Janet Sheridan: Lessons from a 4-H project

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Janet Sheridan

Every year as August approaches, I remember 4-H, a long-ago fair and a lesson from my mother.

I straightened my back, lifted my feet from the rhythmic tap of the treadle and flexed my fingers. A whoosh of relief escaped my clenched teeth. The last buttonhole finished. Three weeks of sewing, unpicking and re-sewing nearly finished.

Next, I would snip the fabric enclosed by buttonhole stitching and attach five red buttons to my blouse. Then, I’d be ready to collect a blue ribbon in the local 4-H competition.

Seizing the scissors, I folded the first buttonhole in half and pictured the gracious humility with which I’d receive my ribbon: snip, fold, snip, fold, flying fingers, fantasizing mind. Engrossed by my imaginings, I didn’t notice the blouse’s fabric caught in the fold of the last buttonhole.

Snip.

I shook out my masterpiece and croaked with horror when I saw a triangular cut gaping open on its left side — as dismaying as a boil on a bride’s nose.

Screaming that I hated sewing and would never do it again, I wadded the botched blouse and threw it across the room. Then, bursting with shuddering sobs, I pushed by my startled mother and ran into the hot afternoon to hide in the crushed-leaf smell at the top of my favorite cottonwood tree.

Nothing was said when I joined my family at the kitchen table for dinner. Nothing was said as I ignored my turn to wash the dishes and stomped off to sulk in the room I shared with two sisters. Nothing was said as I pretended to read “Little Women” until bedtime. Mom, Dad, Lawrence, Carolyn, Bob and Barbara seemed not care that my life was ruined.

I hated them all.

The next morning, at the foot of my bed, I found my blouse still warm from the iron: flawed side replaced, buttonholes finished and buttons attached. In the kitchen, I could hear my mother humming while she kneaded yet another batch of homemade bread.

I don’t remember thanking Mom for my reconstructed blouse, but I do remember the fond glance she gave me as she asked if I still hated sewing.

Even more, I remember the steely look that followed my reply: “Oh, no, I love it. I love this blouse. It’s beautiful. It’s perfect. It’s sure to win a blue ribbon, don’t you think?”

I pranced my 11-year-old body around the crowded kitchen, clutching the blouse to my chest, pretending to strut a fashion runway.

Her voice stopped me.

“Janet, you don’t think you’re going to enter that blouse in the fair, do you?”

Startled, I stopped in mid-prance and gaped in astonishment.

She quietly continued: “You have plenty of time to make another. That one’s not completely your work. I fixed it for you so you wouldn’t be discouraged. Would it be honest to enter it?”

Once again, visions of myself with a blue ribbon denoting my excellence, shattered to disbelief. What was she talking about? Who would even know? Surely, she didn’t mean I should start over.

One look at her unyielding expression as she opened the back door and headed for the orderly rows of her family-feeding garden, told me she meant just that, and she was through discussing it.

Again, furious tears. Again, a slammed screen door. Again, the quiet refuge of my tree. But this time, my anger disguised shame. I knew she would not relent, no matter how I cried.

And I knew she was right.

Quietly, still hiccupping from useless sobs, I climbed down from my haven.

I slowly entered the garden, inched along a row of pepper plants covered with tiny green globes, and offered my opener: “May I have any fabric I want for my next blouse?”

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