When you meet someone for the first time in their room at an assisted living facility, you are missing most of the visible clues to their history. There were two things in Ellen Gifford’s room at the Phillips-Strickland House in Bangor that helped to tell her story. One was a beautiful piece of crewelwork on the wall over her bed. The other was Ellen’s hands.
With a straightforwardness that characterized much of her conversation, Ellen asked me as I sat down, “How did you get my name?” She seemed pleased that the one thing I knew about her was that she was a seamstress. I soon learned why that made her smile. Those 83-year-old hands that lay so quietly in Ellen’s lap have been busy sewing for as long as she can remember.
“I’ve sewed since I was 2, I think — my daddy said I mended his pants when I was 3 or 4. I guess I’ve always had a needle.”
Ellen grew up in Milford with six siblings, none of whom showed much interest in sewing. I asked Ellen why she began so young.
“I don’t know,” she said. “I just did.”
She began to earn an income with her needle when she was still a schoolgirl. Doll clothes were her specialty, and she sold them door-to-door.
I expected to hear the story of how her seamstress work became her full-time career. As Ellen recounted her years in the work force, however, her sewing always seemed to be something on the side. She was the youngest worker in a jacket and coat manufacturing company while she was still in high school. She ran an in-home day care for 12 years while her own three children grew. Then she worked at the circulation desk at the University of Maine’s Fogler Library for 17 years.
“Oh, do you like to read?” I asked.
“Not much,” she replied. “You can’t read and sew.”
Ellen was known for her seamstress work. She made clothes for her day care kids, sewed her own clothes, sold baby clothes through a gift shop in Connecticut, made an academic robe for a UMaine professor and sewed several bridal gowns.
“I copied the picture off a bride magazine,” she told me. Another of her proudest accomplishments is the bit of crewelwork hanging on her wall.
It is exquisite — almost like a pen-and-ink sketch. The delicate outlines of four intertwined rabbits cluster over a larger one nestled underneath them, eyes closed, in a state of peaceful contentment.
“I’m really proud of that one,” she said.
“Did you sell your crewelwork?” I asked.
“No,” she replied, “that’s just for me.”
I felt like I was missing something. Clearly, sewing was the center of Ellen’s life. She told me about her husband of more than 60 years, who gave Ellen a sewing machine on their first Christmas together — the first machine she had ever owned. He also knew how to repair sewing machines, and always kept Ellen’s in working order.
Then I asked Ellen if she still sews.
“I can’t sew now,” she said. “My medication makes me shaky.”
She reported this calmly, but I couldn’t help feeling an ache for this lifetime seamstress with hands that will no longer do the thing she loves most. It gave a weightier sense of importance to the things she spoke of with pride — the bridal gowns, the framed work, her youngest daughter, who “grew up under the sewing machine — She’s better than I am!”
Before I finished my visit with Ellen, I asked one more question to clarify my understanding of her career as a seamstress.
“So, did you ever actually become a seamstress to make a living?”
I still was missing the point.
Ellen finally straightened me out with simple wisdom; “I never did it to make a living. I did it because I liked it.”
Robin Clifford Wood is a writer, musician and recent empty-nester. The state of Maine captured Wood’s imagination as a summer visitor in 1979 and became her full-time home in 2002. Feedback is always welcome through her blog about sunrise and life transitions at www.ayearofgettingup.blogspot.com or at firstname.lastname@example.org.