My mother was an excellent seamstress, a skill I never had the talent, interest, or patience to acquire. (It took me all year and many tantrums to finish the gathered apron in my junior high home-ec class, when all the other girls finished that, the peasant blouse, and the gathered skirt to boot.) My mother, though, could turn a bolt of cloth into anything, from a fitted suit with flattering darts and covered buttons to pleated draperies and matching bedspreads.
But mom's special talent -- or at least the one I valued most when I was a child -- was Barbie doll clothes. My sisters and I had the most fashionable Barbies in town, outfitted in exquisite hand-sequined gowns, sleek satin sheaths, and hand-knit sweaters fastened with buttons no bigger than a lentil. She even made plaid pajamas and a robe for Ken. (This was long before Barbie dumped Ken for an Australian surfer dude, who wouldn't be caught dead in flannel pjs.)
My Barbie’s favorite party gown was a blue strapless number with scalloped flounces held up with tiny rosebuds. If the evening was chilly, she could throw on the matching satin-lined coat, which closed with miniature pearl buttons. (I got rid of my Barbies years ago, so my nieces gave me one from their vast collection to model the dress, which, like most of the other clothes, is now sadly worse for the wear.)
I always felt smugly sorry for my friends, whose Barbies had to wear ill-fitting, poorly-stitched store-bought clothes. Later, after my mother began selling some of her creations, other girls in town also could dress their Barbies in hand-made originals.
Mom sold the outfits so she could buy my father gifts with her own money. These gifts were usually things like boxes of chocolate covered cherries (dad's favorite candy) or bottles of Old Spice, but sometimes she used her earnings to buy him original oil paintings. I have one of these paintings, a landscape by Colorado artist Lyman Byxby. Mom paid $40 for it. My sister has the other paintings, including my favorite, a bold, abstract city scape. I wonder how many tiny dresses, how many hours spent cutting and stitching, these paintings represent.
For much of my life, I was dismissive of my mother's talents. I could justify my behavior by claiming that I saw her skills as mere "women's work" at a time when I was all about rebelling against the status quo in general and my family in particular. And there is some truth to that. But this explanation feels a bit too easy, a bit too neat. The messy reality is that for most of my life I was not a nice person. I was self-centered and tempermental, a bridezilla without the excuse of a wedding. And my mother was the most frequent target of my anger.
Even in Baby Boomer America, the land of perpetual adolescence, it took me longer than most to grow up. Looking back at the younger me isn't easy, and as I write my memoir, I often find myself sinking into depression. But these well-used doll clothes have made me feel a bit better. They have reminded me of several long-forgotten conversations I had with my mother. I don't remember the details, but I do remember letting her know how much I cherished the doll clothes, the fanciful birthday cakes, and the other things she made for me. And for that I am very grateful.