When I was in eighth grade, that oh-so-painful age of adolescence, I wanted a pair of blue jeans so badly I was quite nearly in agony. Please remember that this was the age of Brooke Shields, who never let anything come between her and her Calvins, and Gloria Vanderbilt’s straight, super-dark-blue-with-gold-stitching disco ready denims. I didn’t necessarily care that my jeans be designer label, I understood only too well my family’s poverty. I was dressed in garage sale clothes that didn’t fit, or repurposed clothes from my mother’s 1970’s remnants (one of my favorite outfits was a blue chambray maxi dress covered in strawberries that my maternal grandmother had helped me redesign and sew into a skirt and blouse. I was vintage before vintage was cool.) Genie pants were a trend when I was in seventh grade, I had tried (with disastrous results) to tie yarn around the ankles of a pair of brown polyester slacks I found in my mom’s closet. When all my friends had braces, I wrapped a rubber band around my front four teeth and tried to convince my classmates I was starting orthodontics. Yes, that really happened. And yes, my teeth were sore for days. When my family moved across town and I started a new school, I saw my chance to be someone different, someone who had not utterly embarrassed herself by doing a cartwheel at cheerleading tryouts, only to find every single other candidate standing in perfect formation and kids in the bleachers pointing and laughing. Someone who looked and lived like everyone else.
I wanted jeans.
I rarely voiced my wishes, resources were so scarce, but I must have voiced this one. When I look back, I realize that wishing for appropriate school clothes was not wicked of me. I honestly just wanted clothes that were appropriate for my age and fit right. And I wanted to blend in. Isn’t that the great conundrum that faces junior high kids? You want to blend in, to be like everyone else, but at the same time you ache to find your own identity.
My father did not know how to make these jeans happen. He just did not have the money to do it. So unbeknownst to me, he called my grandmother, a master seamstress, to see if she could help.
One day I got a box in the mail, addressed from Lubbock, Texas. Usually, these boxes were filled with dresses or blouses made from the leftover fabrics from my grandmother’s clients. This time, I opened the lid to find dark blue denim. My blessed grandmother had made me a pair of blue jeans! Now, as a seamstress myself, I can tell you that denim is a real pain to work with. It’s heavy. It breaks needles. And the finished, flat-fold seams that are standard on the sides and yokes are quite literally impossible without special industrial machines, so my jeans were actually made from a women’s trouser pattern. I didn’t know any of that then. I just knew that I could wear denim on the bus the next day!
The next morning, I put on my jeans with a favorite peach colored top (also one made by my grandmother) and a pair of too-small Famolare shoes found at a garage sale (remember those- they had wavy rubber soles?) I fixed my short frizzy hair and rubbed on eyeliner taken from a jar of shattered Mary Kay kohl left over from the sixties, and walked to the bus stop.
And here is where I learned that no matter where I went, I would always be the girl kids loved to make fun of. Instead of my jeans helping me fit in, they stood out like sore thumbs. No back pockets, no side seams, no pretty stitching, no designer label. I was that morning’s bus target.
I did my best to put a dignified face forward, shielding my thoughts from the mean-spirited peers surrounding me. At first those thoughts were of burning the cursed pants. Well, not really burning, but maybe ripping or burying in the bottom of my closet. But then I thought of my grandmother sitting at her machine, pins in her mouth, humming hymns or listening to Paul Harvey, sacrificing time sewing for paying customers to make me a pair of jeans. I thought of my father setting aside his pride to ask this of her. And I wore those jeans.
Eventually, some of my peers became friends. I never really got invited to sleepovers, but I had people to sit with on the way to and from school. Once my voice was discovered, I became the bus entertainment.
What I learned was that family love trumps everything, and that family love doesn’t always come from where you think it will. That same dear grandmother was still showing her love for me at the sewing machine two years later, making my white dress with a blue satin sash for my role as Liesl in the school musical, five years later with my pink and blue graduation dress, seven years later, helping to make my mother’s dress for my wedding, and then again making crocheted booties for my first child.
I miss that dear lady. She taught her children and grandchildren that loving family matters. She showed each of us that love is not always spoken, it is proven in serving and forgiving others. Loved by her husband, siblings, and descendants until her very last breath, her life was a testament to the power of family love.
Fashions come and go. Grandmothers are forever.