When I was 17 my mom made me a prom dress. It’s still one of my favorite pieces she has created, which is saying something because this is a woman who has spent thousands of hours behind a sewing machine. Since before I was born, she sewed dresses for herself and my sisters and me. For Christmas, Easter, and summer at the least, every year, she would produce four new dresses. When we were little, the dresses for my sisters and I were matching. As we got older we would all go the fabric store to pick out a dress pattern and material so we each got a custom frock.
I have done a little sewing. In my 20s I received a sewing machine for Christmas from my mother- and father-in-law. I was living in their basement at the time and taking prereqs for PA school. I saved my Joann’s coupons and bought material and patterns and I began to sew garments for myself. I got some vintage material from Grandma Hurst that was passed down from her mother, who owned a fabric store at one time. I made shirts and skirts and dresses.
Sewing, for me, was an interesting mix of technical ability and creativity. At times, it was really difficult to understand the pattern instructions and inevitably I would sew a seam in the wrong place and end up picking it out. Sometimes there were hours of unpicking seams. Sewing is an exercise in frustration and accomplishment, devastation and creativity, and and mostly perseverance. Sometimes it’s exhilarating and sometimes it’s intolerable.
So knowing this, when I look at my black velvet, beautifully tailored prom dress hanging in my closet, I understand a bit of what went into its creation.
My mom was in a moderate-to-severe depressive episode for about ten years, which covered the entirety of my adolescence. When I think about that time, it mostly feels quiet. It was quieter in the house without her laughter and music and the hum of her sewing machine. There were times when she didn’t function. Times when she disappeared for days. Her absences felt ominous and confusing. But most of the time she was there, doing the driving and shopping and cooking and cleaning, in a quieter way. Most of the time it wasn’t the activity in the house, but the presence of suffering that felt different.
I have learned, in a small way, what that might have felt like for her. There have been nights when I have wondered how I will face the following day—how I can summon the strength to get up and do the few things that must be done. And I’m in awe that, during this time of darkness, she found the strength and desire to create a graceful, elegant dress for me. It was a gesture of kindness and love. I see rebellion in the sparkling line of costume gems on the bodice. An indignant strike against the oppressive darkness.
This is what I learned from my mom:
To keep moving alongside the fear and the dark.
To find beauty in it.
And to create in its presence.
That is how you find the light again.