When I was growing up, all young women had to have hope chests. This was a signal that their only hopes were to get married and find males to take care of them. No woman could have a dream of becoming a doctor, an airplane pilot, a mathematician or a chemist. In fact, the first time my mother asked me about the future, she said, “What kind of husband do you want,” not do you want to go to college. Actually, I had seen my friends’ homes where the mothers had to cook, clean, wash, obey and hear men display their displeasure. I was in no hurry to become a slave. A question from my mother had to have an answer, so I said he had to be tall, handsome, black haired and blue-eyed. (Certainly, I did not tell her what I thought: that he would not be 23 years older than I and have nine children from a previous marriage, as my father did.) Blessed by God, I did find exactly what I was seeking: a person who also had the qualities of which my mother, left a widow at 40, was speaking.
One of the traits of a good wife was the ability to sew. I learned to sew as a child. One of my half-sisters, a wonderful seamstress who could make anything without a pattern, gave me my first sewing experience. When I did not want to stop my play, she suggested we make my doll a bed with linens. This made sense to me. She gave me a needle and thread and told me I was to embroider the pillowcase and sheets -- good training for later.
The next encounter was at Grandma Brock’s house. She had a quilt in progress, suspended from the ceiling and let down for neighbors to help finish as they chatted. Can you imagine the women of today come for a party where there were no refreshments and everyone worked on a quilt not for their use? Grandma Bock, noticing that I was watching, said, “Come on, you can help.” My reply that I did not know how was quickly silenced by a quick direction and a needle and thread. I worked, not with a sample or a children’s piece, but the actual quilt.
By the time I got to high school, I knew how to sew; however, the requirement for all girls was home economics, a class I hated. I remember having to make a bib apron -- who would wear such a thing? -- and a poster illustrating the various types of seams. I still feel no need to hide all seams so that a person could wear the garment inside out and no one would know. I had wanted to take anything but home economics. The principal told me everyone had to take it; he meant every girl. He continued that the only other course offered (my senior year) was mathematics. I assured him I would take that. There, however, were catches: no girl could take it since the teacher refused to teach girls, and it could be added to the required courses only if the student had an “A” average. I fought for and received entry into the math course even though I still had to take home ec! Obviously, I was not the type of person who accepted defeat easily. Can you imagine what a problem no advanced math would have had for me in the statistics course required for a Ph.D.?
I did not learn to obey if there were any way to achieve what I wanted even after I married. When my daughter was in second grade, students had to have a Chinese outfit. Since we had no money -- getting material and pattern were difficult -- I had to make it. My daughter was so pleased with the outcome, that she volunteered me to make the costumes for the whole class! I know because the teacher came to tell me how much she appreciated the offer. I think my husband had just bought, on time, a sewing machine that did everything but talk, something I did not want, but came to cherish. We even put a rinse on our daughter’s blonde hair to make it black.
Through the years, I used that machine for many projects -- clothing for my husband and daughter, presents for others. When my granddaughter arrived, I made dresses for her, making my grandsons jealously say, “You are always making her something.” I replied, “If I had known you wanted a dress, I would have made you one.” Actually, I did make them some play shorts and suits. Sarah did want to learn to sew when she was so small I was afraid she would sew her tiny fingers. Later, she was quite reluctant, saying, “I will do just like Mama does: put it in a sack and bring it to you.” What a simple solution she had!
When her class went to Williamsburg, she had to have a long dress of period. There was no pattern. I had to improvise while still teaching and doing all my household chores. When I finished it, I thought it was too plain, so I made her a bonnet and an apron. She was satisfied with the outcome, thank goodness; I would have hated to start again. I did tell her if other parents learned where she was getting her dress and began to call me, I would not finish hers. Can you imagine how angry I was to have a telephone call from an individual who told me she had heard how talented I was as a seamstress? I thought, “I will kill Sarah!” She continued that so many people had spoken of my skill -- sarcasm, I am sure. She wanted me to make her wedding dress and the dresses for her bridesmaids! I assured her she had been misinformed, that I certainly would not take on such a chore, did not have the expertise. A time limit also existed, so I would have had to be a fairy godmother to cut out, much less make and fit the gowns.
I do have a large hope chest, made by my father from a cedar tree hit by lightning. In the olden days, nothing went to waste, rarely even used for firewood. I had a wonderful husband for 55 years until his death, and certainly did cooking, cleaning washing, innumerable chores. However, I never learned to obey, especially when there was a better way and when I did not choose. Women did not have the right to vote, and when they did receive enfranchisement, many husbands told them how to vote. My own mother had no money and had to ask for every penny, telling my father the use such as flour, meal. Some men even come today and pick up their wives’ paychecks, have the women cash the checks and give them the money. I do not always blindly obey and hope I shall never learn in that regard.