Vermont minister Susan Cooke Kittredge has never been good at sewing, but she does enjoy stitching up tears and rips in her clothing. By mending broken things, whether clothes, relationships or our country, Kittredge believes we make them stronger.
Like most women of her generation, my grandmother, whom I called Nonie, was an excellent seamstress. Born in 1879 in Galveston, Texas, she made most of her own clothes. Widowed at 43 and forced to count every penny, she sewed her three daughters’ clothes and some of their children’s as well.
I can knit but I cannot sew new creations from tissue paper patterns. Whenever I try, I break out in a sweat and tear the paper. It clearly requires more patience, more math, more exactitude than I am willing or capable of giving.
Recently, though, I have come to relish the moments when I sit down and, somewhat clumsily, repair a torn shirt, hem a skirt, patch a pair of jeans, and I realize that I believe in mending. The solace and comfort I feel when I pick up my needle and thread clearly exceeds the mere rescue of a piece of clothing. It is a time to stop, a time to quit running around trying to make figurative ends meet; it is a chance to sew actual rips together. I can’t stop the war in Iraq, I can’t reverse global warming, I can’t solve the problems of my community or the world, but I can mend things at hand. I can darn a pair of socks.
Accomplishing small tasks, in this case saving something that might otherwise have been thrown away, is satisfying and, perhaps, even inspiring.
Mending something is different from fixing it. Fixing it suggests that evidence of the problem will disappear. I see mending as a preservation of history and a proclamation of hope. When we mend broken relationships we realize that we’re better together than apart, and perhaps even stronger for the rip and the repair.
When Nonie was 78 and living alone in a small apartment in New Jersey, a man smashed the window of her bedroom where she lay sleeping and raped her. It was so horrific, as any rape is, that even in our pretty open, highly verbal family, no one mentioned it. I didn’t learn about it for almost five years. What I did notice, though, was that Nonie stopped sewing new clothes. All she did was to mend anything she could get her hands on as though she could somehow soothe the wound, piece back together her broken heart, soul, and body by making sure that nothing appeared unraveled or undone as she had been.
Mending doesn’t say, “This never happened.” It says, instead, as I believe the Christian cross does, “Something or someone was surely broken here, but with God’s grace it will rise to new life.” So too my old pajamas, the fence around the garden, the friendship torn by misunderstanding, a country being ripped apart by economic and social inequity, and a global divide of enormous proportions — they all need mending.
I’m starting with the pajamas.
Susan Cooke Kittredge is senior minister at the Old Meeting House in East Montpelier Center, Vt. Her father was the journalist and broadcaster Alistair Cooke, whose Letter From America was the longest running radio commentary series in history.
Independently produced for NPR by Jay Allison and Dan Gediman with John Gregory and Viki Merrick.
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