Sewing-It; Strutting-It

These are the kinds of dresses Mom made from feed sacks.

I learned to sew when I was ten years old.  Mom was a genius at sewing clothes; she even made me dresses out of old feed sacks when I was a little girl.  Back then, pretty flower fabric made up feed sacks; environmentally friendly before the phrase was coined.  I learned to sew in 4-H; my friend Annette’s Mom taught me how to sew.  4-H Sewing was in winter.  When spring came and our projects completed, we modeled what we made.  That was the best.

My friend Annette’s mom taught me to sew on her old treadle machine.  Too bad there’s not more working treadle machines around.  Those are the best to learn on because a girl can go as slow as she wants, one tinsy stitch at a time.  The first lesson, no thread, I just sewed on a piece of tablet paper, following the lines until I got rows of perfect straight holes all exactly the same distance apart.  Mrs. T, that’s what I called Annette’s mom, because she was a grown-up and I always called grown-ups by Mr. or Mrs, or Dr. or Father, or Sister or Aunt or Uncle.  I never called grown-ups by their first name all by itself, not even if they were nowhere around.

Mrs. T was serious as all get-out about being a mom.  In between helping her three 4-Hers to sew, she made supper and folded laundry.  That house was filled with the smell of laundry starch and boiled dinners.  Mrs. T’s face looked like Santa’s in that poem, all roses and cherries and plumpness, only no beard of course, and Mrs. T had brown hair that curled up around her face like a halo that got a tinsy bit sweaty.  She patted my hand and said, “Good girl.”  

Annette told me her dad yelled at Mrs. T, because her big sisters’ bras and slips were all gray and dingy and no daughters of his should have underwear like that.  I knew right then and there why you should never say stuff about people who you would never say to them, ’cause Annette’s big sister Marie came in with her barn coat pulled tight over her house dress, and all I could think about was the dingy slip she must have on. Marie was a real sweetheart, smiling and saying hello, not goofy like some of those other teenagers who were too busy combing their hair to even look at me. She looked right in my eyes when she talked to me.  Marie would probably be a saint one day, even if she had dingy underwear.

I rode the bus over to Annette’s house after school for 4-H and Mom picked me up when I finished, ’cause winter was way too cold to ride my bike.  Plus it was dark by the time we finished.  One time when I got in a strangers car that looked just like ours, and it was just some lady wanting to buy Mrs. T’s farm fresh eggs.  Except for that one time, which was horrible, getting picked up was the best part of 4-H.  Lots of times I started talking before I even shut the door, and that’s just what I did with that lady.  She got her socks shocked off, with some strange girl jumping into her car and jabbering away about whatever popped into her head.

“What did you learn this week,” Mom said.  I showed her my tablet paper.  She studied it, then handed it back to me.  “That’s a fine first lesson.”  I tell you, Mom’s smiled like I just did something super-duper hard, that no one else could possibly do, even though it was just boring holes on tablet paper, with no thread or anything.  I looked at that paper again, and thought, I guess that is pretty neat.

Mrs. T. took it slow:  next was blind-stitching the hem of a dish-towel, then gathering the skirt of an apron and last sewing on the waistband and ties.  Blind-stitched hems got the persnickety-eyes of the judges twitching like there was no tomorrow.  I had nothing to worry about ’cause I had two sets of persnickety eyes looking beforehand, first Mrs. T’s, then Mom’s.  No stitches showed on the back side or the front side, that because I only snagged two threads before I dived the needled back into the fold and tugged just enough to make the thread disappear, ’cause too much,  and the fabric puckered; not enough and sloppy loops sticking out.

Blue ribbon the first year and almost every year after that!  Blue ribbon is the best possible.

Next came modeling. I loved this part.  It was super-fun, almost as much fun as being in the dance recital.

(Looks like aprons are still a first year project! And now boys are sewing.  Yippee!)

