Tattered no more

Many readers or watchers of The English Patient (I preferred the novel) were swept away by the romantic story line: the Count and Katharine, their illicit liaisons, the plane crash, desert cave, fire. And I? In both the film and the book, I was drawn to the nurse’s story: Hana, her makeshift hospital, and her care of the burned and disfigured English patient.

Real love, in my view, is seldom epic. It’s steady and practical, and it accumulates in small gestures.

One of the to-do items on a long list of preparations and purchases for Eli’s move to college was mending. Months ago he left three pairs of jeans on the window seat in my room and asked me to make them wearable again. I don’t feel like mending during the school term — I’m too busy mending drafts, I guess — so I put off the task. Last week, a few days before my first child’s departure, I set up the sewing machine, looked at the pants with their three sets of problems, and sat down with scissors and sewing box.

Only one pair was ripped on a seam line, an easy problem to solve, although a rivet through three layers of denim created an obstacle for my non-industrial machine. Solution: remove the rivet, using a hammer and small chisel, and sew along the existing seam lines. Done.

Two pairs weren’t ripped so much as tattered. Eli, through use, had worn the fabric down in the seat and around his wallet pocket. “Couldn’t I just buy you two new pairs of jeans?” I asked him. “I love these,” he said. “Couldn’t you just try to sew them?” Then he flattered me: “Mom, you can do it.”

Anticipating that more fabric would be needed, Eli had given me an unloved pair of denim shorts to cannibalize. I cut patches from these shorts and pinned them to the tattered places. I tacked them in place using a zigzag stitch.

Then I dialed the stitch setting on the machine back to the straight stitch, and I randomly and repeatedly sewed back and forth across the patches. This was true patching, building up a new fabric, in a way.

I kept my foot on the power pedal, periodically pressed the directional switch to reverse (the “back” of the back and forth stitching), and watched the stitches gather and blur into each other. I switched thread color, from gray to light blue for the denim ones and khaki to stone for the corduroys, to increase the blurring effect.

I thought about leaving my signature somehow, writing a word in stitches that would be like a secret message — one so secret only I would know about it — for the mended pants to carry around as Eli wore them. Mom, Jane, love all seemed too corny. (Plus, how twisted would that be, to write your own name in your son’s pants?) I considered hieroglyphs, which would fit invisibly into the random stitching, or tattoos or Japanese characters.

No symbolic language, in the end, made it into the mended pants. After I finished sewing, I snipped all the loose threads and admired my own work. We threw them into the wash, and Eli folded and packed them into his suitcase* for college. The pants and Eli live in Vermont now.


*Wait, there’s more! In trying to lift Eli’s overstuffed suitcase into the back of the car, I hurt my toe. Of course, I had to find a way to write about that. I called it “Toe Story” and posted it on my other blog. Link. There were sequels: “Toe Story 2” and “Toe Story 3.” Link 2 and Link 3.

3 thoughts on “Tattered no more

  1. Ah, but Jane, your signature is *all* *over* those repairs. And both you and Eli know and appreciate that. How great that instead of feeling like he needed a whole new wardrobe for college, he just wanted the reliable old things mended. Truly living by Thoreau’s warning to “Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes.”

    I loved the story about your podiatrist telling you that he’d be afraid of skating, too. Always so illuminating when people we don’t expect to reveal their weaknesses to us at all reveal such surprising ones!

  2. I didn’t know that Thoreau said that! I’ll have to tell Eli. It’s affirming to me, too — earlier in my career, I once or twice avoided applying for a job because I thought I’d have to buy, and then wear, all new and fancier clothes. Perhaps it was a sign of my true self talking (and not laziness or cheapness).

    Thanks, R., for reading my toe stories, also.
    You put that so aptly, that it’s illuminating when people unexpectedly reveal weaknesses and that their weaknesses are surprising. My yoga teacher, whom I think of as the Queen of the Bodily Realm, told me she’d never go on the ice, because she’s afraid of instability. When people of apparent strength — like the burly podiatrist, like my powerful yoga teacher — reveal their vulnerabilities, I feel a moment of connection with them.

    • It’s always the small things that are most humanizing, isn’t it? The last time I saw my rheumatologist, she asked me out of the blue what I liked to read. I told her I’d spent the summer reading pretty much nothing but mystery novels. Her eyes lit up as she started asking me which authors I liked, and recommending ones she liked, and it was an exchange that felt like it fundamentally changed how we understand each other. All of his is an important reminder to me that it’s not only OK but sometimes essential to show students where our own weaknesses/biases/passions lie.

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