The Hairdresser’s Sewing Lesson or Why Moving Furniture Is Good For You

The sofa against the “impossible” wall

Since birth, I have inhabited twenty-two different residences in eleven different municipalities in three different provinces. Some of the re-locations were beyond my control. For example, I was born on a farm, transferred to a city apartment, then moved into a house all before I turned two years of age. I had no say in those decisions. Most of the others were self-motivated. The need to uproot myself so often forms no part of this story. I have not examined the theme at any length. I suspect it’s a disease. However, as I have stayed put for six years, perhaps the illness is cured.

The adult changes of address had two serious repercussions: how to find a good hairdresser and how to arrange my motley collection of furniture.

In newest province I call home, I perch on a wooden bench in the change room of a yoga studio. I surreptitiously scrutinize hair styles, espy one that would suit me, ask its owner who cuts her hair.

Once home, a phone call to the salon is met with: “I’m so sorry, Melanie is not accepting new clients”. I leave my contact info anyway. It has been a month since my last haircut. Two more weeks pass. My usual super-short hair is now super-longish. From the internet, I choose a beauty salon at random and book an appointment. Just days before the crucial date, I get the call. Melanie has had a cancellation. Would I like to take it?

Yes!

There are no coincidences. Melanie is a soul mate. She talks about her Greyhound rescue; I share my Cairn Terrier stories. On my recommendation, she buys a copy of Living Your Yoga; on hers, I enjoy a dinner at the Landmark Cafe. She visits the Louvre and conveys her impressions; I build a black gazebo and she asks for photos to show her partner. She describes her successes in interior design; I show her pictures of my rooms to get her input. She says she would love to learn to sew; I invite her to my house for a lesson.

I have been sewing since I was seven. Mother sent to me to the Singer Sewing Centre on Main Street. The instructors assigned me to a children’s machine. Mother demanded that I learn on a full-size model. In order to reach the controls, I sat on a raised stool. I made a pink calico dolly’s nightgown. In another set of lessons when I was eleven or twelve, I constructed a light brown dress with inset pleats and darker brown piping. Later came blouses, dresses, slacks, jackets and vests. Then, dozens of costumes for my children—Halloween witches, devils, angels and clowns; ballet tutus; an ice-skating prince’s togs.

At some point, I determined that savvy shopping yielded well-made clothes at the same expense as fabric with no work involved. Well, except a new hem now and then. These days, I mainly sew home décor items—especially zippered covers for feather inserts. A change of seasons demands a change of sofa cushions.

On the appointed day, Melanie arrived with a portable sewing machine and a fresh apple pie in hand. Perfect synchronicity! It was Gilles’ birthday, and I’d not made him a special dessert.

After an hour and a half of instruction—threading the machine, winding the bobbin, straight-stitching, back-stitching, and squaring fabric, Melanie said that her brain was saturated. Then she asked, “Have you ever considered putting the sofa on that wall?”

I dare say, I had tried it on every other wall. But, not that one. That wall backed onto the garage and formed one side of a wide entry. You can’t put a sofa in a hallway. Instead, I had island-ed it and angled it and even considered replacing it. The room is a decorator’s bane—on its borders are four doors, three staircases, two closets and two wall extensions. For six years, without success, I had attempted to make the room “work”. In fact, I had changed the set-up so many times that Gilles, having more than once tripped over a re-positioned ottoman, learned to navigate its interior with caution.

I thought that my frequent rearrangement of furniture was, like moving residences, a kind of sickness. It was a relief to discover that the activity provides several health benefits. According to some studies, moving furniture and other movement-based creation–such as building a gazebo or sewing cushion covers–spur energy, spark joy, assist with problem-solving, and improve self-esteem. Further, Carrie Barron, MD, assistant professor of psychiatry at Dell Medical School, states in her article Rearranging the Furniture Makes Me Feel Better/ Achieving inner and outer harmony by moving things around:

An impact on the environment…lifts mood, provides concrete satisfaction, and instills a sense of effectiveness. Inner and outer harmony happen when pieces are placed in a way that makes sense for you.

