Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Mothers of Invention -- A Tribute



Hello blog friends! It’s been a long time since I’ve posted here. I’ve missed chatting with you.

I should explain that my lovely and loving mother died on May 19 at the age of 71. Since then I’ve alternated between sorrow, anxiety, numbness, and a cautious cheerfulness. Many of you have been through this. No doubt you’d tell me there’s no right or wrong way to grieve, and that I should give myself as much time as I need. I do appreciate that.

This post really isn't about grief, however. It is about a legacy of love. To honor my mother (and grandmother) I'd like to share a specific example of their magical influence on my life.

I promise this will make you SMILE.

Like many young girls, I obsessed over the Laura Ingalls Wilder books. My fascination began when Mom read Little House in the Big Woods and Little House on the Prairie to me at bedtime. As Laura and I grew older, I graduated to reading the novels on my own. Wishing to be as much like my favorite protagonist as possible, I demanded that my hair be braided, wore my ruffled calico dress until it burst at the seams, and begged to go to Grandma’s farm where I could practice baking, butter churning, and cow tending. (Working in the garden was less inspiring, but imagining myself as Laura helped make it endurable.) When Mom remarried I decided henceforth that she and my stepfather would be known as Ma and Pa. No one dared to disagree. Even my Barbie dolls were forced to hold down a claim under a tree in the backyard. In their little frame house they cooked on a miniature cast iron stove, slept on straw-filled mattresses, and fed fragrant grass seed to their (plastic) horses.

Mom and Grandma were well aware of my obsession. They shared it, after all. And thus one year they concocted a plan for my Christmas present--a plan so ambitious they must have been as intimidated as they were excited by the enormity of their task. They undertook to sew a complete wardrobe for my Barbie dolls based on Laura Ingalls’ wedding trousseau from These Happy Golden Years.

Each day, as soon as I was safely on the school bus, my mother collected my Barbies and drove to Grandma’s house. Together they pored over the text of the book, taking notes on her descriptions of fabrics and dress styles. They cross-referenced these details with a reproduction 1900 Sears & Roebuck catalog and adapted Barbie dress patterns to the old-fashioned styles. Once they knew exactly what they would be sewing it was time to plunder the ragbag for fabric scraps that closely resembled the dresses described in the book. Only after they’d exhausted that resource did they take out their pocketbooks and travel to the fabric store for the materials they did not already have.

They watched the clock carefully in the afternoons to ensure my mom would get home before the bus. Each day she returned my dolls to what she hoped was the exact spot where I’d left them. To her credit, I never had a clue of the costume fitting adventures my Barbie dolls had undertaken during the day...


At least, not until Christmas Day brought this box of MAGIC.

Would you like to see what was inside?

[Here's where I confess to devoting an entire day to a Barbie photo shoot, just so I could show you the clothes that were packed in that box. Many thanks go to Disney's "Belle" Barbie for standing in for my long lost dolls. And as always with my blog photos, if you would like a closer view, click the image to enlarge.]


First there was the brown poplin dress:

It's smooth, long sleeves fitted her arms perfectly to the wrists, where a band of plain silk ended them. The neck was high with a smooth band of the plain silk around the throat. The polonaise fitted tightly and buttoned all down the front with small round buttons covered with the plain brown silk. Below the smooth hips it flared and rippled down and covered the top of the flounce on the underskirt. A band of the plain silk finished the polonaise at the bottom. (These Happy Golden Years, 162-63).

I loved that there were two parts to this dress, and that you can see the underskirt's ruffle peeping out below the silk ribbon of the polonaise. Note: this was the dress Laura wore during the infamous buggy ride in which she shook the buggy whip and startled the colts, all because Almanzo tried to put his arm around her. Cheeky young man! (And "devilish" young lady!)


The pink lawn dress also came in two pieces and was gorgeously feminine. Grandma and Mom were particularly adept at recreating the tuck work that Laura described:

They made the waist tight-fitting, with two clusters of tucks down the back, and two in front...The skirt was gathered very full all round into a narrow waistband, which buttoned over the bottom of the waist to secure them from slipping apart. All down the full skirt, tucks went around and around it, spaced evenly a little way apart, and below the bottom tuck was a full-gathered ruffled four inches wide that just touched Laura's shoe tips (243-44).


Laura's black cashmere wedding dress was constructed of soft, fine-waled corduroy, complete with lace at the neck and a tiny wooden brooch painted with an even tinier strawberry. [See a closer view of the brooch.] Grandma and Mom sewed Laura's straw poke bonnet out of roughly textured green fabric and lined it with blue cotton.

Laura was ready when Almanzo came. She was wearing her new black cashmere dress and her sage-green poke bonnet with the blue lining and the blue ribbon bow tied under left ear. The soft black tips of her shoes barely peeped from beneath her flaring skirt as she walked (279).

(For the record, I simply could not manage to tie that ribbon under Belle's left ear without it looking ridiculous.)


Being very attentive to detail, Mom and Grandma did not forget Laura's underclothes. Mom cleverly constructed a narrow hoop skirt of wire and tape--"the very latest style in the East" (161)--and even fashioned a tiny bustle that could be taped underneath for fullness or on top for modest backside enhancement. Knowing Laura preferred a small bustle, I usually taped it on top. (In the photo, however, it is taped underneath for maximum enhancement. Check the side view of the black wedding dress for the effect.) To cover the hoop they provided a soft white cotton petticoat with yellow ribbon trim. Their pièce de résistance, however, was a corset of white satin sewn with the tiniest of stitches to fit the fabric exactly to Barbie's inhuman proportions.


Mom and Grandma even found time to sew a long-sleeved, flowing nightgown of white flannel sprinkled with delicate purple flowers for Barbie. They also made a girl-sized one out of the same material for me. Sadly, my gown is long gone, but Barbie looks quite cozy in hers, doesn't she?

As you might imagine, I was thoroughly enchanted by this miniature and very complicated wardrobe, and I spent hours dressing and undressing my dolls. A few items didn't survive the heavy use, and one dress (a blue calico?) was drastically retooled during my Medieval Barbie phase, but the rest were passed down to my baby sister when I went to college. (I honestly can't remember how I felt about this. I wonder if I even knew?) Eventually my dear nieces played with them as well, and I'm certain the dresses enjoyed their varied adventures over the years. Their good condition today is a testament both to the care that went into their construction and the delicacy with which we played with them.

A few years ago Mom and I searched through the toy box and collected all the Laura Ingalls items we could find. Just last week I conducted my photo shoot--partly for posterity, but mostly as a way to celebrate Mom and Grandma. They were true mothers of invention, and it is such an honor (not to mention a balm to my sore heart) to share their industry and artistry with you!

I will close with a message for these dearly departed ladies: Thank you, Grandma and Mom, for taking time out of your busy days to enter a child's imagination, for making her dreams come true, and for gifting her with your love of history and story. Thank you for the magic. You both will live forever in my heart.


Grandma and me (You can see I inherited her mouth) on Christmas Day, 1978? (Photo taken by Mom)


Margaret Ellen (Grandma) and Marcia (Mom), circa 1962

**Many thanks to my sister, Heather Miller, who searched the family albums for the Christmas photos!

[Cross-posted at Livejournal]