Not My Grandmother’s Hands
By Kim Seeley
I grew up totally in awe of my grandmother’s hands. They were never still. I would watch her fingers moving nimbly through pink or blue yarn, crochet hooks working smoothly, whenever a new baby was expected in the family. I looked on with fascination as the knitting needles clicked rhythmically while Grandma watched her “stories” on TV, never dropping a stitch, but never missing a comment from Doctor Steve Hardy or Nurse Audrey.
When I was a young child, Grandma crocheted doll clothes for all of her granddaughters’ Barbies. It was such fun to have friends over to play Barbies, and I would dress mine in fashions my friends had never seen in a store. My grandmother made Barbie a crocheted bikini long before the fashion designers made them popular. My Grandma was the bomb.
During the ’60s, when I was a teenager, Grandma’s skills were tested on the latest fashions. I longed for a mini-dress, but many of them in the stores were too short to meet my father’s standards. Grandma whipped out her Singer Golden Touch-and-Sew and created beautiful dresses, short enough to be stylish, but long enough to pass muster with my dad.
When I was in college, I still wore Grandma’s dresses to the naval shipyard where I worked in the summers. I was invited to a spring dance at Virginia Tech during my junior year, and I sadly conveyed to my grandma that I had “nothing to wear.” Once again, Grandma came to my rescue. She made me a lovely long floral dress, quite in keeping with the fashions, and I went to the dance in style.
There was really only one time in my life when I wished my grandmother was not quite so talented. My father insisted that I take home economics during the eighth grade, even though I remonstrated that I needed to take French in order to keep up with my classmates. “Every girl needs to be able to cook and sew a little,” my father emphatically stated. Reluctantly, I signed up for home ec.
The very first day of class, the home ec teacher noticed my last name, “Haywood? Is your grandmother Alethia Sexton?” I nodded, thinking to myself that this could be in my favor; perhaps she and Grandma were friends. “I’m looking forward to your work,” my teacher said, “I know your grandmother is a skilled seamstress, and we shall see how you measure up.”
My heart sank. I knew right then how well I would measure up. My grandmother had already tried and failed to teach me to sew. She had attempted to teach me to knit and to crochet. I had gamely held the needles, wrapped the yarn around, and plied away, to no avail. I didn’t have my grandmother’s hands. My hands were awkward, the rhythm and coordination were not there; all the practice in the world was not going to make a difference. Eventually, my grandmother had given up and left me to my books, wisely sensing that I was happier reading and studying than I was knitting and purling.
Home economics was every bit as bad as I had expected. I hated entering the door of the department, and I hated every second I spent there. We started with basic cooking, table-setting and manners; I read the book, passed the tests and managed to avoid burning the kitchen down. I envied my friends who were in French that period; I could be spending my time in the language lab instead of a kitchen. I was miserable.
Then just when I thought things couldn’t get any worse, Mrs. Leete, the home ec teacher, announced, “Monday, we will begin the sewing unit. Here is a list of supplies you need to bring to class.” I realized that I would be entering an inner circle of hell; there was no hiding behind a book when you are seated at a sewing machine. Grandma gave me all the supplies I needed, but on Monday morning, what I really needed was my grandma’s hands.
We began by threading the machine. Most of the girls managed beautifully, and Mrs. Leete went by and praised each one. Then she came to my side and said, “What seems to be the problem?”
I wanted to reply that the problem was my father made me take this class, I didn’t have my grandmother’s hands, and I wanted to be in French instead, but I merely replied, “I can’t get the thread to go into the needle.”
Mrs. Leete moistened her fingers, dampening the thread and deftly slipped it through the needle. “There, that wasn’t so hard, was it?”
Of course it wasn’t hard for her. Unfortunately, everything about sewing was hard for me. I still have my stitching booklet, with the big “D” on the front, with every single stitch marked and criticized. One of my worst days in high school was the day I had to wear the dress I had made to school. Horrors! I had tracing paper marks under the arms, the hem was pitiful, and throughout the process, I had also been forced to endure Mrs. Leete’s comments, “Are you sure you are Alethia’s granddaughter?”
My grandmother did everything she could to help me. One of our projects was a take-home project, and my grandmother showed me how to make a pretty design on table linens. I don’t remember the name of the process, but I remember sticking the thread through a certain number of loops and counting each stitch. That scarf is still one of my prized possessions, something my grandmother and I made together.
I eventually survived the year of home economics, even though I made a “C” one six weeks. I blamed my father for ruining my grade point average and my foreign language schedule; he was more upset that I didn’t learn how to sew and cook any better than I did. My senior year, all of the girls who ever took home economics were required to undergo a standardized test. As a result of this test, I was named the Betty Crocker “Homemaker of Tomorrow” at my senior awards assembly. I don’t know who laughed harder, my friends or my family. I simply said, “It was a standardized test. They didn’t ask me to sew or cook anything.”
Throughout my adult life, my grandmother continued to sew, knit and crochet. I would take my daughters down to visit her on the Currituck Sound, and she still spent her afternoons watching “General Hospital” with hands filled with yarn and needles. She made each new grandchild and great-grandchild a personalized afghan.
When Grandma became too ill to knit and crochet, my aunt helped her make one last Christmas gift for the granddaughters. Each of us received an apron, handmade by Grandma and Auntie. They were the final gifts before my grandmother’s hands were stilled by death. Grandma is gone, but the afghans and aprons remain, reminders of a grandmother’s love and dedication.
My hands are not my grandmother’s hands. To this day, I cannot sew, knit or crochet, nor do I have any desire to do so. My hands teach, write on a blackboard, play the piano and type on a computer. And, awkward as they are, my hands can help share the story of my grandmother, whose hands sewed love into material and knitted a family to remember her always.
About this writer
- Kim Seeley, a former librarian and English teacher, lives with her husband, Wayne, in Wakefield, Virginia. She is a frequent contributor to Sasee and Chicken Soup for the Soul. Her most recent story, “Amanda’s Jonquils,” can be found in Chicken Soup: Messages from Heaven. She loves to read, play the piano, travel and spend time with her grandson, Evan.