Today is Aimée’s birthday. I gave her some gift cards and a little crystal elephant necklace last week when she came up to New Hampshire for a visit. Sounds lame, but after 37 years, picking the right gift is still as hard as finding the right words to express what she means to me.
Nothing seems to measure up.
Fortunately, the universe sent me inspiration.
Pregnant at 16 is not where I ever expected to be, but there I was, eating for two; my future – our future – unsettled. I imagined that there was no way for me to be a competent mother. I had barely made it through Algebra 2. Things between me and my boyfriend had ended before I knew there was a baby coming, and there was no looking back. Without much family discussion, it was understood that the best thing for my baby was not necessarily me – not at 16.
By June, someone pointed me in the direction of an adoption agency, the Children’s Home Society of New Jersey. I agreed to go to counseling sessions, to fill out the preliminary paperwork – at around the same time the boy who had loved me from a far, and who had planned to be my husband since 8th grade, professed his eternal love for me, and for my baby.
I told him he shouldn’t give up his freedom for the burden of a girlfriend with a baby.
He still never listens.
It was also around the same time I began to sew an elaborate baptismal gown to dress the baby in for when she left me, and the hospital. My intention was to relay a message to the fortunate woman who was to become her mother, who would recognize the love that went into every stitch. I wanted her to know that this baby hadn’t come from just any wayward teen mom, but rather one who had managed to recreate her heart into the exact shape and size of a delicate dress, fit for an angel.
It was a true labor of love.
With no skills, beyond the basics of ninth-grade home-ec, I purchased a few yards of white dotted-Swiss, some lace and yellow satin ribbon. Not knowing if this would be a girl baby or a boy baby, I instinctively picked up two daisies to add to the coat of the three-piece ensemble, and five delicate buttons – three yellow luminescent ones for the overcoat and two tiny duck buttons for the back of the gown.
I labored over this project for weeks, using my mother’s old cast-iron sewing machine, a relic from the 1950s. It had a sticky foot pedal, a temperamental bobbin and a dull needle, but I was not deterred.
By August, the outfit was finished, not coincidentally around the same time I stopped meeting with the social worker at the Children’s Home, and around the same time I’d accepted that the boy who planned to be my husband was truly, honestly, whole-heartedly excited about being a dad.
By September 12, my beautiful baby girl was born, and I had never felt so perfectly suited to anything in my life. Loving her was more than instinct – it was like we’d been together forever. Meeting was just a formality. I already knew everything about her, from her familiar nose to her exceptionally flexible toes.
By December, a dear woman from church, Debby Clarke, had stopped by with a gift from the heart – unlike me, she actually had skills and had sewn a beautiful baptismal dress for Aimée, trimmed in pink, with a lacy bonnet. I didn’t mention the dotted-Swiss gown to her, and accepted it with sincere gratitude. By January, Aimée was baptized in Debby’s dress, and the three-piece dotted-Swiss, already relegated to storage.
Over the course of my life I have lost track of plenty of significant items, some I have been searching for, with no luck, for years.
So when I went up to my closet this morning, hoping to find an old photograph that might punctuate a birthday post for my daughter on Facebook, the swatch of dotted-Swiss draped over the side of a cardboard box under the weight of some stored sweaters caught me off guard. I had almost forgotten about it.
I tugged on the sleeve and pulled out the dress. Next to it, a pile of once-important papers was harboring a length of yellow ribbon. It was the little bonnet, which had somehow gotten separated from the dress. I instinctively clutched the fabric to my chest and started for the stairs when I heard myself sobbing. Halfway down I turned around and went back up to the closet, tossing sweaters from the box until I found the third piece, the jacket with the daisies and tiny yellow buttons.
I sat down on the floor and carefully slid the sleeves of the gown into the jacket, noting the elastic had lost its stretch. I snapped the snaps and smoothed the wrinkles, running my finger along the hem, admiring the workmanship that I’d forgotten went into this little dress that had never been worn.
I marveled at how beautifully the yoke was seamed to the bodice, and how both hems were hand sewn admirably straight. Somehow, with no guidance, I managed to attach the tiny sleeves to the flowing garment without puckering the delicate fabric, and judged the circumference of a baby’s wrist, tacking elastic in place, stitch by stitch, turning the cast-iron balance wheel of the sewing machine by hand.
And that’s when it hit me.
I will probably never in my life be able to put into words what motherhood has meant to me, but if pressed, I would say that it feels a lot like holding a three-piece antique dotted-Swiss christening dress in my hands, a remnant of a place and time that changed everything. Every stitch, a labor of love; sewn with the best of intentions, perfect in all its imperfection.
Happy Birthday, my Beloved.
Written Sept. 12, 2013.