Mary Beth Writes

The "Womanly Art and Practice of Sewing"  


"Sewing with Clowns"


The beginnings of my career with needle and thread:  When I was in 3rd grade my classmates and I played marbles at recess. I was jealous of the cool “store-bought” marble bags some of the other kids possessed. I decided I could have a marble bag, too. All I had to do was make it myself.

Oh the places “make it myself” has taken me…

That afternoon I looked through my mom’s stash of cloth and found pink polka dotted fabric. Cool!

I threaded a needle and probably didn’t even need to squint to do so. I miss my eyes of yore.

Then I sat on the floor in my room, tongue probably sticking out of the corner of my mouth, and sewed up both sides of that little polka-dotted marble bag.

It was done! I picked it up to admire it.

My skirt went up in the air.

I had sewn the thing to my skirt.

Older but wiser:  All the girls in my 7th grade class were signing up for the 4-H sewing club that would be taught at the house of some lady who happened to live across the street from our rural school. Remember when the world was richly populated by at-home adults who were glad to share their talents with the young? That was back when one paycheck was enough to feed and house a family.

I sewed a navy blue A-line skirt with a zipper.

The group leader said I was a nice girl and would probably get better at installing zippers as I got older.

Many 15-year olds sew beautifully:  I was in High School. I sewed a turquoise and white checked twill A-line dress for myself. It came out quite nicely, I thought. I wore it to school. A friend walked behind me in the hallway.

“What happened to the zipper?”

“Um. They’re hard to put in.”

“You ought to take a look at it again tonight, maybe.”

If you have ever installed a zipper, you know what I’m talking about here. A zipper is narrow. The foot of the sewing machine needle is a tiny bit of metal that splits in two, to hold down the material while it stitches. When the skinniest side of the foot is up against the teeth of the zipper, it works fine. When one has to turn around and bring that foot up against the other side of the zipper, the foot is a tad too wide, and it becomes hard to evenly sew a straight line.

One side of that zipper was sewn straight.  The other side was a meandering line down my back, often snagged so that loops of thread were hanging. As I wore the dress, those not-tight loops pulled loose so that the dress hung crooked. My dress sort of looked as if it had had a stroke.

25 years old and its still a challenge:  I was in seminary and nearly every day I wore the denim jumper that I had sewn years before. At this point my friend Kathleen is laughing. She remembers that jumper.

I wanted something new. Also, I was going to be visiting my mom (in Michigan) for a few days and she had a sewing machine. I knew myself well enough by then to know that because I didn’t love to sew, I tended to work too fast, which is how I made mistakes.

I decided I was going to Take My Time and Do Something Right for A Change. I measured myself, bought a pattern for a pair of pants that would have inset pockets, zipper, waistband, belt loops, all the details that create a polished job.

I sewed those pants out of groundhog taupe (the color of a large rodent walking slowly through a farm field at dusk) corduroy. I worked, took deep breaths. I reminded myself to “go Zen”. I hummed gently. I sewed patiently. I made a perfect pair of pants.  

Do you remember when patterns were never exactly the size they said they were?

I put them on my size 12 body. They were at least a size 20. The only way I could keep them up was to gather the waist with a giant safety pin. Sigh. Perfect pants way too big.

Of course, I could not wear them outside of my Chicago apartment so they became my at-home study pants.  Sometimes, if I wanted to remember something, I would write it down on my pants.

My boyfriend surprised-visited me when I was wearing them.

Len looked down and then back up.

“Why do your pants say Bernard of Clairvaux?”

Sewing leads to adventure:  I was a co-leader of girls in the Cabrini Green housing projects Young Life teenagers club. I liked the girls, they liked me and the other leader; we spent a lot of time driving them to the boys’ basketball games where the girls would be their cheerleaders. (The girls picked this activity, sigh). At the end of the year we were all invited to a banquet at a fancy downtown Chicago club. I wore a black velvet jumper that I had sewn over a red plaid blouse that I owned. The girls were wild with approval because I looked fancier than my usual T-shirt and jeans.

