I could not tell you the color of my Veronica’s eyes; they are green, they are grey, they are brown, they are blue… they change with the time of day and how happy or sleepy she is. They sparkle with laughter and grow stormy with agitation; they are greenest when she is fighting to stay awake. But on that day last November, they were grey-blue and pensive under her furrowed brow.
“Mama, we have to help the Little Sisters. We have to,” she stated with some finality.
“Oh, my dear…” I murmured as I stirred the soup. I bent down as I opened the oven door, and the aroma of fresh bread filled the room. I tapped the surface of the crusty loaf and smiled with satisfaction at the hollow sound it made as the loose flour on the surface jumped. “Done!” I proclaimed, showing it to Veronica and smiling. Her wide eyes, still stormy and troubled, studied me and not the bread.
“The pickle jar is not full, Mama, and I’ve been saving for so long. Christmas is almost here.”
The Little Sisters of the Poor had been forced to cancel their Christmas festival, usually held near the end of November. It had always been a fun event, with a turkey wheel, cake wheel, pictures with Saint Nick, bake sale, and other attractions, and provided much-needed funds for the Sisters to continue their charitable work of caring for the elderly poor at Saint Joseph House. They’d had to cancel their golf scramble over the summer, and worst of all, the Turtle Derby in the spring. Hailed as the “slowest two minutes in sports,” the Sisters’ Turtle Derby was always held on the weekend preceding the Kentucky Derby, and it was a big deal; families came for the cake wheel, chicken dinners, face painting, and games, but most of all, to bet on the racing turtles and cheer them over the finish line. It was the biggest fund raiser they had, and COVID had put an end to it.
COVID, it seemed, had indiscriminately obliterated the hopes, dreams, traditions, and daily lives of people all over the world, but I think that people in nursing homes were the hardest hit of all. As the most at-risk population, the elderly residents found themselves utterly cut off from contact with the outside world, cloistered for their own protection. And for the Little Sisters, who depend entirely upon donations and funds from their events to provide for the needs of their charges, this was a crippling blow. When news of the Turtle Derby cancellation spread, friends of the Little Sisters, various churches, and charitable organizations did what they could to come to the Sisters’ aid. And my Veronica, with her eyes blue like deep pools, shed tears for her friends, rescued an empty pickle jar from the recyclables, and started dropping in her coins.
I’d been taking Veronica to visit the Little Sisters since she was three months old. The Sisters’ calling is to minister to the elderly poor of any gender, race, or creed, without distinction. Their nursing homes are not gloomy, lonely places, but homes of joy where the dignity of the residents is paramount. They were always happy to see us; being always around the elderly and infirm, it was a rare joy to behold one at the opposite end of the life spectrum, and baby Veronica was a favorite with both the Sisters and residents there. She was a round-faced little doll-baby then, with wide, china-blue eyes and an abundance of honey brown hair. In addition to attending their events, we would join them for prayer, and as my children grew, they would perform on piano and violin to entertain there. These little concerts generally took place in the dining rooms, while the residents ate lunch; my children would take turns playing the tunes they’d been practicing at home, and would then mingle and chat, to the delight of their aged hosts.
At only nine years old, after one such performance, Veronica tucked away her violin and seated herself beside a dear little lady named Miss Elizabeth, then one hundred six years old! “I heard you singing; did you like my music?” she asked casually, as she lifted the cup with a straw to Miss Elizabeth’s mouth. Miss Elizabeth’s eyes were pale blue and clouded with age, and my sweet Veronica’s eyes gazed into hers, blue-brown and soft with tenderness and compassion. Miss Elizabeth suddenly clutched at my daughter and pulled her close; I feared that a little girl might be startled at this stranger’s grasp and pull away, but Veronica bent close and let Miss Elizabeth’s eyes take her in. “I know you! I love you! Dear, dear girl!” the lady cried out in a voice that was high and paper thin. “Yes,” Veronica responded. “I’ve played for you before. Now, last time I was here, you didn’t want to eat your lunch. You know you need to eat; here, try a little of this!” And like a mother tending to a child, rather than a child to a venerable lady, Veronica alternately coaxed, scolded, and cheered as Miss Elizabeth consumed a small portion of her meal. A Sister standing nearby me whispered, “That’s more than she has eaten in days!”
And now, two years later, the pandemic had shuttered this world of kindness and joy away from my daughter. And what could a little girl do but mourn for friends whose live were drawing to an end without the consolation of human touch and sympathy to ease the parting, and the dear Sisters who were struggling to keep up the hopes and spirits of the elderly in their care? And so she fretted and prayed with pensive eyes and kept adding change to the pickle jar, her Christmas gift to the Sisters.
My mind on the supper I was cooking and my own reminisces, I did not notice Veronica had left the room until she returned to it. Snip, snip, snip, went the blades of her scissors. I turned in surprise to see her at the table, bits of felt spread out before her, worried brow still furrowed, but determination replacing pensiveness in her eyes.
“What are you up to, Veronica?” I asked.
“Making Christmas ornaments,” she replied.
“For the Little Sisters?” I asked.
