Janet Sheridan: Nail files, old sewing machines serve as trusty tools

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Janet Sheridan

Dad watched as I tried to turn a screw with a fingernail file and asked if I would try to use a crowbar to topple a telephone pole. I continued my effort, paying no attention to the man who bought a used Willys Jeep to transport his family of seven.

The difference? Dad was a dreamer; I was lazy. Using a file had seemed easier than clawing through the clutter of tools in the garage for the right screwdriver — which, after five minutes of wasted effort, I ended up doing anyway.

Misplaced penny-pinching also contributes to my make-do attitude toward tools. “Why buy a new one when this one still works?” I ask myself as I gnaw at my toenails with a dull pair of clippers, wipe up liquid dripping from a blender lid held together with duct tape or trudge stairs with a 1980s vacuum that weighs more than a prize-winning heifer.

At other times, I think I rely on outdated equipment because I’m unaware that the world has changed. Why else would I still be using a hand-wrung mop? A friend recently showed me her new mopping apparatus: a rolling container that allowed her to dunk a traditional mop in water, lift the dripping tendrils into a colander-type bowl, then depress a lever that twirled the mop head around and around until it was damp, not wet — a salad spinner for mops.

Even when I know a better tool is available, I have trouble parting with old friends that require no thought. Yesterday, I used a cranky sewing machine I’ve sewed on forever to turn a pair of slacks into capris, alter a shirt to Joel’s specifications and stitch the frayed corner seams of a fitted sheet.

I exemplified efficiency and equanimity as I measured, cut, pinned, pressed, re-threaded and wound bobbins. Even in the face of an expected, continuous, self-imposed irritation, my smile didn’t fade nor did my vocabulary deteriorate.

About five years ago, my hand slipped as I lowered my machine’s head into its cabinet, and I dropped it. The force of the fall pulled out a cabinet screw I’d been meaning to tighten since February 1995, but without a readily available fingernail file, I kept putting it off.

The unleashed machine whammed into the side of the cabinet, snapping off the lever that reverses its stitch. Since then, I insert a tiny screwdriver into a slot in the housing to depress the remains of the lever whenever I need to secure a thread by reversing stitch — which I did about three dozen times during my mending frenzy.

I’m told that replacing the lever would be problematic. Of course, I could buy a new machine, but I rarely sew these days, and the idea of learning to use a new model makes me want to eat bacon and take a nap. So the elderly Singer and I limp along together.

I remember my excitement when I purchased it years ago with the extra money I earned for teaching summer school. I basked in its shiny sleekness and daydreamed about the clothes I could create with six stitches and five attachments — none of which I knew how to use.

I decided it would be wise to schedule the free lesson that came with my purchase. The teacher, an elderly gentleman, excused himself after the first half hour and returned radiating renewed patience and whisky fumes. Despite his best efforts, when I got home, it took 15 minutes of emotional turmoil, intense muttering and profanity just to thread the damn thing.

My husband, glancing at my furrowed brow and clenched jaw, remarked that evidently, learning to use a new sewing machine was a special hell reserved for those who needed to be humbled.

I chose to ignore him.

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