Faded, threadbare, my earliest memories
are stitched together by the whir and click
of my grandmother’s Singer 66. She kept me
clothed—through the corn-silk heat of Iowa
summers to the snow-blind winters with ruptured
water pipes. She followed patterns she bought
at the Ben Franklin, but also those handed down.

Afternoons, I’d wake from my nap
to that chugging sound, follow it down
the hall to her sewing room where I’d find
her hunched over the machine, feet pumping
the treadle, right hand on the wheel as if
chained to the thing. Wedded at thirteen,
widowed young, she lived alone for thirty years,

and while my parents worked, she cared for me,
her kindness a balm for my father’s
anger at the world. At her funeral
someone said that in the ‘30s she’d fed men
who’d hopped off freight cars, hungry, heading
to Omaha and beyond to look for work.
All agreed that she was a “good woman.”

I’d known nothing of her life before
those years when I sat on the floor beside her
while she sewed—piloting the silver rocket
of a spare bobbin, stacking wooden thread spools
amid fabric scraps and bolts of new cloth with
its faint formaldehyde smell—lulled by the
soothing music of that big machine.

If I was good, she’d take me to her bedroom,
and allow me to gaze at the whatnot
shelf my late grandfather built. It housed
an odd collection of marvels: a pewter bowl of
marbles made from kiln-fired clay,
a walrus tusk scrimshawed with a scene
of a whaling bark at sea, a stuffed baby

crocodile. There was a child-sized iron cast
in solid iron and a family of dolls dressed
in bright embroidered gowns, their pink porcelain
faces hand-painted, their faded blue eyes
staring out from beneath veils of finest
cracks. But the item I remember most,
among those wonders, was a cup-sized china

toilet, with a lid you could actually lift
to reveal, hiding naked inside, a small black boy.
He squatted there, looking up, grinning with huge
cartoonish teeth and eyes—an expression
unnatural, stuck between fright and impish glee.
When I asked my grandmother why the boy
was in there she said, “Isn’t that the cutest thing?”

Image: Photo by J. Williams, via Unsplash.