A Christmas for Carol

5 Jan

Grandma Brower

My grandma had many names; most recently before she died, we called her Pea, as in sweet pea, which was the flower she would use as her signature in her paintings.  It originated from my cousin Dayna, who, as an infant, attempting the word “grandma,” simply resorted to “pea.”  Her full name was Veronica Anne Curran, and then Brower, after marrying my grandpa, James John Brower.  However, it seemed most people knew her as Carol, which was the nickname given to her soon after her birth, which happened to have been five days before Christmas.  So there you have it, a short history of Pea and Pa Brower.

Now, due to a nasty case of procrastination (caused somewhat from a typewriter and later remedied by a new laptop), dating from last spring until right now, I was not able to post this in time for my grandma’s birthday, which is December 20th, if she was still alive.  After spring and summer of 2011 came and went, I promised myself I would make October 18th the due date, which is my grandfather’s birthday (he just turned 80!), and I would send him the heavily revised version of this short piece of creative non-fiction as a birthday present.  Luckily, I didn’t tell him to expect it, because I couldn’t meet the date.  The due date became Thanksgiving, which also came and went.  Grandma’s birthday was approaching, but Pa had to go to the hospital because of blood pressure, which forced me to work on the piece a bit more seriously, and I gained significant progress.  He turned out to be fine, just a little bit of low blood pressure, so I went back to procrastinating.  Anyway, without further ado, and before I myself pass on…

Pea’s Legacy

by Liz Brower

For as long as I knew Grandma, she made her own clothes, and countless pieces and ensembles for others.  The basement was her sewing factory, the length of one wall stretching with shelves crammed full of bolts of fabric.  Hanging baskets rainbowed with thread and bobbin dropped from the ceiling, and the floor was stacked with boxes of buttons for us grandkids to run our hands through like treasure.  The pool table was perfect for holding a piece of sleeve or pant leg as Grandma stuck brown pattern paper and material together with straight pins.  Down there, I learned everything one needs to know about sewing from measuring and cutting, to threading the machine and hemming, to button holes and ironing.  Most of the time, though, was spent messing around doing kid-stuff with my sister and cousins, or lying indolently on the cool basement floor in hot summers, while Rush Limbaugh or the Talk of Akron made noise along with Grandma and her sewing machine.

From the time I was born, to the time Grandma and Grandpa moved away, she sewed for me.  When I was a baby, she made blankets from the softest yellow checked cotton fabrics with silky edges that I rubbed holes through.  Later, in spite of a distance of over two-thousand miles and crippling fibromyalgia, Grandma took my measurements and constructed a two-piece handkerchief hem dress in sea-foam green that I saw in a magazine.  Gold-streaked gossamer with tiny handmade straps overlay a fitted, strapless bodice.  Grandma placed her trademark “darts” in the front and a tiny sliver of a zipper in the back.  Cascading across the front were hundreds of rainbow sequins that she topped with clear seed beads.  I will always appreciate this fact not only because of the elegance and beauty of the design, but because I knew how difficult it must have been to use her hands for such precision.

When I was a girl, Grandma took great pleasure in constructing annual holiday dresses for me and my sister.  For Christmas, it was dresses with black velvet tops sewn to shiny gold or silver skirts puffing out around our stockinged legs, and a giant bow of matching reflectiveness attached square across the chest or planted on top of our heads with a barrette.  The Christmas dresses reflected the flashy opulence of the nineteen eighties—quite literally, when the flash mounted on the old Konica would go off, sending beams of light into the eyes of lookers-on.

Grandma began a Saint Patrick’s Day dress tradition that as far as I can tell, no one has ever recreated.  Each year, on March 17th, I attended grade school in a custom Irish costume.  I was a walking be-shamrocked creation from head to toe.  In the morning, there was with the business of getting into costume, starting with some white tights and a knee length drawstring skirt that kind of flared out at the bottom, covered in appliqued shamrocks outlined in puffy paint.  Grandma would also make a vest from cotton print fabric, on which she would also sometimes applique with the shamrocks and puff paint.  To top me off, she would tie a silky shamrock scarf on my head to complete the peasant look.  Dressing up “Irish” was always fun, but not all dresses were for amusement.

