a year and spend time staying at my grandparents home. We would spend what felt like a full day at the fabric store at the beginning of our visit, poring over pattern books and gathering material, thread, buttons and more. Then I’d spend the rest of my days hunkered down in her cozy basement, stuffed to the brim with more fabric, sewing notions and bric-a-brac than a regular sewing shop. She worked away making clothing for her clients and whipping up dresses for me on the side while I pieced together fabric scraps to make little doll quilts and barbie clothing. She seldom got around to making all the clothes we had planned, and the fabric that was left unused would join the boxes full of other forgotten fabrics. I never minded that too much, but I also inherited the propensity to bite off a little more than I can chew and that still plagues me to this day.
The two years when my family moved to Illinois I was eleven and twelve. These were two of my more difficult life years, when the full force of venomous junior high girls was unleashed against me. On the weekends I’d stay at Grandmother’s house, sewing in the basement while we talked, or watching Nick’at’Night while she sewed, eating string cheese and soda floats. My mind was taken from thoughts of wiping spit balls off my arm and the taunts of the mean girls in the hallway. I could talk to her about anything, and I always felt like she listened without judgment. One of her phrases that she repeated often, always through a mouthful of straight pins, was “Pretty is as pretty does,” and in my conceited twelve-year-old know-it-all way I would roll my eyes at how utterly unhelpful those words were in a practical sense.
After we moved away, throughout high school and college, we would still visit my grandparents home in Illinois, and I always loved to return. Grandmother started teaching me how to follow patterns and I’d make things for my little cousins and sometimes even myself. She encouraged me to design drawings of clothing I’d like and try to show me how to draft patterns from existing pieces, but as I got older I was much more impatient and less willing to listen. I wanted to buy clothes, not make them. When I think back to that time my main memory of myself was- again- rolling my eyes and saying, “Oh, Grandmother…”
When I moved out to California to teach after college and met my future husband Aaron, we came back to Minnesota for spring break to work on plans for our wedding. My grandmother came up for the week and we spent time at bridal stores trying different looks, scouring fabric stores for just the right fabric and lace, debating boning vs. no-boning, researching who she knew who could do custom embroidery, ordering just the right flowers for the style of the dress. In the evenings we would all play pinochle together, and Aaron got to know her. She was always trying to teach me something; if it wasn’t about garment construction and fabric choices it was about playing cards or what foods can give you a headache. I still had some of my attitude, but I was beginning to appreciate how special it was for my grandmother to be in good health, able to meet my husband, make my wedding dress, and even- I was sure- be around to meet and know my own children someday soon.
When you are hit out of the blue with something completely unexpected, there are many accurate cliches that describe the feeling better than any I could make up. A sucker punch to the gut. The world dropping out from under you. The air being sucked from your lungs. Back in California I was with my class one day when another teacher came in and said she’d take my class for the rest of the day and to go on down to take a phone call in the office. My kind principal had me sit in the vacant pastor’s office with the phone sitting in the middle of the desk. I picked up the phone to hear my father. When he told me that my grandmother had died that day in a car accident, I felt all those things. My heart physically ached.
Although that was over sixteen years ago, the pain is still fresh sometimes. I still have dreams where she is alive and a vibrant part of my life. As I’ve grown and had my own children and watched my mother become an incredible grandmother, my appreciation for the person my grandmother was has deepened. Not only did she make me feel special; it was a gift that she gave to everyone she met. She died on her way home from taking a meal to an elderly couple. All of the skills that she taught me have been invaluable, but the lessons that I learned from her about giving generously of your time and efforts are what stick most with me now. If pretty is as pretty does then she was one of the prettiest people I’ve ever known.