Some lady, who knew what she was talking about, taught all the girls how to model.  Ten year-olds only had to hold our heads straight above our shoulders, look forward, walk out on stage, walk straight forward, pivot, return to start, pivot, and walk off, and keep smiling all the while.  My project got described by some man, who sounded just like David Brinkley from the news, and who somehow never, no matter how many years I was in 4-H mis-pronounced my name.  The tricky parts were to end walking around exactly when the describing stopped and not to flinch when the man mispronounced my name.  I had to smile all the while; that part was a cinch ’cause I loved modeling.  It was fun.  Older girls walked in a triangle, pivoting and pausing at each corner of the stage.  Lady-who-knew-what-she-was-talking-about taught the teen girls how to walk in high-heels.  “Land with your heels first,”  she said.  “Not your toes.  Don’t clomp.”  By the time I was old enough to wear high-heels, I knew just how to do it; plus, I knew not to walk on sidewalk grates ’cause Aunt Annie broke one of her stiletto heel clean off that way, and had to hobble around on one high heel.  Frankie’s mom did the same darn thing at church when she walked over the cold air return on her way back from communion.

I learned how to sew in 4-H and how to critique my work.  I learned even more from watching and listening to what was going on around me:  sometimes you can make something really pretty out of what someone else might throw away, gossip is hurtful even when it never gets back to the victim, look before you jump in a car, and watch wear you are walking.  Fifty years later, these are still pretty good lessons to live by.  Oh yeah, and hold your head high and smile with your whole heart, because after a lot of work, it’s fun to show off a little.

Falling in Love with Statistics

A while ago I told you all about training Ladybird and getting ready for the 4-H fair.  The year Bonita took her yearling calf, Black-eyes, to the 4-H fair was the year I fell in love with Statistics.  Of course, I didn’t know the use of mathematics to prove or disprove a hypothesis was called statistics; I was still just a little girl.  Still and all, that was the year I first appreciated the value of probability, level of confidence, and data sets.

Besides a cow to clean and train, I had some knitting to finish and a cake to bake.  I finished all but the pon-pons on the tie-strings of the hat I knit weeks before the fair.  Mom showed me how to make the pon-pons; then I was ready to display my work.  Even though Mrs. T was my 4-H leader, it was Mom who made sure my knitting was perfect:  first because she knit all us kids’ hats and mittens, and she wouldn’t stand for any mistakes in her own work, so I knew better than to stand for any in mine; second, Mom inspected my knitting, and told me to rip it out even if she found a tinsy, tiny mistake that nobody but her could see.  I hated ripping out, ’cause it was so hard to get the stitches back on the needles straight, and if I ended up with a twisted or dropped stitch:  rip it out again.  Holy Mackerel that stunk.  Besides, it was bad enough to make a mistake without having someone else point it out to me.  Especially someone like Mom, who did all kinds of making stuff so good it looked like something in those store windows I wasn’t allowed to go into ’cause everything was too expensive to even dream about and I might knock something over and then have to buy some broken expensive thingamajig.  I always got a blue ribbon in knitting.

The year Bonita showed Black-eyes was the year I went to the State Fair with my cake.  Baking was easy as can

This is a cake I decorated. Decorating has lots of variability, but all that frosting won't cover up a bad cake.

be, ’cause I could control everything:  follow the recipe to the letter, make it the morning of the fair, and probability of success was super high.  A big blue rosette, and off to the State Fair I went.

In case you forgot, Ladybird was a registered Holstein, she was beautiful and she already proved the year before that she was a blue-ribbon heifer. Ladybird was almost 2 years old, this was her second show, so she nor I were the least bit nervous, she took a third place out of 25, a big yellow rosette, plus a blue ribbon.  We knew what we were doing.

Bonita and Black-eyes had the deck stacked against them.  For one thing, Black-eyes was Lightfoot’s calf, no papers; she was leggy, and was more white than black, in the cow-world, Black-eyes was kinda lacking in the looks department.  I guess Bonita figured that out ’cause she got nervous and jittery so bad she got one of her bend-over-I’m-sick stomach aches.  To top it all off, there were about twenty calves in Black-eye’s confirmation category.  Bonita was doomed.  Then the worse thing possible happened.

Black-eyes, that calf that Bonita loved almost as much as she loved her dog Nikki, took off running right in the middle of the show ring.  Bonita tried to be stern and in charge, but Black-eyes got spooked by the loud-speaker and just dragged Bonita through the dirt.  A big cloud of dust settled all around Bonita, just laying there like she was dead, while the man behind the loud-speaker got all excited and started to shout, “Get that girl out of the ring! Somebody get that calf.  Get that girl!  Somebody get that calf.”

