December 8th, 2010:


Mama and Me

My mama, as she would refer to herself in the Southern way, was a “pistol,” as my dad used to say. “Pistol-packin’ mama” were words from an old country song. He was right about that: as an Army officer’s wife, she had to learn to stand up for herself and her three children. As the seventh of eight children, she had practiced being her own person early in life .

When it’s Christmas time, I remember Mama and all the effort she put into making sure her kids had the best she could give. In retrospect, I can truly appreciate her creative efforts, which came right from her heart. It’s difficult to write this story without tears, especially since my mother left us over thirty years ago.

What brings her to mind during this holiday season is her talent for sewing. Her creations kept me stylish on my dad’s Army salary (not to mention his parsimonious and thrifty habits). She knew how to keep the old Singer sewing machine humming; it came along with us to various Army posts, including Tripoli, Libya.

She didn’t go to college, but she could sew a “mean” stitch. She tried her hand at almost everything stitchable: slipcovers and drapes, specialized window coverings (swag and jabot and Empire style sheer curtains), men’s shirts and ties, and any stylish garment for women. When I was younger I had a Madame Alexander doll, about six inches tall, and she made tiny outfits for it.

During my teenage years in the Middle East, we found material, probably in an Italian shop, and set up our version of an assembly line to sew clothes for the two of us. Mom and I wore the same size and would pick out a pattern that was suitable for both, and would use different material for each of us. I would cut out the pattern and sew the darts, for instance, and Mom would put in the zippers and work on anything difficult. I still remember the cotton 1950s style scoop-neck sundresses: hers had a black background with a lively print; mine was red.

In later years, when I was in college, she made me even fancier party clothes: a spaghetti-strap basic black satin dress with a little short-sleeved jacket that I wore to a college dance, and a sexy, form-fitting wool sheath with a boat neck and long sleeves I wore to several parties. And there were many more. The only garment I still have is my wedding gown.

I got married in Germany in the ‘60s while my parents were stationed in Frankfurt. She found the ideal material and pattern, including the veil, and it looked divine. It’s stored in a box, without all the fancy acid-free tissue of today, and I haven’t looked at it in decades. It’s comforting to know I’ve cherished that gift most of my life.

Wedding Dress by Garnette Motley Williams

Years later, Mom made my cousin Penny’s wedding gown and her bridesmaids’ dresses as well. After all the work on Penny’s gown, Mom ironed it. The iron was too hot and lifted off some of the material on the front of the dress. Mom agonized, but Penny’s sense of humor and practical sense wouldn’t let Mom fret. She told her, “I’m glad it’s you who did it and not me! It doesn’t matter because my flowers will cover it.”  After the ceremony and a few glasses of champagne, Penny cared even less: it was a funny sorry to tell all her guests.

I didn’t always appreciate Mom’s talents. Regrettably, especially in college, I envied the girls who could afford to buy dresses in a department store. It was only later that I figured out that my mama’s talented fingers created me original attire, and they were sewn with all the love she could give. She created clothes for me that could never be bought.

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