On the second Thursday of every month a small group of women come together to visit and work on their hand sewing projects. It began as a social gathering with the stitching giving them something to keep their hands busy while they caught up on one another’s news. Early on these meetings would take place at the community center but now, with only five remaining, it is simpler to take turns going to one another’s houses.
Today is Dora’s turn. All she needed to do was tidy up a bit, get George out of the house before everyone showed up and arrange chairs around the dining room table. Once the others arrived, serve tea or coffee and lay out her platter of homemade scones. Easy enough.
Maybe one of the girls will ask for her recipe. Maybe no one will. If someone did ask then it could mean that the scones were actually good and she’d make them again. George ate anything put in front of him so it was hard for Dora to know one way or another if what she created in the kitchen was worth the effort.
It was easier before George retired. Dora only had to think of making coffee and toast, a quick sandwich for herself, then late in the afternoon cook some chicken or red meat with mashed potatoes and a canned vegetable. Now it seemed all day, every day was spent in the kitchen trying to fill George up. Her only opportunity to try something different, be creative, was when she hosted the sewing group.
One time Dora tried a quiche. She liked the word. It sounded sophisticated. So she looked up a recipe and included some of her own ingredients to the frozen pie crust. It wasn’t as good as she thought it would be. Maybe the half can each of cream corn and green beans were too much to add to the cheese, egg, spinach and ham that the recipe called for. Later in the kitchen scraping the plates, Dora assumed it must have been the green beans clinging to a wet pie crust that was the reason no one asked for her recipe. Maybe today her scones with just a small amount of crushed corn flakes worked in and served with a rosemary flavored honey butter would be a better offering.
All of the women in the sewing group were over sixty-five, some unwilling to share how much over sixty-five but it was easy enough to tell who was the oldest. Margaret.
Stocky and firm-footed in her sensible low-heeled shoes, Margaret commanded attention just entering the room. There was something ex-military looking about her although she never served in the armed forces. She wore dresses, no slacks, and certainly no jeans. Her dress was covered with an apron as though she was going to take over household chores wherever she went. She looked a person in the eye when they were talking so as not to miss anything. Many don’t do that. They will find a spot close to the right or left of the speaker’s face to focus on and wait for a pause so they can reply quickly and move on to wherever it was they were hoping to take the conversation.
Margaret liked being the elder of the group. Others listened to her when she spoke and would often seek out her opinions if not her company. She kept her distance and sent signals that she preferred it that way. Needless chit chat annoyed her and she would have left the group long ago had she not realized that this was her one and only social occasion with any regularity.
The book club was too demanding. Who would want to read a book you knew you wouldn’t like?
She was the only one to ask that question out loud last year and took offence when they suggested reading it might broaden her horizons. Her horizons were just fine where they were, thank you very much! Margaret left her copy of the book in question behind when she suddenly remembered she needed to be somewhere else and left.
When Margaret’s husband passed away she stopped going to church and singing in the choir. What was there to sing about now!
Her neighbors stopped dropping in to see how she was doing.
“How are you, Margaret?”
No need to say more. So she didn’t and the neighbors went back home.
For now it came down to the sewing group being the only place left for Margaret to have a conversation. It was ideal actually. If Margaret did not want to be chatty and answer a question she could pretend she was concentrating on her stitching until one of the others filled the gap. Women are like that, unable to leave much in the way of empty spaces.
When the sewing group had more members, the women all talked at once. Now with only the five of them it was mostly Charlotte filling in the pauses. Margaret found this irritating and tended to tune out the sound of Charlotte’s voice. Why couldn’t that woman simply be quiet for a bit longer and let someone else pick up the slack?
Charlotte was simply too cheerful. She smiled. She laughed. She wore bright colors. And once Charlotte got her needle threaded she jabbed it through patch after patch of hideously bright-colored scraps of cloth until she had enough to cut out one of her doll forms that the following month would be brought in for all but Margaret to appreciate. Charlotte called them her “Happy Dolls”. Of course she did.
Her dolls took a simple form. They were loosely stuffed so that the outstretched arms could be curved around a person’s neck if they wanted or needed to feel an embrace. Margaret could in no way imagine grasping the hands of these garish little creatures and pulling it close enough to have its arms around her neck. To do that her mouth would be against a red-stitched smile with button eyes looking into hers. Ghastly!
Being on guard to not hurt Charlotte’s feelings was challenging but necessary if Margaret wanted to continue coming to the sewing sessions. So when the latest Happy Doll was passed around Margaret gave a quick nod to Charlotte and handed it off for Emily’s appreciation.
Emily brushed the crumbs from her fingers and took the Happy Doll. She loved it! The cheerful pinks and blues all held together with hand stitching. Charlotte had even put a row of small buttons down the front and a bit of lace around the doll’s neck. Emily could hardly wait to feel the arms around her own neck and pulled the doll to her.
The women went silent and watched out of the corner of their eyes as one lone tear rolled down Emily’s cheek. Charlotte was quick to tell her that she should take the doll home. There were more than enough to donate to the Care Center and it would make no difference if this pink and blue one found a different home. Emily smiled back and quickly stuffed the Happy Doll deep inside her tote bag. Picking up a strand of embroidery floss, Emily concentrated on threading her needle and gave herself over to memories of other dolls and small-armed hugs around her neck.
The silence was broken by Vera clattering her way through the back door with her dog in tow. No one minded Vera bringing fat old Suzette along with her. They all felt sorry for the weepy-eyed French poodle with painted nails. Truth be told it is hard to tell who they felt sorrier for, Vera or her dog.
The two of them on their own near the center of town in a large old house with beautiful gardens and a well-kept lawn surrounded by a high iron fence. Vera’s daughter wants her to move into an assisted living complex where they are prepared to care for the impending needs of her mother’s age and diagnosis of declining health. Vera is going nowhere until Suzette passes. Then, and only then, will she think about it. This determination on the mother’s part resulted in more regular visits from the daughter…a solid win for the mother.
Vera pulls out the dog’s pillow and puts it under her chair where Suzette settles into a snoring, wheezing slumber. She considers the scones on the table but pulls out her sewing instead. First she lays out a palette of threads with each color looped through one of the holes circling the edge. Once these are given a quick shake and laid aside she retrieves the cross stitch pattern of a French window and door with cascading blooms that fall from a vine crawling up the wall. Out comes the half-finished cloth stretched in an embroidery hoop. And finally her perfect little needle case and embroidery scissors. These last two items were actually bought in France several years ago when the widowed Vera was emerging from a deep state of grief with the help of a new companion who bought them for her.
Now everyone is here. Polite inquiries have been extended and noted.
Not one of them is thought of as a friend by any of the others. They see each other only in this setting of refreshments, dining rooms, and the sewing that acts as a barrier to their private lives and thoughts. Yet each one of these women cling to the ritual of coming together once a month to share a space where they can be in the company of others who desire the same thing….the sound of women’s voices muffled by cloth to retreat into how things could, and used to be.