My sewing machine was built in 1940, when the organs of radios and phonographs were still encased in exoskeletons of mahogany and oak. The cabinet hides a great gun-colored machine in its collapsible jaw, so that when I open the smooth wooden lid, a White Rotary Electric rises like a ship from the deep. Close the lid, and it sinks down again to hang on its side in the wooden darkness. I paid nothing for it. It was left behind in a mobile home whose contents, except this iron machine, were sold. The house was portable like a new sewing machine and had to be moved by a certain date, so when no one bought the Rotary Electric, the manager of the mobile home park, who works for my husband, gave it to me.
In my family, sewing machines are handed down like Limoges china, so I assumed the owner had died suddenly. She left wooden spools of Star Mercerized thread in the drawer, spools of tangerine nylon, mint silk, and mauve cotton. The spools say WILL BOIL and BOILFAST and “Nylon Sew-Gude color blending by the Gudebrod Brothers of Philadelphia.” Spools are plastic or cardboard now and have been for at least 30 years. The owner had also left a hand-sized user’s manual so worn it felt like old money. She left thread wound on scraps of paper — brown thread on a packet of Porcupine Steel Pins, faded lavender thread on a cardboard case of allergy pills, red on the crossword puzzle from an old TV Guide. Though I save dryer lint for stuffing pillows and for two days I saved strands of my own hair in a baggy for a rust-proof Victorian pincushion called a Whimsy Ball, it has never occurred to me, not once, to save short pieces of thread.
She left other clues in the drawer, too, like a trail that might lead to her. A matchbook from Pioneer Title Insurance of San Bernardino, trussed in a piece of black thread. A white tin ruler, phone number Colton 12, from the L.J. Snow Company Ford Sales and Service. A pink plastic thimble that says, “Sew Nice to Serve You, ” First National Bank, Ponca City, Okla.
The things in the drawer seemed to belong to her still, the way the bird’s-eye maple bedroom set still belongs to my husband’s Great Aunt Agnes, who is dead, and whom I’ve never seen, not even in a photograph. Furniture keeps us alive until the next owner can’t remember or enjoy its use and sells it to a stranger who sells it to a stranger who likes old, pointless things, and then it’s not we who are alive but an epoch, a time. I already own a stranger’s stereoscope, another stranger’s rotary telephone, a ewer, an ink stand, a chamber pot, and a gas Wedgewood stove on enameled legs, but the trail of the sewing machine was still visible, and I followed it.
I called the people who take rents at the mobile home park and asked if they remembered who used to live in space 22. They had a log that showed Charles and Lois “Bill” Ferguson moved into the park in September of 1976, and Bill moved out of it by herself in March of 1996. They had no pets, the woman told me. They didn’t attend potlucks, play bingo, chat by the pool, or go on field trips. Charles was a recorder for the county of San Bernardino, and it was he who always came on the first day of the month to pay rent. They had one son, Mike Ferguson. Did I want his number?
When I reached Mike by telephone, he said his mother was living in Sun City Gardens, where she’d moved after the death of his father and the sale of their house. As though I were offering proof that the machine was really theirs — that I knew its birthmarks and tattoos — I described the thimble, the ruler, and the matchbook. The plastic thimble from Ponca City, he said, must be a souvenir from the town where she was born and raised. “In her mind,” Mike said, “she’s probably never left Oklahoma.” The white tin ruler from the L.J. Snow Company was a premium from the car dealership where the Fergusons bought their Fords and where Mike still buys his Fords because L.J. Snow, who owned the dealership for 53 years and passed it down to his son, was a friend to Charles. The matchbook from the title company, he said, probably came to the sewing machine via his father’s job as county recorder of real estate deeds, births, and deaths.
The next week, I met Mrs. Ferguson, aged 82, during Mike’s regular Thursday visit to Sun City Gardens, a triangle of blue-carpeted buildings by the freeway that overlooks, on three sides, the hot suburban desert, and in the center, an improbable garden of willows, grass, running water, and roses. After 82 years, Mrs. Ferguson still has the agreeable sort of teeth that have spaces between them, as if each one had spunk.
Before I came, Mike told me that his mother was nervous about her memory, nervous that I would ask her things she couldn’t recall After she answered my first question with “probably,” she told me, “At my age, I have so much more to remember than I did 50 years ago.” Her past is like a picture that has been erased in places. Central figures remain, but the landscape is gone and must be described by those who saw the painting before, like her son.
