Southern Legitimacy Statement: My twang bounces off the walls anywhere above the gnat line of Georgia and especially in Richmond, Virginia, where I have settled for the past 14 years, constantly explaining to people that I was born and grew up in Moultrie, Georgia, in the southwest corner of the state and nowhere near Atlanta or Savannah or any other highfalutin big southern city. People confuse my last name for Hopkins (not Hawkins) because my “aw”s are long and drawn out. Even my “wa”s are messed up because most people don’t understand when I ask for a glass of water. Now I just ask for WAHHTER, thank you very much.
I Could Make That For You
My eventual honesty with Mama started with a Laura Ashley comforter. I was going away for the summer after 10th grade as a dance major at the Georgia Governor’s Honors Program and could decorate a space entirely for myself. I envisioned decorating my side of the college dormitory in all Laura Ashley, as I had seen in the J.C. Penny catalog with matching floral bedding and draperies. I wanted to have matching things like that, not like my bedroom at home with homemade curtains and a white-painted desk that Daddy built. I decided that a thick, floral, luxurious Laura Ashley comforter would be my official welcome to adulthood, one that smelled sweet and felt cool to the touch.
One day after Mama had slept from working her night shift, I begged her to go to Belk’s with me to look at the comforters. I was flying high. I had my dorm room fully furnished in my head, and all I needed was to get to Belk’s, our town department store, and have Mama purchase the solution, the Laura Ashley comforter. On the drive over, Mama and I excitedly discussed my room. She was happy that I was selected to attend Governor’s Honors, and she was also preparing to move my sister Ellen into college that fall. Mama didn’t go to college, so having one daughter about to go to college and another attending a selective summer program felt pretty amazing. We entered through the shiny glass doors. I knew where to go, so we walked to the right, past the shoes, the men’s section, and into the bedding. Visiting the bedding section no less than five times before this moment, I had selected the exact comforter with a light pink background, green vines with roses scattered around, and it was marshmallow-thick with crisp cotton. It was folded nicely in its thick plastic bag, a photograph of the comforter laid on a bed.
“Here it is, Mama!”
“Well, that’s so pretty, Marsha!” approaching me from a few feet behind, a slight skip in my step. “ She flipped the folded comforter around and searched the back. I looked around for the saleslady. “Oh, my GAWD!” I froze mid-search, waves of embarrassment locking my knees. Mama’s voice was louder than the muzak playing on the department store sound system. “That is outrageous! I could make that for you.”
“I could make that for you” became the mantra I would hear every time I showed Mama something I wanted, dresses mostly. Once when we were little, we went up to North Georgia to see our cousins and stopped by The Babyland General Hospital, a glorious place that looked like an old-timey hospital full of cabbage patch dolls that were soft but firm enough to enjoy dressing in different outfits. You could even find a baby that matched your characteristics. Mama and Daddy explained clearly and firmly that we were just touring this place, out of curiosity. When we walked into the nursery, we saw rows of little dolls lying in plastic bassinets, awaiting their new mommies. Baby names were tacked onto the foot of each bassinet, and I imagined the little baby doll I’d get. I’d name her Lucy after my favorite aunt and Daddy’s sister. The nurses would bring her out to me, and she’d be mine forever. Just me and Lucy. I’d read to her every night, and she’d sleep in her doll bed right next to mine.
But when Mama looked at the dolls up close, she exclaimed, “I could make that for you!” It wasn’t long before we all three had our own cabbage patch dolls, handmade by Mama and looking just like the ones at Babyland General Hospital. Mama went on to make more for our cousins and even friends.
Unfortunately, though, Mama’s ability to make a cabbage patch doll was superior to her ability to replicate a Laura Ashley comforter or any of the dresses I wanted so badly. After returning the Laura Ashley comforter to its place on the shelf in Belk’s, we walked out. I thought of ways to make money to buy it myself. The $200 price tag would require me to work eight weeks straight at my Saturday job at the downtown jewelry store. I’d never earn it in time for my departure for the summer program. Mama said I should save my money for something else.
“You won’t be able to tell the difference, honey,” Mama promised. Within minutes of us arriving home, she placed her sewing machine at its usual place on the dining room table, right next to the extended-cord wall telephone and the only phone in the house. For the next few weeks, Mama cranked up the sewing machine right after dinner, its motor drowning out The Cosby Show on a Thursday night or our long after-school telephone calls with friends. Finally, one day after school, I walked into the kitchen, and a thin quilt with mauve backing and mismatched blue plaid and solid squares was folded neatly on the back of the dining room chair.
