Hallie King with Barbara and Nancy in 1930
When asked who most influenced my life, I always answer, "My grandmother, Hallie Jessie King." Her birthday was August 8th, and this month marked the 105th anniversary of her birth. My fondest memories of my grandmother come from the summer I turned 12 years old, when she was in her 60's; a summer that changed my life, and set me on the path to where I am today.
My grandmother was born in 1903. She had two daughters, Barbara born in 1927, and my mother Nancy, born in 1930. My grandmother was one of 13 children born to a postmaster in Walling, Tennesee. She learned to be frugal as she was growing up, and used those skills during the difficult years of the Depression. She was an RN, and worked during much of my mother's childhood. My grandmother was the ultimate example of "make do and mend". Even during later years, when times were better, I remember her darning the elbows of her sweaters and the heels of my grandfather's socks. And she would use a sewing needle until it became gently curved to the shape of thousands of stitches in her fingers.
I am the oldest of 5 sisters. For my first 6 years, we lived near my grandparents in South Bend, Indiana. I remember weekend sleepovers on my own in the built-in bed in grandma's sewing room, where I was surrounded by fabric scraps, button boxes, sewing patterns, and a myriad of notions that held a mysterious fascination to me. I remember playing in grandma's attic, where the formal gowns grandma had made for her daughters' school dances were stored, along with hats, shoes, and old clothes to dress up in.
When I was 6, my family moved to Dallas, and my grandparents were too far away to visit. The relationship waned as it became one of letter writing, often times forced by my mother who wouldn't allow me to go out and play until I had scrawled a hasty note to grandma and grandpa. I was busy being a child, and though my interest in fabric and sewing remained, it was pushed below others, like playing with Barbie dolls and learning to ride a two-wheeler.
When I was 11, my family moved to Milwaukee, which was near enough to my grandparents to allow occasional visits. They would drive up to spend time with us, and once, my mother braved a bus ride with 4 young girls to visit with her parents, whom she missed terribly. I remember Grandpa would build a fire in the outdoor grill and allow us girls to cook our "weiners" on a stick. Then we would roast marshmallows and chase fire flies in the dark until it was time to take a bath in the huge old tub and go to sleep with several of us in that bed in the sewing room.
The summer I turned 12, I was allowed to go and stay with my grandparents for an entire month all by myself. I realized years later it was a really big deal to not have to compete with 4 younger sisters for the attention of grown-ups. I was the center of my grandparents world for one magical month, and it changed my life. My grandfather would take me to the grocery store and allow me to choose my favorite green grapes and Eskimo pies. And my grandmother taught me to sew.
I remember the magic of going to the fabric store, and sitting down to choose a pattern. Then learning about which fabrics were best, and being allowed to choose the one I liked, a cranberry colored corduroy. Each afternoon, grandma and I would work on sewing my dress. It was a basic shift style with long sleeves and gold buttons up the front. I remember the thrill of learning how the pattern pieces worked together to make a dress, and watching it emerge day after day. I wore that dress all through the 6th grade, and was so reluctant to let it go when I outgrew it.
After returning home, I began to save every bit of my babysitting money so I could have a sewing machine of my very own. It took me two years, and by that time, my family had moved on to Boston. When I finally got my sewing machine, I didn't have my grandmother close-by to help me, and had to learn on my own, but the basic lessons she gave served me well. I learned more through trial and error, but I perservered and sewed all my own clothing during high school. I sewed most of my children's clothing when they were little. In fact, I've never stopped sewing. It still brings me great joy.
That summer influenced me in other ways too. I wound up going to school for fashion design, and when I marched down the aisle to "Pomp and Circumstance", my grandmother received my thanks and smiled down on me from heaven. And when life brought me to a place where I could finally be my own boss and do what I loved, all my life experiences and a bit of serendipity brought me to vintage clothing, where I am surrounded every day with fabrics, buttons, hats, and special dresses that were lovingly stored in attics.
My grandmother works beside me in spirit every day, and I smiled this morning when I realized my own favorite sewing needle has a gentle curve from thousands of stitches in my fingers.