With undisguised mistrust, I told Melanie I would “try” the sofa on that wall.

“Let’s do it now! I still have an hour before I have to leave.”

So, for the next hour we two small, strong women heaved and shoved and pushed and carried chairs, tables, chests, cabinets, rugs, artworks, lamps, and the sofa. When we finished, Melanie surveyed the room then said, “You need something small and narrow in front of the couch”. From the main bathroom we retrieved an antique oak chest of the perfect proportions. Melanie tossed a white faux-fur throw over it to “add texture and soften the angles”. With the transformation complete, for the first time since moving into the house, the room functioned to my specifications, exuded comfort, and even photographed well. And, as nothing had been bought, there was no buyer’s remorse. As Barron’s article predicted, we felt “creative, clever and resourceful”. I alone was astonished that a sofa could exist comfortably in a vestibule.

On seeing the metamorphosed space, a friend said, “Melanie missed her calling”. I hope not. Who so talented and compatible would cut my hair?

Home-sewn Halloween Costumes

The Burgundy Bicycles–a testament to the tenacity of the young and not-so-young

The Second Burgundy Bicycle suspended for the winter

In early July of my seventh year, I planted my feet on the green tile floor, pressed fists to waist, thrust out my elbows, stuck out my chest and declared to my mother’s back, “I’m a big girl now. I need a big bike. Tricycles are for babies”.

In matter of fact I was not a big girl. Oh, big in spirit and very big in imagination, but quite small in stature. On a chart recording the height and weight of every six-and-three-quarter-year-old in every part of the world, I would have landed in the bottom five percentile.

Mom turned from her task at the kitchen sink, eyed me from top to toe, then toe to top. At last, she directed her gaze into my eyes. She must have seen my tough-little-girl determination because she said, “All right”.

We went outside to the storage space under the big veranda, its treasures not-quite hidden by hundreds of crisscrossed slats of white lattice. Mom dragged out a bulky burgundy bicycle. As I was the youngest of four siblings, a new bike was an impossibility. This one had belonged to my seven-years-older sister. The best thing was, that in 1954, girls simply did not ride boys bikes—I couldn’t inherit one of my brothers’.

Worn white letters on dark metal proclaimed CCM—Canada Cycle and Motor Company. Fat steel cylinders formed the frame—the front tube was elegantly curved. Very lady-like. The handlebars extended straight out from the centre then, at the same height, turned toward the rider. A proper-sized person riding the bike could sit up straight and enjoy the scenery.

Mother scanned the bicycle. Scanned me. Looked back at the bike. Looked back at me then re-entered the house. Out she emerged with a large pillow and one of my brothers’ belts. I trusted my Mom’s wisdom and allowed her to secure the cushion to my backside by tightly clinching it with the leather strap. Satisfied, Mom returned to her work in the kitchen.

I leaned the bike against the trellis wall and tried to climb onto the seat. The bustle made it hopeless. It became clear that even if I could get onto the saddle, my short legs would never permit my feet to touch the pedals. Thank goodness there was no crossbar. Standing on the rubber footholds, I wedged myself against the hard line of the wide silver shaft just below the seat. The cushion helped here. It kept me forward enough that the saddle didn’t puncture my neck. In this fashion I managed to push myself off the wall and travel a few wobbly feet. Over and over I practised how to balance the bike and move at the same time. Days later, the few feet became more feet, then a lot of feet, then actual yards. For some time, I thought that another purpose of the bustle was to protect me when I fell. Several tumbles later, I realized that no one falls off a bike onto her bum. Knees, shoulders, hands, elbows, shins, scalps and faces could be scraped raw, but never one’s backside. Further, because I gripped the handlebars so fiercely when the bike began to totter beyond my control, the heavy machine, without fail, fell on top of me. The pillow was quite useless against that problem as well.

We lived in a neighbourhood of red brick bungalows. Giant maples shaded its narrow streets. When finally I was able to ride the bike a reasonable distance without mishap, Mom allowed me to leave the property. However, she warned me not to ride on the walkways. I might kill someone. No helmets in those days. And thankfully, little traffic. In the first hours of my new-found freedom, I weaved over most of my lane and into the opposite one as well. But, with resolute persistence, I did learn to control the bicycle.