Mrs. Ferguson hasn’t forgotten anything about her name, which is as long as John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt’s. She was born on October 24, 1914, in Ponca City, Oklahoma, to a family that already had a seven-year-old girl named Phyllis and wasn’t expecting another child. To please the relatives on both sides of the family, they named her Lois after her Uncle Louis and Nell after somebody’s wife and Irene for her dad’s favorite cousin and that made her Lois Nell Irene Cobb.
She thinks it was about 1918 when the family decided to take a vacation to San Francisco without her, and she became Lois Nell Irene “Bill” Cobb. “I was at the age,” she said, “of ‘How much farther?’ and ‘Now I’ve got to go to the bathroom,’ and I wasn’t a very good choice for a long trip,” so they left Lois Nell Irene at-home and took her cousin instead, who was nearer her sister’s age.
At a park in San Francisco, her sister Phyllis and the cousin met and played with a little boy named Willie, “and they apparently enjoyed him,” Bill said, “because on the way home they got to talking about Willie and all the dumb things he did, and the dumb things he said, and came to. the conclusion that I was just about as dumb as he was, and that they would call me Willie when they got home.” Bill isn’t bitter when she says this. It’s as though she’s imagining her sister at 12 and seeing her baby self through disdainful 12-year-old eyes.
Thus Lois Nell Irene became Willie, and her earliest recollection of the name is insisting that she was Bill and not Billy. By the time she was married, she was so thoroughly a Bill that when a friend called her dad’s house looking for Lois — “I went by the name Lois officially” — her father couldn’t remember, at first, who Lois was.
Nobody, she said, thought it was curious to be a woman named Bill. “Of course,” she said, “I’ve always been called, you know, this William stuff, this Guillermo stuff, but the one that amused me happened when I was somewhere around ten or so, and a family called me Bilious. That always amused me.”
She went to high school in Ponca City, then to a girls’ school in Fulton, Missouri, with none of her prospects changed by the Depression because her father had a good job as superintendent of a flour mill. At the girls’ school, she roomed with her best friend from second grade, whose name was also Lois and whose last name started with a C, just like Cobb, and whose middle name was Ellen. Bill added an e to the end of Nell so they would have one more name in common, even if it was a mirror image, a palindrome, of her friend’s. NELLE and ELLEN. In a few years they’d both marry men named Charles, but first Bill Cobb went west to San Bernardino, where her sister Phyllis lived. “They must have decided,” she said, “I would be easier to handle from Phyllis’s standpoint than from my mother’s.”
Bill got a secretarial job and met a man named Charles who worked at a little grocery store near her apartment, and in 1938, at her sister’s house, they married. They borrowed money and built a house right next door. Their parents missed the girls and left Ponca City to live in a house in the same neighborhood. “My parents were wonderful to me,” she said. “We were a very happy family, the four of us.”
Her husband Charles Ferguson looks fastidious in his hand-tinted photograph. He wears glasses and his forehead is high and elegant. He’s posed in dress army uniform, so the photo must have been taken after his enlistment, when he was shipped out to Wisconsin and nearly died of rheumatic fever. Bill went with him everywhere, and while he was recuperating in Florida, she worked on the base as a secretary. They came back to San Bernardino after that, and she had Mike in 1946. “The best thing,” she said, “that ever happened to me.” Later on in the visit, she went to a bookshelf and picked up a tiny pair of sandals, pointed to her full-grown son, then back to the little sandals. “Can you imagine?” she asked. “Can you imagine that?”
In those years, the White Rotary Electric sewing machine ran under the hands of her mother. Bill hadn’t learned to cook, partly because her sister. Phyllis loved to cook and was always in the kitchen and partly, she said, because she was the baby of the family and a bit spoiled. Charles used to say that Bill fed him chipped beef gravy for the first six months of their marriage, and by the time Mike came along, Charles was the chief cook.
“My mother and father,” Mike said, “were very frugal. They were very cost-conscious, so my mother didn’t have money for carpeting, obviously, or even rugs, so she’d take old pieces of clothing and cut them up.” Then she crocheted the strips of cloth into rugs that sat beneath and beside the handmade furniture. “My father built all the furniture in the house,” Mike said, “or a lot of it. Couches and chairs, dressers, cabinets.” When they decided to retire to the mobile home park, they picked out a pretty yellow trailer with white shutters. Charles thought the shutters, which cost extra, were too expensive, but Bill really wanted some, so Charles made them for her.
