Wednesday, May 4, 2011

A Lesson

An attendant opens the gatehouse door walking slowly up to the passenger side of our car where she greets us through Rebecca’s open window, “Welcome to the Reserve on this glorious spring day.” She verifies our reservation and then steps back saying, “enjoy your walk.” The gate to the 150-acre island estate swings open inviting us into a long ago time and a far away place.

I park the car, retrieve my camera gear from the back seat, and come around to help my daughter, buried under fourteen yards of delicious cream and berry pink printed cotton, extract herself from the car. Rebecca hoists her flower covered petty coat off the ground revealing pink low-top Converse sneakers as we start down the path through rolling swells of tall sun drenched meadow grass dotted with wild flowers.

“You just tell me where you want to stop for photos,” I say acknowledging my minor decision making role on this outing. Rebecca steps off the path into the grass, “I want a few sitting in the meadow as Marie would have done.” She arranges herself, her fan, and the poufs of her dress with the skill of a professional model while the breeze amuses ruffles at the edge of three quarter length sleeves and finger curls framing her poised expression.

Back on the path, just before we enter the forest, I secretly zoom in on the two dozen or more skillfully folded half-inch pleats swooping down to a “V” below the back of Rebecca’s princess cut bodice. We stop at the reflection pool and the moss garden, then the forest opens to a grand vista of an imposing weeping willow reflected in a mirror smooth lake on one side and a curved drive leading to a formal garden at the front of a petite chateau on the other. “May I take a photo?” I ask. Rebecca with dress and matching petticoat caught up in each hand, turns toward me flaunting a familiar daughter face. Pressing the shutter, I think to myself, “this is one to remember.”

We walk through the neatly clipped garden and around the classical residence to the terrace where Rebecca, tired from carrying ten pounds of dress, plops down on steps overlooking a vast saltwater sea. Bending forward resting her elbow among the billowing folds of fabric with her chin on the palm of her hand she tests the hooks lacing up the tight bodice to a revealing neckline. I can’t resist another photo. Somewhat rested, I coax her into the Birch Garden where dappled light on spring fresh leaves and curving trunks of white paper bark trees create an ideal setting for some of the finest photos of the morning. The lovely and spirited young woman posing in her hand sewn, late eighteenth century polonaise could be Marie Antoinette.

The “Marie” dress wasn’t Rebecca’s first sewing project. I taught her to sew in eighth grade when she decided she wanted to make a duvet cover to match the décor in her tropical themed room. While we were selecting the ten or so fabrics at Esther’s, my practical side was needling me, “are you sure this elegant Japanese print will go with the one of bare-chested surfboarders?” Rebecca replied, “Oh Mom, trust me I know what I’m doing.”

Rebecca painstakingly cut, arranged and pinned together eighty, nine-inch squares working in the midst of colorful chaos all over the living room floor. With miles of straight sewing this was an ideal first project for a beginning seamstress. By the time she finished, several weeks later, she had learned most of the basics of machine sewing and I had to admit, the end result was stunning.

In my family, it is a tradition for mothers to teach daughters to sew. First Ida Mae taught Margie, who then taught Mae Belle, followed by Beth who taught me. I’ve sewn everything from prom dresses to sleeping bags. It was satisfying to overhear Rebecca tell a friend, “my mom taught me to sew, she’s an expert.”

In high school Rebecca was already experimenting on her own making clothing from new fabrics as well as remaking yard sale finds, occasionally asking for help when her creative ideas outpaced her skill. Like the duvet cover the final products where amazing. Glo, Rebecca’s French pen-pal, fell in love with one custom 1950s style black and white sundress when she visited during the winter of Rebecca’s sophomore year. Fitting as though it was made for her, the dress went home to Paris in Glo’s suitcase. 

The next August, not long after Rebecca left for France on a trip she paid for by serving meals at a retirement home, photos of the two girls taken by Glo’s photographer father started to arrive in my email inbox. Glo in her black and white dress celebrating her eighteenth birthday with Rebecca at an elegant restaurant, the girls posing in the courtyard of the Louvre, on a boat next to Notre Dame, and in the gardens of Versailles. Rebecca came home smitten by French culture and eager to make a gown like those she had seen in a movie about Marie Antoinette.

Determined to realize her dream, Rebecca persuaded her independent studies advisor to approve a costume design project and asked me to be her mentor. The project was beyond the fabric resources at Esther’s and a ferry ride to Seattle resulted in nothing except an embroidered silk that was a budget busting sixty dollars a yard. Even samples sent from Britex, the most amazing fabric store in San Francisco, didn’t match Rebecca’s vision. At last, after sweet talking her father into a fabric hunt when she visited him in Portland, an enthusiastic young dressmaker called me from the Mill Ends Store, “Mom, I found the perfect flower print and it’s only twelve dollars a yard.”

Rebecca decided to use authentic eighteenth century techniques, stitching the dress completely by hand. She happily spent countless hours bent over her new passion although there were a few meltdowns. One afternoon when I discovered a long labored seam joined the wrong two pieces together she dissolved into tears. I removed the stitches to ease her agony. Later she displayed the wad of thread in her project notebook with a label “R.I.P.PED SEAM” with “R.I.P.” highlighted in red. The Bloedel Reserve photos where there as well, even a few I took without permission.

Confused about what she wanted to do with her life after graduation, Rebecca worked for well over a year before applying to art schools. Still perplexed, she declared graphic design as her major. At the end of the first week of school a call came from Santa Fe, “I hope you won’t be upset Mom, I changed my major to costume design.” Delighted with her decision I thought, “an elusive answer is often hidden in the obvious.” 

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