My Grandma Helen and Her Magic

My Grandma Helen and Her Magic

Helen was my grandma on my dad’s side. She had the fairest skin of anyone I had known. Even her eyelashes were white. I remember this because every time before she “went to town” she would do two things: dab on some lilac perfume and add a few swipes of clear mascara. She lived in a tiny, rural town here in Oklahoma. But she wasn’t from here, and you could tell. She was from Minnesota, and she had stories she would tell in a calm, northern accent that I loved. Stories about how German was her first language. Stories about a girl she knew who had two different colored eyes. Stories about growing up with blizzards so intense that their family used a series of ropes to get from the house to the barn and around their farm. Everything about her was magical to me.

When I was about 6 or 7, she started teaching me how to sew. She taught me how to thread a needle, do a basic embroidery stitch, and best of all, how to use her Bernina machine. It felt like a big deal. Between choosing the thread color and digging through her carefully folded fabric stash, I felt like anything was possible. That I could create anything. What I made was just a series of wobbly stitches, but that was okay. 

There was something ritualistic about my grandma, a sense of intentionality about everything. And of course, her sewing setup was no exception. Her tool of choice was a set of tiny retractable scissors and a tomato-shaped pin cushion, each attached at opposite ends of a strap. Without fail, she would always hang this around her neck before sewing. I keenly remember my childhood excitement each time she handed this to me to put on. It was like a little rite of passage. The serious seamstress needed serious tools.

Years later, and years after my grandma was gone, I was reunited with her sewing machine. The bright red carrying case was like a time capsule. Besides housing the heavy machine and components, the case also contained the original owner’s manual. But this wasn’t just any obligatory book of how-tos and troubleshooting, it was a journal. The margins of each page contained handwritten notes. There were also tiny swatches of fabric stapled to it to show examples of various stitches. 

Finding this case and its contents was like being with my grandma all over again. The familiarity of the machine and the notes in her neat and compact handwriting were pieces of her left in the world. Everyday I turn on the Bernina and sew something with it, I feel like my grandma and her magic will live on a little bit longer. 

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