Bill’s mother died and left her White Rotary Electric to her in the ’60s, the same decade that a crosstown freeway was built on the site of their house. The house, which wasn’t made to be portable, was trucked to a new site in a nearby town,, and they were never able to find it. Bill put the sewing machine in the spare room of their new house, and she kept it as she still keeps the cut glass celery boat and the turquoise hobnail toothpick cup that belonged to her mother. Perhaps it was she who typed a note and tucked it inside the cut glass canisters so that people would know “These are cigar humidors for keeping cigars in, I guess. Very old.” She keeps her mother’s list called “My Keepsakes” with the subtitle “Dishes and from whom?” that records the origins and next inheritor of the posy dish, the ivory plate, the celery boat, and the blue hobnail toothpick holder, to which someone has taped a piece of paper that says, “ 1888.” She has kept the photograph of Charles but none of herself. She keeps Mike’s four-inch sandals.
It’s possible that even the hobnail toothpick holder has more value than the White Rotary Electric sewing machine of 1940. Old featherweights — Singer machines that come in a portable case — and treadle machines have value, but the old iron electrics in their sturdy wood houses are extinct despite the special attachments that permit, as the user’s manual shows, hemming, lace trimming, and a pretty little tuck called a hemmed fell The machine comes with a combination tucker, edgestitcher, and top braider. It comes with a five-stitch ruffler and the tools for doing what the manual calls “applying a deep flounce.” But these are the adornments of another age, when women made organza aprons as deeply flounced as party dresses.
When I called the service department of the company that now owns the White name, a woman told me they have no record of the original selling price of rotary electric 77-26623. She had only the blue book value, which, she said, “You don’t want to know.”
“Sure, I do,” I said.
So she told me it was worth $7, maybe more if you tore it up for parts.
The earliest inventor of the sewing machine was a Frenchman named Thimonnier. A tailor who knew nothing about the principles of mechanics, Thimonnier worked secretly, in solitude, for four years. The neighbors, who saw that he didn’t sew much, thought he was crazy. Sixteen years later, in 1841, 80 of his patented machines were triumphantly installed in a Paris shop, where a mob of frightened tailors stormed in and destroyed them. By the time Thimonnier obtained new patents in England and America, other inventors had made more practical machines, and Thimonnier died in poverty on July 5,1857.
In the 19th Century, 700 sewing machine patents were issued in America, eight of the earliest to I.M. Singer. In the first 75 years of the 20th Century, American companies like White, National, and Standard made 4208 different models they called Diamond D, Czar, Cottage Queen, Cuba Libre, Caisader, or Everybodys. They made the Farmers Bride, the Frozen Dog, the Good Luck, and the Housewife. They made the Honeymoon.
There’s a fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen in which a girl must save her 11 brothers by crushing nettles into flax with her bare hands and making the flax into shirts. The brothers have been turned into swans by an evil stepmother, and they’ll only be men again if she can make all 11 shirts without speaking a word to anyone. The nettles, it turns out, grow only in graveyards, and when she sneaks out to gather them, she’s accused as a witch who must be burned at the stake. The people roll her in a tumbrel to the center of town while she’s still knitting the 11th shirt. She knits and she knits. She still needs to finish one sleeve, but there isn’t time. They descend around her, and she throws the shirts, including the unfinished one, over their heads as the fire starts to consume her. Then, because she’s finished, she can tell the truth, and the 11th brother, who’s missing a sleeve, has one wing and one arm for life.
The cabinet of Bill’s White Rotary Electric is empty now because the tension went out one day when I was sewing. I lugged the heavy iron machine to a repairman, who pulled out the plates and screws, wiggled a few things, and said the whole tension assembly would have to be replaced. “I’ll have to go to the graveyard for this one,” he said, and I pictured nettles, Good Luck spindles, Honeymoon bobbin cases, bits of the Czar. While the repairman looks for the tension assembly of model 77-26623, I use a younger machine, a two-toned avocado green Record that came with no instructions for applying a deep flounce but used to be my mother’s. I consider writing a note for the cabinet that says, “This is a sewing machine. Very old.” I sew one cloth to another, watch the thread drop lower and lower on the wooden spools, and wait for the swans, who come too early, before we’re finished, to descend.