It’s Only Cardboard…

Yesterday at work, I took my soup to the microwave at the end of the hall to heat it.  While I stood waiting for the broth to bubble, I caught sight of several large sheets of cardboard leaning against the wall.  They were marked as trash, and my immediate reaction was, “Oh no!  Don’t throw it away.  There’s so much you can do with cardboard!”

When I was growing up at the house at 30 Green Street, cardboard was saved and used for  myriad art projects.  The lightweight sheets of cardboard around which my father’s dress shirts were folded quickly were doled out for art projects.  I loved to draw my own paper dolls, carefully cutting them out, sketching faces with colored pencils and fashioning clothes out of bits of construction paper reserved for school projects and sick-in-bed days.  Some days I used the cardboard to create masks for my younger siblings, cutting holes for eyes and nose, and stretching an old elastic band to hold the masks to their little faces.  Cardboard became a flag to tape to a pencil and wave at the veterans who marched in the Memorial Day parade or a poster to paint with tempera and advertise a sidewalk lemonade stand.  It was the stuff made into swords and shields to play pirates in the back yard, or a lean-to for imaginary hobos.

Cardboard boxes were used to store summer clothes during the winter months, and winter clothes that my mother packed away in spring.  They stored tools in the garage, linens in the attic, and books that no longer fit on the shelves in the living room.

Cardboard boxes also made great summer sleds.  One sibling would sit inside the box, holding a jump rope or baton.  The designated puller would drag the rider all over the back yard, until the puller tired and the roles were reversed.

One hot summer afternoon, my sister Robin and I decided that dragging through the yard was not nearly exciting enough, and decided to try riding our cardboard box sled down the stairs.  My taste for adventure trumped my better judgement, and I volunteered to make the maiden voyage.  The stairs in our old New Englander were steep and covered with a green and brown print runner, worn thin at the edges.  At the top of the stairs, I sat in the box, and bracing my hands against the bannister and wall like a luger, pushed off.

I have never careened down a staircase faster.

I landed with a thud against the heavy front door and lay crumpled on the landing, wondering if there was blood was running from my aching head.  Robin quickly abandoned the idea of a second attempt, and went off in search of a popsicle and a bit of shade under the maple tree.

Perhaps the most common use of cardboard in our home was for patchwork.  Our house was  close to a hundred years old, with wall with holeplaster and horsehair walls that lifted from the lathing and crumbled when curious small fingers poked at them.  Small holes became big ones, and without the funds to do proper repairs, my mother resorted to patching the holes with sheets of cardboard and masking tape.  I saw nothing unusual in this, and actually liked the patches, pretending they were secret portals to unknown worlds.  It wasn’t until I was well into my teens that my parents had the funds to replace plaster and patches with sheet rock.

Looking back, I wonder if visitors thought the cardboard and masking tape patches were strange. They must have noticed- they were in plain sight, among the peeling wallpaper, threadbare rugs and chipped woodwork.  And yet, our house was always full.

What I know now is that people didn’t visit 30 Green Street for the décor of the walls.  It was the love that lived within the walls that lured the steady stream of children and adults who entered through the front door and exited through the back.  The sound of laughter from the kitchen table and the offer of coffee and conversation permeated the crumbling walls and blurred the cardboard patches that held them together.

Now, I live in an apartment with clean white walls.  I keep my out-of-season clothes in plastic bins that keep my garments clean and dry.  There are no patches in my life- at least none that can be seen. My use for cardboard is limited to times I need to donate items to the Salvation Army or Goodwill.

But still, when I see large sheets like those waiting for the cleaning crew to tidy my work hallway, I think of the possibilities and wonder…

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Labor of Love

This weekend while I was reorganizing I came across a box full of fabric that had belonged to my mother.  In the box were several yards of green flannel. I suspect my mother intended it for a flannel shirt, perhaps for one of my brothers.

For as long as I remembered, my mother sewed.  I thought perhaps it was because she was very tall and found it hard to find ready-to-wear clothing, or maybe it was the generation in which she was born, or even because she hated shopping.  Whatever the reason, her old White sewing machine was usually left open and our dining room was often strewn with patterns and fabric.

One of my favorites of Mom’s sewing projects was the snowsuit she made for my older sister, Martha-Jean.  Like many young couples, my parents’ income was limited, and heavy wool was a luxury she could not afford.  She cut up my father’s Navy topcoat for the outside and lined it in soft plaid flannel.  After Martha-Jean outgrew it, it became mine and when I outgrew it, I passed it to Robin.  I’m not sure how many Madison children the snowsuit survived, but whenever I see pictures of it, I smile at my mother’s ingenuity and resourcefulness.

Over the years, many outfits were fashioned in our dining room.  My mother, ever pregnant with yet another of her eight children sewed maternity jumpers to cover her swelling belly.  She made skirts and dresses for the girls, wool shirts for my father and brothers.

I never really appreciated what it took to clothe eight children.  In fifth grade I was to play the clarinet in the Memorial Day parade.  We were instructed to wear navy blue serge skirts, and I didn’t own one.  Mom went to her sewing machine and made a skirt out of gray wool that was left over from another project.  The morning of the parade the other girls pointed out how different my skirt looked from everyone else’s.  My cheeks burned as I looked at my gray in a sea of blue and realized that they were right.  I only thought of how embarrassing it was to stand out from the group.  I never considered that my mother had stayed up most of the night making do with what she could afford.  And although I never mentioned it to her, I never thanked her for it either.

When I was in junior high school I came home to announce that a boy had asked me to a dance that was to take place the next evening. My mother hid her dismay, smiled and worked most of the night to produce a beautiful blue dress.  She finished the hem minutes before my date arrived.  Far too late I appreciated the fact that she had taught school all day, cooked dinner for ten people and tucked her children into bed before she even started to cut the pattern.

As she did for many of my sisters, Mom made my wedding gown.  When I called her from Idaho to announce my engagement, she took my measurements over the phone, and went to the fabric store to select yards of sparkle organza and two dozen pearl buttons.  She carefully cut and sewed three underskirts, painstakingly created fabric loops for each button and meticulously measured and sewed tiny tucks in the bodice.  The dress was magnificent- a frothy confection of sheer layers with a long train and billowing sleeves.  I returned to Massachusetts only a few days before the wedding and again she stayed up late to hem the skirts and take in the waist so it would fit.  She never complained and although I thanked her for it, I didn’t fully realize how difficult and time-consuming a project it was.

Now that my children are grown, I know that my mother sewed partly out of necessity and partly because she loved to make something from nothing for the people she loved.  I know this because I did the same thing.  I sewed Bermuda shorts and matching tops for Elizabeth.  I made MC Hammer pants for Gabe.  When winter came and the children needed pajamas, I cut and stitched thick flannel to keep them warm while they slept.  And when Abby’s huge eyes grew large with envy at a classmate’s floral dress with a black velvet bodice, I sewed late into the night on Christmas Eve to finish one for her.

What I know now is that creating something from scratch for someone you love is an expression that speaks louder than words.  Every slice of the scissor, every stitch of the needle, every pressing of a seam sings the phrase “I love you.” 

So now that the holidays are over and I’m settled in for a long stretch of cold weather, I’m thinking that it’s time to pull out my sewing machine and work on a new labor of love.  I wonder who would like a shirt made out of that green flannel?

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