An unstitched fifty-pound flour sack had sat in a bucket of bleach a week till the bunched cotton fabric lost all signs of lettering. The blue logo of Baker’s Delight Bread Flour had faded completely white. Ruth saved the fabric to make her youngest sister Helen a dress.
The “waste not, want not” mentality had taken over all and sundry as folks stitched everything from curtains and pillow cases to dresses and slips from empty flour and feed sacks. Manufacturers took full advantage and often decorated the sacks in brightly colored floral patterns that people fought over on store floors. But Mama just grabbed whatever was there. She knew the family could make do with anything.
Ruth had just finished scouring the soot from lamp globes around the house. The Duke Power rental house in Steele Creek was absent of electricity with the dim yellow glow of flickering oil lamps the only light when sun set. She didn’t mind the job, but was always fearful she’d drop one of the globes and glass would shatter across hardwood floors.
Her hands were black with the residue of burnt oil as she headed onto the back porch for a wash pan. She grabbed the pan from a long shelf, water sloshed against the sides, and she scrubbed the soot from her skin. Ignoring a towel hung from a nail in the wall, she shook her hands dry and droplets spread like rain against the floor. The smell of chlorine filled the room as she looked over at the bucket filled with bleach.
Holding the turned wooden handle of the bucket, Ruth carried the filled pail into the yard toward a pump spigot, one shoulder cocked sideways from the weight as she walked. She reached into the bucket, grabbed the fabric, wrung the bleach from cotton back into the pail, and the chemical stung a hangnail she’d picked open in church the morning before.
The unstitched sack looked more like a sheet, or a long towel, when she shook it loose. Balling the fabric back into a tightly wrinkled wad, Ruth held the fabric under the spigot with one hand and pumped the handle hard with the other. Water gurgled in the pipe at first then flowed clear and fast as brooks and soaked the cotton again while water ran down her arm and dripped from her elbow. She wrung the fabric out and repeated the process until all hints of bleach were washed away.
Ruth hung the fabric onto a clothesline at the side of the house. Unlike the family’s line at the old house strung between trees, this clothesline consisted of two coated cables stretched between aluminum Ts, crude bubblegum welds all that held the posts and crossbeams together. Whoever placed the poles had done it on the wrong side of the house. Sun only hit fabric a few hours each morning, but Ruth was hopeful that April rays and a warm spring breeze would dry the sack by dusk.
Helen was nearly a year and half old, able to waddle across the floor in short bursts, her legs still flimsy as tomato vines. She was born on the farm ten months before Papa lost it all. Ruth thought it some strange blessing that Helen was too young to watch her father struggle, gaze at held-back tears when he surrendered everything, stare confused when he got the job back four months later, and understand if the family had just held on to the farm a bit longer they’d have been fine. Helen was still innocent.
With Helen the eleventh child Mama was done raising. By the December that Helen was born in 1930, Mama had spent 117 of the past 275 months swollen-bellied pregnant. Laboring thirteen children in twenty-three years was nothing short of a miracle, so Ruth just nodded when her mother turned Helen over to her. By three months old Helen nestled in the bed beside her big sister each night.
Raising children was as familiar to Ruth as hoeing lines and the prickly squares of cotton bolls. She’d watched after Billy when she was five, Charles at seven, Doris at nine, and Don at eleven. Ruth was going on thirteen as she ran a jade colored Bakelite comb through Helen’s thin hair.
Some three years before, Ruth chased the wobbly sprints of Chaz while trying to clean up Doris as she spit up milk in the crib. At the time, Uncle Jim, Papa’s brother, built a set of brick steps onto the home in Paw Creek. “Ruth come and get the baby!” Uncle Jim would yell over and over through laughter as he teased the young girl run frantic by infants.
In those days Ruth fell asleep, back flat on the floor, while her foot rocked a cherry wood crib her grandfather built. When that didn’t work, Ruth blew in the babies’ eyes until they were too dry to stay open, and closed eyelids brought on sleep. Most of the time the trick worked. The cries of children wore at her like sirens and at that moment, right then and there, Ruth swore that no matter what ever happened, she’d NEVER have children. But something was different with Helen.
Whether it was the straight brown hair or the sapphire glint of light in steel blue eyes, Ruth saw something as familiar as her reflection in water in that baby. The shy toddler, scared of anyone outside the family, was a spitting image of her sister. Ruth forgot the pact and raised Helen as her own.