A lecturer from my university days spoke of “The Concept of Competence”. In brief, he defined the term as “the satisfaction a child feels when [she] has successfully mastered a new skill”. I reveled in my bike-riding accomplishment. I was then so much bigger than my backyard or the short distances my little legs could carry me.

…..

It is not possible that I outgrew the burgundy bike. I never got taller than five feet and five-eights of an inch. After I had ignored the bicycle for a few years, it disappeared. I imagine Mother did one of her regular, “donate stuff to charity” acts and the bike was part of the donation.

In my twenties I purchased a youth-sized Canadian Tire specimen. It was a boy’s bike and the crossbar sometimes caused me difficulties. Even so, I rode it for three decades. When my daughter moved to the big city she asked if she could have it. Apparently, old bikes were retro-smart. Besides, there was little likelihood of it being stolen. Although I had owned it longer, I never loved it as I had that first learn-to-ride bicycle. I let it go.

At the time I lived in a small hilly Ontario town on Georgian Bay. The steep slopes careened toward the shoreline where a smooth and level path circled the bay—an open invitation to cyclists. I missed having a bike. I paid a visit to a local cycle shop. A used bicycle had just been received. A Trek Navigator 2.0. Tubular steel, a gently curved front tube, burgundy in colour. I knew it had to be mine.

When we moved to Prince Edward Island five years ago, the second burgundy bike accompanied me. I ride it on the south shore road to collect eggs from a neighbour or deliver baked goods to the old school house. I avoid the hills. Even the gentle gradient that slopes upwards from the school corner to our house challenges my seventy-one year-old body. Once, riding home into a headwind, I considered dismounting and pushing the bike. Then, I remembered the six-year old me. I stood up on the pedals, leaned into the handlebars, pushed hard against the foot levers and rode on. Only when I reached the bottom of our driveway did I stop. Breathless and with pounding heart, I dismounted. Then, I stood still. I waited until breath and heart slowed. And in that pause, a smile began as a tickle in my belly, skipped to my heart, then burst into sunbeams over my face. I did it. I never gave up.

Prairie Wakerobin

Onychophagia

[on-i-koh-fey-juh or on-i-kho-fey-jee-uh]

His blue gaze met mine across the narrow expanse of the cafeteria table. Potential boyfriend? Or, older lecher? How much older? Twenty-five? Thirty-five? With some men age is indeterminate. By fate or by choice adolescence never abandons them. At eighteen, I still clung to mine.

“You’re a perfect lady,” he crooned. “Except for your fingernails.”

Crushed.

I looked down. My eyes by-passed my hands which had been impossible to hide while eating a hamburger. I set down the now unappetizing food and slid my offending fingertips under the ugly brown laminate slab.

…..

I couldn’t remember a time when I didn’t bite my nails. Psychology Today reported that thirty per cent of children between the ages of seven and ten, and forty-five percent of teenagers are nail biters. Did the habit begin when I was seven? It felt much older. And, even though I knew I chewed on my nails when I felt anxious, the article further stated that the practice relieved “nervousness, stress, tension, boredom and loneliness”. Perhaps those other feelings were mine as well.

Although the distinction is not clear-cut, there is a difference between an ordinary nail biter and a pathological one. I lived on the border. At times the biting was savage. My teeth ripped off the fragment of a nail in minute segments. Then attacked the cuticle. The tiniest bit of skin was torn from its bed. Every nail was treated to equal violence. When I was very little, and much more flexible, I chewed my toenails as well. Later, despite being a cheerleader, I could not longer get my feet into my mouth. At least, not literally.

The bleeding was minor but the pain was hot and angry. I sometimes fell asleep with the fingers of both hands plunged into a jar of Noxema. The hurt never abated. It transformed into an intense cold throbbing. I often cried.

