In December of 2019, I was ending the semester with my freshmen composition students and I shared, with a few student stragglers, that I wanted to learn how to sew. When I was 9 years old my grandmother gave me her sewing machine. I never touched it, and eventually she took it back. I’d always wanted to learn how to sew, but also always lacked the discipline and commitment to do so. I admitted this character-flaw to my students. That’s important to me. To share with them that I too, a professor, also have challenges that impede my success. Often when you share “intimate” details with others you open the door to learning something from them. This has always proven true when teaching my students. They teach me a lot in return, and this day they taught me how to avoid a huge investment, considering the fact that I had a tendency to fall off the “new hobby” train. They encouraged me to look for a used sewing machine on Facebook. Who knew?
Well, I did just that. At the end of December, I purchased a sewing machine from a Hispanic woman who was getting rid of hers.
“My husband wanted me to learn how to sew, but it’s just not my thing.”
“Oh, I get that. ” I responded, “I’ve wanted to learn for a while now. So thank you.”
She began packing all the stuff that came with the sewing machine, four reams of drapery fabric, thread, scissors, tape measures, bobbins, a beautiful carrying case, you name it. Her husband made sure she had everything she needed.
“Thank you so much!”
“No problem. I’m glad they’re gone.”
I was confused. Maybe she’d listed two machines and I accidentally committed to purchasing them both.
“yep, the machine and the hubby. I’m getting rid of the both of them.”
She and I shared a warm, quick, playfully remorseful laugh and I took the $7 Singer 7258 home. That machine sat by my garage door until July of 2020.
Often my husband looked down at it with a smile, as he does every time I’m “learning” something new. Sometimes I too looked down at it, smiling at myself. It sat in the perfect place, right next to my gym bag. Pre COVID19, I walked passed them every day without a care, both my Singer and my fully stocked gym bag, sitting there minding their own business and not bothering anybody.
Seven months into the pandemic, and four months after I’d stopped combing my hair, finished the guestroom, built an outdoor wet bar with matching cabinet, learned how to ride a bike, and grew and killed my first herb garden, my husband made a suggestion, call Diane. Diane was a client who loved to sew. She’d been sewing all her life. Diane and I had never met but I knew, from how my husband described her, that she was a White woman, one of the mean kind. She was a conservative.
She received my request very warmly, gave me her availability, and texted me regularly when she was in route. To show my appreciation, I’d planned a light lunch.
When Diane arrived it was a bit awkward for me. If you read my essay “The Finger Points Both Ways” you know that I am initially uncomfortable around people. So right before I opened the door, I put my game face on and I did what I’d trained myself to do. I smiled and stretched my arms out for a big “hey girlfriend” hug. She came in and just like I try to teach my students to be, I was very prepared to learn. I had everything laid out.
“Why black thread?” Diane asked when she saw the spool of thread on the spool pin. My fabric was red.
“It was already there when I picked up the machine, so I just kept it.”
“Ahhhh, that makes sense, but why is your bobbin thread white?”
“Cuz when I tried to thread the bobbin, I couldn’t see the black thread through the bobbin, so I changed the color.”
“Smart! Okay, let’s hit it.”
She started to teach. I did my best to pay attention and learn. Together we watched, once I’d gotten the hang of it, the black and white thread coming together to create something new from something old. It wasn’t just a piece of red fabric anymore. Now I had two pieces that would make a mask. Then I had one piece that would make a tablecloth. I had two pieces that would eventually make a pillowcase. This simple fabric had become three different items, all useful, and all bound together by joining black and white thread.
After we finished, we sat at the table and talked, laughed, drank, and ate. I was happy to see her enjoying my cajun chicken tacos with cilantro cabbage slaw and Sangria. Any time a health conscious woman asks for a second taco, that’s a good thing. I could also tell that Diane was a take-charge woman. When I sat a tortilla directly on the burner, she was quick to take her cooking fingers and adjust the tortilla so that it didn’t fall between the iron grates.
We sat at the table, directly across from each other. I learned more about her, the divorce case that brought her to my husband’s office, her trials and heartaches, her children, and her new life. I listened as she shared stories that were very familiar to me, stories I honestly didn’t think White women had or would dare share with others even if they did. Some of Diane’s stories I categorized, in my mind, as “white woman problems.” Those were the kinds of problems that sometimes we, black women, wish we had, like who gets the wine collection. Other stories fell into the category of “black woman” problems. Those were the ones I thought White women didn’t have, like how to start dating again or who. We laughed about men, their ironies, their egos, their missteps. We shared our joys and sometimes frustrations over our children. And somewhere along the way, I stopped placing her stories into categories. Somewhere along the way, she stopped being Diane the white conservative and she was simply the lady whom I’d never met, but who came an hour away to help me keep my promise to my grandmother.
I’ll never forget her expression when I described the manuscript I was finally finishing. Her expression was everything I expected from a sista. She knew exactly what I was saying. She’d been where I’d been. She’d felt what I’d felt. We were more alike than we were different. The roads that led us to our experiences were equally painful to us, even though they were drastically different from each other.
There was so much I wanted to ask her, but none of the things I wanted to ask her were relevant. My grandmother always said, “Just listen. People will tell you everything you want to know if you just listen.” Hopefully, Diane and I will have plenty of time to get to know each other more. Hopefully, I will have many more opportunities to “just listen.”
That night I practiced sewing for hours, going back and forth on the red canvas with the united black and white threads. I tried different seaming patterns, all were beautiful. Some were straight lines of black and white. Some were zig zags. Some were interestingly intertwining patterns of white on top of black or black on top of white. No matter the setting, those threads worked together to make something great from nothing.
I made sure to text Diane later that evening, thanking her again. She truly had no idea the gift she’d given me.
My grandmother gave me a sewing machine decades before I really knew what it meant to be a Black woman. Diane taught me how to sew, years into me understanding that everything is not black and white. She helped me keep a promise to my grandmother. That as long as I still had time, I would learn how to do something dear to my grandmother’s heart, that I would never forget to honor her memory, and that I would always be open to listen and learn from anyone, no matter their race. After all, my grandmother always said to me, “Misha, everybody yo color ain’t yur kind, and everybody yur kind ain’t yo color.”
Thanks for reading. We’re friends now.
Follow me on IG, Twitter, and Like my FB page @MishasThyme