George Segal created a room (displayed in the Weisman Art Museum, University of Minnesota) honoring his parents: floor-length living room lamp, overstuffed chair and sofa, cathedral radio, and life-size statues of his parents. In my museum of memories stands a four-poster bed with ruffled flounce and turquoise bedspread and pillow shams. My mother made them for the re-do of my upstairs bedroom when I was entering ninth grade. Here I dreamed of Chad Hunter once the photos from Hollywood arrived in the mail, or listened to Elvis and Fats Domino and the Coasters on my little radio–“I’m going to find her/him…” Here also I wrote long research papers, the one I remember most vividly was about low-country chapels of ease, tiny churches dotting the Carolina rice country from the days when rice planters along the Ashley, Cooper and Wando Rivers found it too laborous to reach big churches in Charleston.
Let’s add a closet to that upstairs room with its windows on two sides, one double set overlooking the backyard and my mother’s huge garden, beyond which strung the chicken-wire fence of Old Man L. and his son, whose real live chickens scratched in their bare-earth yard. The other window, beside the bed, put me in constant communication with a chinaberry tree, whose rustlings and moanings I barely noticed, until I read Robert Frost’s poem “Tree at my window, window tree…” The September my parents drove me to Goucher College in Baltimore, the tree was snapped by Hurricane Gracie, a remarkable act of nature paralleling my own minor wrenching from home.
The closet was huge, delving back under the eaves and crowded with my clothes. Like my mother, I sewed. My sister never did. After taking a course in Charleston at the Singer Sewing Machine store, one hot August week, I churned out dresses galore: a voile summer dress (almost all our clothes in Charleston were summery) with huge floppy bow at the neckline; or a long-sleeved dark print with white collar and cuffs and bound buttonholes–mastering those took hours. Even now I can feel myself standing in the material department at Belk’s and moving along the rows, fingering bolts of fabric. Then studying patterns carefully, one of a row of girls and women perched on tall stools as we flipped back the heavy pattern books. I had to be careful not to make anything with too tight a skirt–my hips, you know.
Now that I have myself on the second floor of Belk’s, let’s remember trying on hats. We wore hats and gloves to church, gloves meant to be decorative and ladylike (hmmm!), hats to give a swash-buckling addition to our outfits. This surely suggests my preference for hats with wide brims and dips over the eyes. I liked even then the notion of secrecy and glamor they provided. Even today, though I’ve given up sewing dresses for myself, I still search out hats with wide brims. And in summer heat and glare, wear my current version everyday, walking up and down the avenue.
Surely there were rooms downstairs where I took part in family life, but it’s a mark of my love of solitude that I choose to make a museum of my teenage bedroom. The sewing I did downstairs at my mother’s old Singer. It was set up in the kitchen, with the washing machine on one side, the ironing board on the other, and the tiny kitchen table behind. Very cramped. But hardly anyone else spent time there except when my mother was preparing dinner or my sister and I were washing dishes. Focused over the sewing machine, its needle piercing the cloth as I strove to hold the zipper steady, I was as thoroughly enraptured as I’d ever be over a computer keyboard. Even better, because the tactile and visual appeal of the cloth, plus the speed of the darting silver needle–all required intense concentration, the making of a whole world. After that, wearing the dresses was a bit of a letdown, though I did wear them, even bragged about making them. Anyone could have accurately called me a clothes horse, but the truth lay deeper. My whole being came alive in the making.