After Mister Lecher’s cruel observation, I began to pay attention to those times when I bit my nails. I was not striving to be a “perfect lady”, but, never again did I want to feel humiliated by a stranger. Especially a handsome-older-man stranger.

The worst stimulant was television–any program. Even comedies. I seldom found them amusing. People were demeaned, demoralized and mortified. Maybe when the talent for appreciating humour was doled out, the funniness fairy skipped me. I stopped watching television. I didn’t know it at the time, but the strategy is one of several for breaking a habit. Remove the stimulus.

At some point I realized that when I was away from home for a sufficient period of time, two months or more usually did it, I stopped attacking the ends of my fingers. Even essays, exams or nerve-wracking summer jobs did not call forth the practice. So, I removed that stimulus as well. I left home permanently at twenty.

Earlier, I had painted my nails with a bitter-tasting chemical compound. I bit it off. Had Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, especially reversal training, been in vogue in 1966, I probably would have tried that too.

At some point, not long after the university hamburger incident, I stopped biting my nails. Painful lessons sometimes produce potent results. Fifty-three years have elapsed since that pivotal summer. I would like to say that, except to floss, I never put my fingers into my mouth. But that would be a lie. Oh, I don’t bite my fingernails but, in times of crisis, hangnails beckon–particularly those on my thumbs. Instead of cutting them, I use my teeth to tear them back. Sometimes they bleed. Always they hurt. It doesn’t happen often and when it does, I pause to examine my life. It is usually a case of too much inactivity and not enough exercise. Or, too much busyness and not enough mindfulness.

Recently, my husband commented, “You look much younger than your years”. A pause. “Except for your hands”. At the time of the remark I don’t believe I was eating a hamburger. Gilles was not referring to my fingernails but to the dark multitude of large, medium and small liver spots that painted the backs of my hands. I booked an appointment with my dermatologist. Would I never learn? The doctor prescribed an expensive, paid-in-advance, custom-made cream. I used it for one week. My skin began to burn. I remembered the Noxema. Abandoned the treatment. Disposed of the container–in an environmentally-friendly way. Then I inhaled–a deep rich totally satisfying breath. And exhaled it very, very slowly. In those stilled moments I knew that I loved myself a little more. Warts and all. Or, shall I say, liver spots and all.

By the way onychophagia is just a fancy word for nail-biting. I doubt I’ll ever use the term again.

WordPress Woes

This is not my Sunday “Story” blog. This is a written rant. Had I any idea how to make WordPress audible I would rant out loud.

Yesterday evening, unhappy with the appearance of my blog cover, I decided to update it. As a retired art teacher, the vapid pink and mauve abstract mountains that WP provided lacked visual presence. I, a mere two-week-old blogger, searched in vain for the icon to edit the image. In frustration I clicked on “trash”. Mistake. An impulsive, foolish, irreversible mistake. Now, there was no page at all.

After a considerable time I managed to upload one of my own photos to what I thought was my home page. But, instead of the vivid, saturated colours, the same insipid pastels appeared. FaceBook doesn’t do that. I located a tool to intensify hues. It worked. Next, I over-printed text then previewed the results. WP had moved the writing! Why did it not stay centred? (Canadian spelling–no squiggly red underling please.)

I ignored that problem and proceeded to experiment with different fonts. As the title of my blog is “Writing My Life”, I wanted the text to resemble cursive writing–the fluid, joined-up kind that people my age learned in elementary school. Does WP offer such a style? None that I could discover. So, I played with a few of WP’s offerings until I was almost satisfied. As it was growing late, I clicked on “publish”, checked my site and discovered–nothing! No cover at all. Just my three blogs. I wasn’t fond of their format either but planned to deal with that dissatisfaction another time.

At 11:30 PM I conceded WP’s computer superiority and went to bed. Sleep eluded me. When it did come, WordPress nightmares assaulted me until morning. “Onychophagia”, a story about hands and self-worth, is scheduled to appear tomorrow. I trust that it will. Whether or not there will be a cover page is yet to be determined.