I ran over to get Black-eyes settled her down, while some man, all green around the gills, went to pick a limp Bonita up out of the dirt.  I just gritted my teeth, and pressed my lips together tight as I could, so nothing sneaked out of my mouth, ’cause I knew Bonita was just embarrassed, and she figured if she acted hurt, she’d get lots of attention, rather than lots of ribbing.  Well, to tell the truth, I saw her do it before with Dad; she knew how to ham up an injury better than anybody I knew.  Of course,  she was right.  Everybody felt so sorry for her, all the rest of the day, complete strangers came up to her and asked her how she was feeling, and was she alright, and what an awful thing to happen to her.  Yeah, right.  Poor Black-eyes, I thought; she was scared half to death.  After she got abandoned by the blubber-puss Bonita, I finished showing her; she only got a red ribbon. That’s something to just shove in your back pocket and keep quiet about.

Ladybird and Me. I know you saw this picture before, but isn't she a beaut?

In the evening we had showmanship:  the dairy cows got judged on how clean shiny they were, if they could show off what good looks they had by stopping in a pretty way, and of course, how gentle they behaved.  Showmanship classes went by the age of the 4-H-er, Bonita was sure Black-eyes would run again, but the announcer talked all gentle, and lucky for Bonita, only one other ten-year-old kid in 4-H that year.   The worst she could have done, was a second place, she had a 1 out of 2 chance of winning, and a blue ribbon guaranteed.   That Bonita got 1st place, a blue rosette and a blue ribbon.  Me and Ladybird got another third out of 24; that was really way better, I beat 21 other people, not just one.

Dad dragged Bonita’s trophy and the big blue rosette and the blue-ribbon out every time company came over, and even had the whole shebang in the car for a while so he could show off his winner-daughter, Bonita, to everybody he knew.  Now that really took the cake.  No more keeping my mouth shut: “I got a third out of 24.  Bonita only beat one other kid. Plus she got dragged and laid there in the dirt like a ninny,”  I said it every time, so that pretty soon, Mom had to take me aside and tell me to let Bonita have her day.  I always did like a good logical argument, and this was just out of control.

Oh, if only I knew then what I know now.  If I just had the tools, I could have explained how a sample size of two is too small to prove anything, that there were too many variables out of control, that the sample sets the Bonita and I were in were too different to compare.  All those tools would support my child’s logical argument, and a little more spotlight would have shined over my way and maybe even on my State Fair Cake accomplishment.

On second thought, the probability of that happening is slim.  Those of you reading who love statistics the way I do you understand what I mean.  Sometimes, no matter what the pure and logical numbers shout out clear as day, people believe what they want to believe anyway.

Ladybird, A Blue Ribbon Heifer

One day in the early spring, our cow, Belle, gave birth to a perfect little heifer.  She was mine.  It was my job to train her, feed her, and clean her.  In August, I would show the world just what a capable 10 year old I was.  This was no ordinary calf, she was a registered Holstein.  She needed a name that would befit her lineage.

I named my first calf Tiny.  That was a good name for a calf, but not so good for a grown cow, besides there was only one Tiny, and this new little wobbly legged calf was not her.  This new calf looked a lot like Belle: mostly black with just the perfect amount of white marking across her back, up her feet and legs and under her belly.  Belle never even saw my calf’s father.  That’s because Dr. Friese came over with his little frozen vial, and that’s how Belle got pregnant.  It didn’t take any love or marriage for cows, ’cause cows didn’t have souls.  They were still God’s creatures, that’s for sure, but they never ate apples from that tree in the Garden of Eden, so no rules, and no sins. ‘Course there weren’t any cows in heaven either, so that was the down side of all that freedom.

Dad was really good at picking out names; he picked out all the girls names at my house, except for Mom’s of course.  Any Dodo bird would know that.  Dad even helped me name my doll, Jonesy-Belle, so for sure he would be a good help with this new calf of mine, the only one, besides Belle who was a genuine, registered Holstein.  Me and Dad put our heads together for days, trying to come up with names.  Dad helped Bonita name her calf Black Eyes; that was easy, she was mostly white with big black blotches, and big black circles around her eyes.  Besides that, Dad called Bonita his black-eyed Susan, so Bonita loved calling her calf, Black Eyes.  Bonita was too little for 4-H and Black Eyes was just a regular old Holstein calf, not a registered Holstein, like mine.

One evening, while Dad was milking Belle, he said, “I got an idea, let’s name her after someone in the Vice-President’s family.”  He rested his head against Belle’s belly, and turned just enough to look at me. Continue reading