Ruth sat up in bed, her back pressed against a pillow mashed in half against the headboard, and flipped through Gustave Dore illustrations in a tattered copy of Favorite Fairy Tales. Somewhere through the opening pages of “Beauty and the Beast,” as Ruth traded her name every time her eyes read “Belle,” Helen had fallen asleep. Helen’s tiny body was curled into a nook along Ruth’s side while Ruth held still and tried not to wake her sister.
Needles of numbness tingled and grew from Ruth’s wrist to shoulder where Helen lay until Ruth finally lifted her sister’s head, carefully scrunched away, and pulled a thin quilt loosely over her sleeping sister. Ruth still had a few hours to work. Mama had given Ruth permission to rock the pedal of the wooden-framed Singer sewing machine as long as she didn’t break the needle. The thin cotton fibers of bleached flour sack had somehow dried in afternoon shade and Ruth was eager to stitch Helen’s dress.
The pattern already dreamt—an all white sundress, ruffled short sleeves, tight top smocked with blue thread—Ruth sat down at the machine in the far corner of the dining room at the end of a long hall that spanned the length of the house. A wide yellow flame burned away at the woven wick of an oil lamp and the sparse light flickered shadows of Ruth’s hands against the wall as she measured the cloth and made the first cut.
Whereas most projects required saving scraps for months, Helen’s tiny frame lent itself perfectly to a single flour sack. After splitting the cloth along a seam that had once served as the bottom of the sack, Ruth measured the pattern, cut matching pieces from each sheet of cloth, and prepared for the first stitch.
Ruth rocked at the crosshatch iron of the Singer pedal. A leather strap rounding a large black wheel spun and sent the needle up and down atop the desk. As she stitched the skirt of the sundress together her mind flashed back to when Mama had first taught her to sew. The sharp needle had pierced her fumbling fingers and a drop of blood rose where point broke skin. A dresser of clothes under her belt, Ruth worked methodically, a slow pace that stitched perfectly equidistant loops along dashed pencil-drawn lines.
The heaviness of exhaustion coupled with the dying yellow light of a near empty oil lamp wore on Ruth’s eyes. Noticing a quickened pace, a few uneven stitches along the fabric, she slowed the pedal to a halt with her toe and headed upstairs to the bedroom where Helen dreamed with her tiny thumb pressed slobbery to the roof of her mouth.
Days were spent tending the toddler amidst a list of other chores, but each night when Helen fell asleep, Ruth headed into the dining room and sewed until her eyes grew swollen tired. Ornate golden scrolls along the polished black sewing machine glinted with lamplight when the last stitch was sewn that Saturday. Ruth laid the finished pattern atop the stained pine desk and ran her eyes across Helen’s new dress.
The flared skirt was pinched and pleated along the bodice. Short sleeves were ruffled from shoulder into tight cuffs. A looped design like a series of cursive Ls smocked the bodice stretchy with light blue thread. Along the back a piece of sky blue silk ribbon, salvaged from one of Mama’s old hats, was tied in a bow to seal the sundress.
Ruth was too excited to sleep. She carried the dress to the upstairs bedroom and laid it across the back of Helen while she slept under the quilt. The quilt obscured Ruth’s ability to fit the sundress to her sister. But Ruth sat there on the edge of the bed and visualized the next day, Easter Sunday, when she could fit the flour sack dress on her sister like a porcelain doll.
The April sun illuminated the growing crimson along redbud limbs as Helen waddled through sprigs of grass. The family had spent the afternoon singing hymns as Laura, seventeen now, played piano. Sometimes Papa would want to sing for hours, only the deep drum of his own vocal chords still with sound by the end, but not that day.
Mama sat beside Ruth on the front steps, her hand rested on the knee of her daughter, as they watched Helen lean down, grab a dandelion bloom, look back toward the house, and smile with chubby cheeks. The sundress fit perfectly over Helen and Ruth was proud. Mama squeezed Ruth’s leg tight and Ruth looked up into the eyes of her mother, those same graceful blue eyes of herself and Helen.
“I don’t think that I could have stitched it myself,” Mama said.
Ruth swelled and sat quietly, Mama said nothing else, and Helen, knees pressing green grass into bleached white cotton, was too busy plucking flowers to know the difference.
(“Raising” is a chapter from Ruth: A Beautiful Dismantling, an unpublished memoir, posted here on a day that would have marked Ruth’s 94th year of life.)