I said sewing was not hard (hah) and if they wanted to do a sleepover at my apartment, I could show them how to make drawstring bags.

Envision a dozen girls, myself and my brave roommate (Hi, Cathy!), curling irons sitting in the gas jets of our stove, the sewing machine blazing 10 hours straight. Loud music, frozen pizza after frozen pizza, shrieking girls, and so much laughing my jaw tired.

Cheaper than a round-trip to Europe and 18 times as amazing.

It was July 2 of 2000. A giant storm blew down trees, dumped inches of rain, and knocked out electricity for three days. Len drove out the morning after the storm to buy a generator; while he was gone the backup battery on the sump pump died and two inches of water covered the basement floor.

Once the electricity came back on and the water drained away we started the humungous task of cleaning up and throwing away.

The foot pedal of the sewing machine had been in the water three days. This was my mom’s 1958 sewing machine: a stalwart, functional, heavy monolith of domesticity. I went to the sewing machine shop in our town to ask if they could get a new power pedal. They said no, it was too old.

I gave away the footless machine to a charity that would take it - I never turned back.

Sometimes, after 30 or 40 years, a grown-up can just say, “I don’t enjoy that.”

And let it go.  


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Retired Chicken Observations 3/22-2018

Two things I have been thinking about lately. Both are related to retirement income and retirement adventure.

1. Last week Len and I went to our Social Security office to sign me up for Spousal Benefits.  It took me several run-throughs to understand what “spousal benefits” are. Since then I have talked to several other people who were also unclear on the concept.

My confusion was this. I was already getting Social Security based on my earnings when I worked (as opposed to what I did when I stayed home and raised kids. But let’s not go there now. Grrrr.)

Franc’s Wildly Successful Life

This is a long piece of writing and I am proud of it. If you don’t want to read it all – here are my take-way points about how my friend Franc lives well on a surprisingly small income:

Mindful Chickens 2/24/2018

1.  We did it!  We called, explained what we thought we needed to do, made appts, were home for the appts, rec’d the estimates about - fixing the gutters and getting the house painted.  I think one of the reasons we usually do it ourselves is because this process is so daunting and time consuming.

The gutter guy is coming next week; we are looking forward to no rivulets when it pours. 100-year old houses built on non-waterproofed rubble foundations, like George Washington, cannot lie about what’s happening outside your basement walls.

Mindful Chickens - The Snickerdoodle Edition

1. When we were sick in January (with flu and cold) Len used the CVS card that I had signed up for last year and then barely used.  He bought several OTC medicines plus a cool-mist vaporizer using that card, which saved us 20%. That was helpful.

2. While I was under the weather I signed up for Starz in order to binge-watch an Outlander season.  After I watched TV for two days I canceled the subscription, thus paying nothing.  This is the third year I have done this.  Why do they let me do this??

Frugal Stuff/ Flu edition 1/22/2018

1. I donated blood Friday morning. This is a free mini-checkup every two months; they take your pulse, temperature, blood pressure, and check your hemoglobin levels (iron). They send your blood to be checked for various diseases such as Lyme disease, West Nile, and Zika.

DO NOT donate blood in order to determine if you have a disease or not. If you think you might be ill, go to a doctor or clinic and deal with it. 

But, if you (like me) need an extra reason to be generous, the screening to give blood is not a bad perk.

Two Piquant Recipes, No Waiting

This is not a recipe blog. You may sometimes wonder what kind of blog this is, but I bet you have figured out we’re not here to cook. Still, sometimes I come across amazing recipes and today I want to share two of them,by referring you to the sites where I found them.

How do I find these sites, you ask? 

Simple. Google the name of two or three ingredients you would like to use up. This takes you to recipes that use those foods; you decide if you want to try them.

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