“I did it! It’s done, Marsha!” Mama said as I reached for the quilt. She watched for my reaction. My heart sank. She had been working so hard on this? It looked nothing like the Laura Ashley comforter she had promised. It was thin, with no puffy cotton between the layers. The squares didn’t match; some were solid blue, others a gingham plaid and others had light pink flowers. It was as thin as a sheet; how could it puff up around me and lull me into the sleep of beautiful girls as the Laura Ashley comforter would? I swallowed and thanked her for such a beautiful quilt.
When I arrived at my summer program, I laid the quilt onto my dorm bed with some reservations. My new roommate laid out her Laura Ashley comforter. So I took out my long floral skirt, a sort of blue bohemian skirt that you could twist up to pack. I placed it over the window like a swag curtain.
After the spring of my freshman year in college, I told Mama it was time to stop making things for me. Most girls would be delighted by a handmade dress, but I wasn’t. It was hard to find material that matched the dresses I liked. I watched Molly Ringwald in Pretty in Pink. She could tear apart vintage dresses and create a cool new prom dress. But I never found that cool vintage dress in that imaginary thrift store. I looked, believe me. I even wore Mama’s own dress for my junior prom, but she had only gone to prom once so by the time my senior year came around, Mama was searching for patterns.
Molly Ringwald’s brilliant creativity with homemade dresses was a fantasy. And things that seemed cool in California weren’t so cool in southwest Georgia. But Mama tried. A shift dress in shiny emerald green with a matching jacket for homecoming. A black column gown for senior prom and a baby doll dress in vintage pink and green fabric for the prom after-party. But the material was usually stiff, especially when I tried to dance. Generally, I looked a bit out of place in the environments I so desperately wanted to fit in. A little too stiff. A little too special, perhaps.
I was a rotten person. Mama worked nights, and the demands of her schedule were straining her physically. She became sullen, quieter. Her early morning naps grew longer. She stopped doing her woodworking and baskets. So when she would work all night at the hospital lab and then crank up the sewing machine just to make something happen for me, guilt would settle over me. Mama’s now freckled hands bending and twisting to make something beautiful reminded me of my insatiable yearning for material things, not her love for me. I couldn’t allow myself to accept her efforts as love because my feelings about the dresses did not match the intention for which they were created. When I went home for Christmas break, I went shopping at a nearby outlet for a couple of formal dresses, but I could only afford one. So when I arrived home from the shopping trip, Mama dropped the bomb.
“I could make another one for you!” she said as I showed her the store-bought dress.
I lost my resolve. “Sure, that would be great, Mama.”
She ended up making me a short, blue velvet long-sleeve dress with a deep v in the back. She bejeweled the edges to make it more formal. She loved it. I took it back to college and wore it dutifully to my boyfriend’s winter formal. The other girls had beautiful dresses that looked like they were purchased at a boutique in Atlanta. The dresses skimmed their curves with embellishments.
A good buzz can relieve any sort of social anxiety, so I sought refuge in cheap bourbon and Coke. About two or three drinks in, I decided that the blue trucker’s hat I had picked up that day during a gas station stop would go really well with the blue homemade dress I was wearing. Besides, it had a catchy phrase on the front, “Nobody’s Ugly After 2 a.m.” I forgot about my dress.
I felt cheap for deciding that a trucker’s hat made my Mama’s homemade dress look better. I felt cheaper than the bejewels. Cheaper than the bourbon. Cheaper than the plastic hat. She had toiled to give me something special, and I had just crapped all over it with my ego.
When the other college girls were off to Cancun for Spring Break, I caught a ride home. At dinner one night, I decided it was time to tell Mama that she didn’t have to make dresses for me anymore. So with the trucker’s hat rooted deeply in my memory, I took a deep breath.
“Hey Mama, I meant to tell you that I found a really great place in Athens to buy inexpensive dresses. And besides, a lot of girls just borrow each other’s stuff so we don’t have to buy so many dresses.”
“Well, that sounds like a good idea,” Mama said.
Mama never made anything for me after that, except for my daughter’s baptism dress. Without sewing, she started making cement stepping stones and built a bigger vegetable garden. Now she bent and twisted her hands for other things. Her sewing machine sits in its case, still, with shards of blue velvet dusting the bottom.
The not-really knockoff of the Laura Ashley comforter latched onto me. The quilt happened to find itself in my boxes. I don’t know how because I never really liked it. Like an old sock that keeps finding its way to the bottom of the laundry hamper, that quilt always turned up. I took it out on picnics, not afraid of whatever mud or barbecue sauce might stain it or even if we’d forget it. I laid it out for my babies to waddle around and learn to crawl, protecting their knees and head. I took it to the beach for a family-sized beach towel. We used it at concerts, strangers trampling it, and we didn’t care. It kept us warm at drive-in theaters. One day, when my son got sick. He wanted the “sick quilt” to lay on the couch.
“Do you mean this?” I gestured to the quilt folded behind the couch.
“Yes,” he said.