Perhaps WordPress ought to develop tools for old bloggers, or even semi-old ones–those who, like me, met their first computer as adults and not as preschoolers. Also, it would be appreciated if those tools had names that did not require the translation services of a geek.

Enjoy you Saturday. I’ll spend my day wrestling with WordPress. That’s okay. Another winter storm approaches.

Sincerely,

Prairie

Creamed-Shrimp-On- Toast–The Magic of Memory

On a recent visit to my favourite seafood market, I spotted a bag of miniature frozen shrimp. Their tiny size evoked a powerful childhood memory–creamed-shrimp-on-toast. I paused, closed my eyes, tasted the velvety concoction and relished the rare treat. Into my basket I tossed the delicacy.

A few days later, finding myself alone at suppertime, I decided to revisit that glorious meal.

I suspect that Mother had heated a can of Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup–our pantry had an ample supply–added milk then thrown in a tin of baby shrimp. She would have poured the mixture over toasted white bread. Culinary complexity was not my mother’s forte.

A can of soup has not occupied my larder for many years. So, I created a rich bechamel sauce with organic butter, a little spelt flour and goat’s milk. I tossed in a dash of Chef Guy’s seafood spice mix–gluten free and made in PEI. The baby shrimp came next. I wondered, were they really babies or do some varieties of that crustacean simply never grow large? A few lobster pieces left over from a previous dinner joined the mix. Sprouted organic whole grain toast formed the base. Brilliant. Buttery rich with a delicate tang. But, not like Mom’s. Disappointment dulled the joy of my own much healthier recipe.

The letdown puzzled me. Were all happy childhood memories like that? Too good to be reproduced? Perhaps the old version tasted so wonderful because my mother convinced me it was rare and special. On the other hand, it may have something to do with the way our brains remember things.

Richard Jerome writes: “Odor-evoked autobiographical memories derive their power from the way they are processed in the brain“.

The same author goes on to state:

The olfactory system is the only sensory apparatus that does not feed its incoming signals through the thalamus–one of the brain’s major relay systems. Rather, scents and tastes are directly connected to the limbic system, a collection of brain structures important for emotion, behavior, motivation and memory.

Although the sight of the shrimp called forth the memory, the magic happened when I smelled and tasted it in my imagination. That experience recalled other favourite childhood foods. Once in a while, freshly baked chocolate chip cookies awaited my arrival from school. Warm and soft and gooey and sweet beyond marvellous. Like the shrimp, the cookies were special. Usually, chunks of celery their cavities stuffed with Cheese Whiz or slices of apple smeared with peanut butter greeted me. Do mothers still prepare after-school snacks? I suspect most of them work outside the home now. Favourite childhood food memories must be forged in other ways.

We inhabit an astonishingly vivid visual world that is often crowded with a cacophony of sounds. As a result, we tend to downplay our other senses. But, when we remember, the pleasures of the past are most often elicited by odours and tastes. Research demonstrates that those delightful sensory experiences most often occurred in our first decade but sometimes into adolescence. Some of mine include:

The smell of the house where I grew up. I step inside the back door after having been away at Girl Guide camp. I stop to inhale. “You’re home” the smell assures me.

The incense that infuses the interior of an Eastern Orthodox church. As I arrive for a funeral, a sweetly pungent fragrance entices me further into the nave. I secretly wish that my church smelled so spiritual. Years later the aroma of smoldering sweet grass wafting over me at a smudging ceremony conjures that same sacred feeling.

The Tide scent that lingers in the freshly-washed shirt of my first real boyfriend. Today I use an environmentally friendly, unscented laundry detergent. No romantic aroma there.

Onions and garlic sauteing. A Thanksgiving turkey roasting. Evergreens. The ocean. Lilies-of-the-valley. Lilacs. Shoe polish. Newly-mown grass. Irish Spring soap. Motor boats starting. Primordial forests. Cinnamon sticks. Babies.

According to Jerome, “Scent memories pack a more potent emotional wallop than recollections triggered by sights, sounds and other sensory cues”. Even so, had I not espied that bag of tiny pink crustaceans, I would have missed this happy opportunity for reminiscences fragrant and flavourful.