I believe anyone can love perfection, but it is a priceless gift to accept imperfection in others. My grandmother gave me this gift as a child. Although I never consciously thought about it, it guided my life.
My grandmother was a seamstress. She made tatting for my mother’s clothes and sewed for the rich lady who lived in the big plantation house next door. She was a perfectionist in her stitching.
When I was 10, I stayed with my grandmother for a week one summer. I was bored and restless during the hot summer days and after lunch would hang listlessly about, my legs draped over the arms of a chair, twirling a stand of hair and humming wordless, nameless tunes the way ten-year olds do. My grandmother looked up from her sweeping one day and said “Grayla, would you like to learn to embroidery?”
I perked up immediately. I had a book at home called “Make and Do”, part of World Book Encyclopedia’s Childcraft series, which contained a page on embroidery. I had tried and tried to master it, but it never looked right.
Gamma shuffled off to her bedroom and rummaged around in the bottom drawer of her dresser. She came up with a long rectangle of cloth with blue lines printed on it, skeins of floss in red, black, green and white, and a needle. She went to her sewing box, a tin with beautiful lady on it which had housed a fruitcake. She opened the tin and drew out her razor-sharp sewing shears. She held them out to me and said “If you cut yourself with these, you and I both will be in big trouble.” I took them with awe. Not even my grown-up mother was allowed to use Gamma’s shears.
Gamma sat down and slowly and methodically threaded her needle with green floss. It seemed very important to assume the right attitude about sewing, that this was serious business. I watched reverently as she separated out two strands of floss from the six. “Use two strands,” she said, “you have to separate two out of the six.”
“Why?” I asked. She stared at me. “Because six is two many.”
I nodded, simply accepting this instruction.
She then demonstrated the stem stitch and instructed me to do all the stems in green. On a 3-foot dress scarf, that’s a lot of stems. When I finished the green, I could learn another stitch and do the flowers, then the beautiful, red strawberries.
I really wanted to do the strawberries.
So I sat. I stitched green stems all afternoon. Every now and then she’d stand over my shoulder, observing, with her hands on her hips, then shuffle off to make biscuits or fry chicken, or hang out some wash. I sewed on, stitiching my way to the red strawvberries.
Eventually I finished the green stems, the white lazy daisy flowers, and black basket parts. It was time for the red strawberries.
“Now Grayla,” she was very serious this time. “The strawberries are done with French knots. The French knot is tricky.” She delicately pricked and twirled the thread and pullled the needle and a magical, perfect little round knot appeared. The whole strawberry was comprised of these knots.
Just the name “French Knot” fascinated me. Watching as green thread became stems and white thread became flowers had seemed magical. But I was actually going to do something FRENCH. At only 10 years old.
I took out a lot of bad French knots, but eventually I got the hang of it. I stitched and twirled and stabbed and pulled, but more strawberries bloomed on my white, if somewhat grubby now, scarf. I sat hunched over that dresser scarf everyday that week and finally, on the day I was to go home I got to the last strawberry.
And ran out of red thread. I had used so much practicing my French knots there was not enough left to finish the last strawberry. I stared at it in horror. Not enough red! All out. What was I to do? So I did what every good seamstress does…I improvised.
Gamma came along with a stack of clean clothes. “Well how did it go? If you’re finished, I can hem it for you on the machine.” I picked up the holy scissors, snipped off the last bit of thread and held it up for her to see. “Well its finished Gamma, but I ran out of red thread so I did the last strawberry in white.”
Gamma stared at me as though struck dumb. She stood there, probably thinking about that extra skein of red in the bottom drawer. She stood very quietly, weighing of my sense of accomplishment against the perfection that could be achieved by making me take the white strawberry out. Then, she said to me gently, “Well…I reckon that’s all right.”
She took the scarf, hemmed it on the machine and then she did something that surprised me. She folded it up, and put it in her dresser drawer. I stared up at her stupidly.
“Grayla, I bought this scarf because I wanted one for my dresser. I never had time to finish it, but now you have done that for me. Thank you very much.”
Instead of being disappointed that I couldn’t keep the scarf, I was proud that my grandmother, who was the best sewer I ever knew, was going to use my scarf.
I never saw the scarf again and I never saw it on Gamma’s dresser. But I was the only granddaughter that showed an interest in sewing. She taught me to tat, and gave me my great-great-grandmother’s ivory tatting shuttle. I lost the shuttle but never told her.
Years later we sadly put Gamma in a nursing home. I went with my mother and my aunts to clean out her tiny one-room apartment. It was a meager collecion of dusty quilts, chipped dishes, and a dozen or so dresses, all made from the same pattern. in different fabrics There were a very few momentos of her life, some photos mostly.
In a box under her bed, I found the sewing tin, the beautiful lady on the front now faded and worn. Inside was a mustard jar full of buttons, mostly salvedged from my grandfather’s work shirts, and a huge button I remember from her winter coat. The sewing shears were not there. But next to the sewing tin was a small white bundle, stitched with green stems and red…and white…strawberries. I unfolded it and out fell the lost ivory shuttle.
Gamma died later around Halloween. My cousins came, one from England who stood in the far corner of the cemetery and cried like I have never seen a man cry.
So sometimes, when I feel like a white strawberry in a world of beautivul red strawberries, sometimes when I improvise in the face of disaster or when I work so hard to come up short of perfection, I think about my Gamma, who said gently, with real love, “I reckon that’s all right,” folded up my hard work and treasured it for years.
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