“To sell, for the Little Sisters. I’ll make ornaments, sell them, and fill my pickle jar by Christmas.”
“That’s a big job, and you haven’t much time…”
“It’s ok. I’ll work all night.”
I smiled at my sweet, stubborn girl. I served dinner to my large, hungry family. Dishes were done, pajamas put on, teeth brushed, and evening prayers prayed. It was a Friday night: camp out night at the Palm house! Children who have been well-behaved and have completed their school work for the week are rewarded with a camp-out and movie with Daddy in the living room. Normally, Veronica would have been vying with siblings for the coveted place next to Daddy on the couch, and casting a vote for the movie of the night, but she was true to her word; she returned to the table of scissors and felt. I sat opposite her, my own sewing box in my hand.
“Oh, good!” she said, her eyes shining. “I was hoping you would want to help!”
“What are we making?” I asked.
“Oh, whatever you think would be pretty. Let’s make a lot of different ones!”
Thus began the first of many late nights of sewing ornaments.
Veronica always had a spark of ingenuity and a yen to create. Whenever I was sewing, from the time she was very small indeed, she would watch me with those bright, inquisitive eyes. If I was piecing together a quilt, she would take the fabric shapes and rearrange them into new configurations. If I was working on a felt Christmas stocking for a new baby, she would dabble her fingers in the dish of sequins and recommend variations from the pattern. And if I was making clothing, she would pull on the half-finished sleeves or grip the fabric edge where a seam would go, and get a sense of how the pieces would eventually form a garment. She would not leave my side for any game, toy, or movie, and to keep her from losing my bits and pieces of projects, I would give her my scraps of fabric and a pair of child scissors, and she would happily snip, snip, snip the colorful cloth into fabric confetti and then glue it onto paper, making wild mosaics.
One day, when she was about four, Veronica decided that she was far too grown-up for such childish diversions; she wanted to sew something! How well I understood that desire! I put aside my own project and took her hands in mine. Together, we threaded the needle (not an easy task for little fingers!), and I showed her how to wrap the thread round a forefinger, roll it off, and pull it tight to make the knot. I recall her eyes, blue tinged with brown and nearly crossed as she studied that thread close to her face, her little lips pursed in determination. Then she took up the scissors, my sewing scissors, and she breathed in deeply, recognizing the solemnity of this moment! With my hands guiding hers, she cut two circles out of calico cloth. “So… so clean!” she gasped, and I nodded. It was the only way a tiny child could articulate the incredible way the scissors sliced through the fabric in a perfectly uniform line, with no fraying or pulling left by blunt blades.
“Look,” I showed her my line of tiny, straight stitches. “Would you like to do this?”
She nodded, wide-eyed and silent, and I put the needle in her fingertips and closed my fingers over hers. Both of us holding the fabric in our left hands, we pushed the needle up through the back of the fabric until the knot stopped it, and then back through the other side: Veronica’s first stitch!
“Shall we do some more?” I asked, savoring this incredible moment in motherhood.
“No,” she replied simply. “I want to do it my way now.” And she proceeded to wad the fabric in her fist, jabbing the needle through in random places and pulling the thread tight. I let her determine the course of this creation, but kept a hand near hers to ward off any needle pricks to her eager finger tips (and incurred a few myself in the process!). When the thread ran out, almost too short to tie it off, she proclaimed it done. It was… unique. A mass of ungainly calico with no order or symmetry.
“What is it?” Veronica asked in a hushed voice, beholding her first masterpiece.
“You made it. You get to decide,” I replied.
“It’s a …. It’s a present! A present for you, Mama!” she cried delightedly. She handed me my present and skipped away, calling, “I’m done sewing now, Mama! I’ll make you another one tomorrow!” And she did. And for many days and weeks after, she continued to produce these shapeless wads of fabric, sometimes calling them balls and sometimes pillows, but always giving them as gifts from the bottom of her kind, generous little heart.
And with fabric, scissors, and thread, hands to help and guide hers, and ample opportunity to let creativity flow, she did grow beyond these simple creations and start on more intricate ones. Her first ambitious skirt fell apart in short order, and she swore off sewing from that moment forth… only to humbly seek my assistance by the end of that same day. She dabbled in quilting for a time, loving the creative process of choosing a pattern and selecting fabrics, but soon lost interest in sewing monotonous straight lines. Finally, she settled upon felt as her fabric of choice. It was a proud, happy day when she completed her first felt Christmas stocking, a long white and pink one, edged in sequins, with an elegant sugar plum fairy ballerina whirling gracefully on it. We used no patterns; I helped her cut the pieces and then sat back to watch her create. Her eyes gleamed as she saw it come together in her own ten-year-old hands. It was bittersweet to watch, as I recalled my own first sewing lessons.