Easter dresses were always pink and floral, and back then it seemed to me that Sundays in spring were always warm.

My favorite dress was a little yellow eyelet jumper with broad, white trim.  Grandma loved pockets—hers were usually full of hard candies or cough drops and used tissues—so this dress had two big ones waist-high.  The second time I ever wore the dress, I went out back to find some more of the blackberries we had been eating the day before, and decided I had better load them up in the pockets so I’d have a way to get them back to the house and then maybe Grandma could make a pie, or maybe so I could eat them by the fistful, instead of one at a time.  Either way, by the time I had picked enough for the juice to stain my fingers purple, I had two, huge black splotches seeping through where the berries had turned to mush in the pockets.  I don’t remember her reaction exactly, but I thought she took the dress away to launder it and remove the stains with some sort of magical potion bottle of stain remover, but I never saw it again, much to my chagrin because I would have worn it with the black spots.  I hope she wasn’t mad.

One of the things Grandma used to do, which always makes my sister and I laugh now, was to make outfits from matching cotton printed tops and bottoms for summer time.  Sometimes, she would use the same material for my sister and me, and our older boy cousins.  You could spot us at Sea World, the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo, or a Holiday Inn, milling around conspicuously in the same green and white jungle print short pants, like the von Trapp children in The Sound of Music.  Grandma had no trouble whipping up these matching outfits just in time for a vacation or day trip to some high-traffic public place.  Our favorite were the “shark shorts,” which had all of these dressed up cartoon sharks wearing sunglasses and other unexpected things.

Sewing a zipper is a pretty impressive feat, and Grandma was very accomplished at sewing in a zipper, which she did often when it came to making windbreakers.  Everyone in the family had windbreakers, and plenty more than one.  I think Grandma had one in every color for every occasion.  You could see all of us together in our windbreakers at the places Grandma loved to take us, like Squire’s Castle in the North Chagrin Reservation where we would have a picnic, the cottage on Lake Erie where we would catch sunfish and bluegill, by the side of the road picking berries, or at The Bomber’s Squadron by Cleveland Hopkins Airport, having lunch, watching the planes take off and land.

In a way, it was Grandma and her sewing that bound us together in those days.  The family was closer and spent more time together, and we looked forward to Grandma’s road trips, barbeques, Easter egg hunts, and glorious Christmases.  Everything seemed simpler and everyone seemed happier.  Of course, these memories were formed from my naïve, childhood perspective, but I still think there is some truth to these thoughts.

She said to me in the kitchen one day, while I compulsively opened the goody cupboard and mentioned a clothes shopping trip, like a typical spoiled eleven year old at Grandma’s house, that rich people are not rich because they buy expensive shirts.  I stopped and thought about it for a minute, and I realized that she didn’t mean you become rich by refraining from expensive shirts, but that there is a certain virtue to being frugal and self-sufficient.

At a time when everything is commercially mass-produced and branded, I have only the deepest respect and love for Grandma and her sewing, for her ideals and originality.  Grandma and her clothes were one of a kind, and she made them out of love, for all of us.


4 Responses to “A Christmas for Carol”

  1. maria January 6, 2012 at 5:45 pm #

    nice story! when pea sewed, we all reaped.

  2. infrared750 January 6, 2012 at 9:16 pm #

    Ah ha ha.

  3. Sarah January 6, 2012 at 11:21 pm #

    Nice! You could write another one about her gardening and her cooking and her love of skinny dipping.

    You know, I didn’t realize I was listening to Rush Limbaugh all those years. How am so liberal?

    • infrared750 January 7, 2012 at 5:23 pm #

      Reason and enlightenment prevail? I don’t know, but I do love me some skinny dipping.

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