Peggy Rothbaum: Memoir: Feb 2022


Southern Legitimacy Statement: I have lived in the South for 4 generations. I went to college and lived in Chapel Hill for 5 years. This was considered “north”. I did come North and have been here now for decades. I still have dreams about the mashes and my soul longs for them.

The Sewing Baskets

A sewing basket tells the story of a woman’s life. It contains her hopes, desires, and dreams. We spend our whole lives collecting spools of different colored thread, various needles and pins of all colors and sized heads, ribbons, lace, darning needles, thimbles, tape measures, snaps, hooks, buttons, and other such treasures. Our sewing baskets are uniquely ours. No two are alike, just as no two women are alike. We treasure these items and cherish having them in our baskets. We never know when or for exactly what purpose they might be used. We plan carefully, but happy accidents, unforeseen projects and needed mending arises. We create something beautiful and useful with what appears to be nothing but a collection of ordinary small items. To us, these items are full with exciting and endless possibilities for the future. We create surprises for loved ones, gifts for the needy, offerings for those whom we hope to befriend, and items for ourselves that bring us joy by just beholding them or because they are useful.

I learned to sew in school, when I was a child. It was in home economics class. My grandmother sewed too. She had a treasure trove of buttons and spools of thread of many colors, although her hands, gnarled from arthritis, eventually prevented her from threading a needle by hand. My mother taught me to sew on buttons, explaining that this is something that everyone should know how to do. She also taught me how to mend. Something that can be mended, turned back around and used, should not be discarded. Now an adult, I find these tasks to be calming and soothing. It feels good to mend these items and to give them a longer chance at a meaningful life. Their worn but sturdy continued existence somehow guarantees that everything has purpose and meaning in the continuum of my life.              

In recent years, I have been volunteering with a non-profit organization which receives donated household items from people who no longer need them and redistributes them to those who do need them. It feels good because it is the antithesis of discarding. We volunteers find homes for just about everything that is donated. It is for me to find homes, where they will be loved and appreciated, for the sewing items, fabric, yarn and needles, embroidery and crewel kits, and other such donated items. Many times we receive whole sewing baskets filled with treasures.

In the beginning, redistributing the sewing baskets felt quite hard because these cherished home economics tasks are now almost lost. Women work outside the home now and out of sheer necessity, this often does not leave time for these tasks, performed by most women in days gone by. There is no longer a use for these once treasured sewing baskets, whose time has now passed. But, I joyously, carefully, open the donated sewing baskets. I love to feel and cherish all of the wonderful treasures in the baskets. I always take my time and thoroughly enjoy myself. But at the same time, I feel that I am an outsider, an intruder, uninvited, into the life of a woman who has passed on, leaving some of her dreams behind. In so doing, although we have never met, she has left me with the task of fulfilling some of these dreams. 

I honor this task. I wait for enough received donations to redistribute the treasures into smaller collections for the recipients, who will continue their purpose and useful lives by giving them loving homes. In the beginning, it felt like I was unraveling dreams. Pajamas for a grandson? A doll for a neighbor’s child? A quilt to be taken off to college? A jacket half sewn. Several spools of the same favorite color thread? An array of buttons collected over a lifetime. Handwritten instructions and notes to self. A mostly used card of snaps with a 25 cent price sticker on it. Plans to have enough hooks and eyes for quite awhile–probably bought on sale. But now, I redistribute the donated treasures among the new recipients and create new stories for them. As part of these new stories, one woman’s hopes, desires and dreams are combined with those of other women.

The recipients are grateful churches who support our non-profit organization. In the beginning, I turned everything back around as quickly as possible and took the new sewing baskets to the recipients, as if that somehow better honored the meaning and purpose of the baskets. I felt better that way. That was before I learned to treasure my time with the donated sewing baskets, also a way of honoring them. I learned which churches can use which sewing treasures. Some have knitting circles and prayer shawl circles. But some also have quilting circles and sewing circles. The women in these latter circles turn the treasures in the sewing baskets back around to create beautiful finished projects that are then donated to people in need or people recovering from loss or illness. It brings joy to me and to the women at the churches. “Oh, look at you!” one of the church staff members says when she sees me coming. Another one, who knows my feelings about the sewing baskets, always hugs me. I said to her first, “We ask only one thing in return: that the women in your sewing circle say a prayer to honor the women, now passed on, to whom these treasures once belonged.” She replied, “We already do.”

My own minister, when I explained my mixed feelings about the sewing baskets said, “What a fitting tribute to the memories of these women.” For this, I hope and pray. I always wonder who these women were, and in my mind, I promise them that I will always honor their sewing baskets. After all, I too have a sewing basket, filled with wonderful treasures and containing my hopes, desires, and dreams.