I, too, had watched my mother creating quilts, garments, and Christmas stockings, and begged to be taught the art. But money was tight, nice fabric was expensive, and good fabric scissors were too precious to be trusted in the hands of a little girl. So, my mother cut up my brothers’ old, worn sweatpants into squares. She threaded my needle and tied the knot, and instructed me to sew in lines. If my stitches strayed from the course or fluctuated in size, they were pulled out to be done again. I recall that glorious Christmas morning when I found a sewing box, with needles, thread, scissors, and a pin cushion inside, under the Christmas tree with my name on it! I had been practicing making knots with strands of hair salvaged from my hairbrush, as my mother said I would waste too much thread if I was trusted to make my own knots. Now, I sacrificed some of my one precious spool to practice rolling it round my finger and down. My first attempts were clumsy, but I soon produced a line of tight little knots. But still, I had only old sweatpants squares to work with. And I recall my Sicilian grandfather, rather short and rather round, a newsboy cap perched on his balding pate, whose greatest joy in life was combing through the refuse of sales in search of cheap treasures. When the weather grew warm and “yard sale” signs started to appear, he would get a gleam in his eye and say, “Let’s go saling!” And we did. And one day, he happened upon a rare find, a veritable treasure trove of fabric of all sorts: gingham, calico, corduroy, burlap, velour, and more, and even some bits of lace, elastic, and a few snaps and other enclosures. It was the remains of some deceased relative’s hobby, long stored in an attic and now irreverently cast onto the bargain table of ten cent deals. My grandfather purchased it all, and presented it to eight-year-old me with a flourish; I received it with proper esteem, handling that cast-off stack as if it were yards of finest silks and satins. At last, no more sweatpants! I was no longer an artist without a medium! My mother rarely had time to sew with me, so I would sit up late in the night by myself, experimenting, failing, and finally succeeding, feverishly creating all manner of things: camouflage vests for my brothers, dresses for dolls, little plush animals to give as gifts…
And now, here was my lovely girl, feverishly creating with all her might, but with her eyes growing greener as the night wore on. We let our imaginations runs wild, sewing little llama ornaments with Christmas trees embroidered onto the blankets on their backs, stars with pine boughs and poinsettias affixed to them, and a set of Christmas-hued Russian doll ornaments. We looked at Christmas coloring books and old Christmas cards for inspiration and snipped away at the felt. We adorned them with sequins, beads, embroidery, and buttons.
“Sharp scissors are a must with felt,” Veronica reflected, chatting to keep herself awake. “Dull scissors pull apart the threads of wool when you cut it.” I smiled, remembering her amazement at cuts “so clean” when she first used my sewing scissors. “And soft embroidery thread is important, too,” she said, stifling a yawn. “Regular sewing thread is too stiff, and if you pull too hard, it goes right through the felt and messes up your shape.”
“True,” I agreed, “but right now, you are messing up your shapes, through no fault of the thread!”
She stared at me, and then examined the snowman in her hands, with his hat and one eye sewn on terribly askew. We giggled.
“Time to close shop for tonight. We will sew again tomorrow!”
“Thanks, Mama,” she murmured. “This is really going to help the Sisters!”
I returned her sleepy smile, but then frowned at her retreating back. Now that the ornaments were made, how were we to sell them? Craft shows, too, had been largely wiped out this year by the unsympathetic scourge of COVID. But what is a mother’s duty than to encourage her child to dream big dreams and then find a way to make them come true? I called our parish priest and explained to him the plight of the Little Sisters, of which he was already well aware. I described Veronica’s fundraiser idea, and he was delighted. I requested permission to decorate a tree in the church with Veronica’s ornaments, and place a pickle jar nearby for donations, and he granted it. Night after night, we snipped and stitched. Once we had several dozen ornaments finished, we decorated the tree at church. In no time at all, dollar bills, coins, and checks began to accumulate, and ornaments began to vanish from the branches. After each Mass, we would collect the donations. I shared pictures with family and friends of Veronica’s handiwork and received donations and orders for ornaments. We were hard-pressed to maintain our inventory! And just two days before Christmas, we totaled up all of the donations our sewing had earned. In just a few weeks, eleven-year-old Veronica made more than eight hundred dollars for the Little Sisters. She wrote a letter to Mother Paul, explained about her fundraiser, and included the check. Veronica’s eyes looked grey and blue and brown and green all at once, and she danced around the room; I caught her hands and danced with her!
Like sharing a meal or playing music together, sewing, for two avid creators like Veronica and myself, is a catalyst for bonding. Each night that we worked on ornaments, we tried out new stitches, experimented with shapes and colors, and created new patterns. But more was being stitched together than felt and sequins; as our needles and scissors flashed, we shared laughter and tears. I recounted to her many memories of her infancy and early childhood. She shared tales of little naughtiness’s she had concealed, but could now bring to light and chuckle over. She asked me about my mother and why she is not a part of our lives; I was able to tell her, albeit tearfully, about my troubled relationship with her. We talked about our dreams for the future, and each managed to surprise the other. I learned so much about my daughter. I watched her, green-eyed and flagging, force her sleepy fingers to keep her stitches small and uniform, and tie off her thread, tiny and secure as she had on the first ornament of the night. I heard the warmth in her voice and saw the compassion in her eyes when she spoke about the Sisters and about one day being a nurse and tending to the elderly.
Sewing is a craft that brings joy, not only because of what we create, but why we create it, and the life that happens while we are creating it. I know because I see it in my Veronica’s eyes.