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Seventeen with a Sewing Machine

by Nicole Hewitt 2 months ago in relationships
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A Story of Self-Discovery and Closure

I worked at a department store in those odd transition years between the end of high school and actually deciding what I wanted to do. It was in a small city in their ancient mall, just close enough to the real city to entitle those who shopped here to puff up like a turkey over it, “That might look nice, but I shopped locally. Posh.”

When I began at the store, I worked in Housewares. The nucleus of my workspace was a small cash register located between the Cuisinart small appliances, Hallmark card display, and the tall wall of towels that seemed to extend to the ceiling. I remember being shakenly disappointed one day when that seemingly perfect stack of towels began to come loose, revealing the deception it was. One mere bath towel tucked into layers of foam … it was as if a bubble of wonder and innocence popped, making me into one of those skeptical shoppers: “Oh, that display looks amazing! So, it must be fake. Don’t look too closely. Keep walking!”

I was not a typical show-up-late, take-smoke-breaks, fiddle-on-my-phone, hide-instead-of-working, never-learn-the-till-correctly type of worker, as most around my age were. When my manager realized this, she transferred me to the Chinaware and Gift Registry department. It was nerve-wracking! My mother might own chinaware, even some crystal glassware she got for her wedding, but they were locked behind glass cabinets, untouchable works of art that gathered dust in their overcrowded home. It was taboo to touch them. Thus, it was a section of department stores I dare not enter.

I remember pleading with my manager, “Send me there, and I’ll become a bull! I know nothing about that stuff. I don’t even know what the long part of wine glasses is called!”

She told me I would have time to learn.

In the Housewares department, my mentor was compliments and light jokes and referred to herself as Mrs. Morrison to the customers. This was a far cry from the sarcastic, strict English lady who would wave her finger at the displays like a sword, “Oy, Nicole, I will tell you this once today. So, you’d best remember. Red wine goblets. White wine goblets. Champagne flutes. Brandy Snifter. Highball. Double-Old Fashioned. Cocktail liqueur. Martini glass. Footed tumbler. Cocktail glass. Liqueur. Then here. Stemless wine glasses. Red and White. Crystal decanter. Wine and whiskey (which is bourbon). Shot glasses. Then just remember that crystal, proper stemware, has at least 24% lead content. Anything else is just pretty glass. All of these are crystal. Those things are pretty glassware. Got it?”

If I tried to ask a question, she would say, “Oy! You weren’t paying attention. Now you’ll have to read the signs and boxes and try to remember, now won’t you?”

I would sometimes escape to Mrs. Morrison. “Oh, don’t mind Marie. If she’s treating you like this still after three days, she likes you. Usually, she demands people are transferred out of her department by this time. And you’ll learn the stemware soon, Nicole. After all, you learned all the coffee maker and small appliances facts here.”

Later, I would come to love sarcastic, dry Marie. She had no patience for rude or stupid customers. She would push out any co-worker she disapproved of. She ignored the gossip of the store and made up her own that she’d share with me and laugh dryly at. She banged plates on tables in front of customers, sometimes making them squeal, to prove their durability. We would laugh later at the best reactions to those plates banging those displays. Only once did a plate shatter, and we laughed all the more at that.

After working with Marie for quite a long time, she told me how she came to Canada at seventeen, all alone. Only one bag and her sewing machine. For decades she did this and that, trying to survive. I admired her and her strange English quirks and her vast tenacity. I also understood her lack of time for the sayers but not doers of the store. Those who claimed things were tough but never moved their disposition to improve things. Those who promised without ever intending to do. Those who dreamed but, even with the opportunity before their feet, refused to step out of their comfort zone for it.

When I left that department store, I was most sad to leave Marie. I was moving on to my future, to newer and better things, “As you ought to,” Marie would say, but leaving her was hard. Since this was before social media was a thing, it had an element of permanence to it. A little like a seventeen-year-old boarding a plane from all she knew with only a sewing machine and a small bag. I could wager she never truly said goodbye, just as I didn’t have the heart to. At the end of my last shift, I hugged Mrs. Morrison for the first time, said, “See you later,” to Marie and left my employee badge in the empty office of my manager before walking out the door. It felt more like turning a page than the closing of a chapter.

A few years later, I entered that department store. I saw Mrs. Morrison there, still working as always. She saw me but didn’t truly see me. I was just a customer who might ask her about coffee makers or towels. Then I went to the chinaware department. It was still pristine.

“Nicole!” I turned, and there Marie was! We chatted for a few minutes; she made a few remarks about the employees who kept coming through her department. “Not many good ones. But don’t you come back,” she lectured, shaking her finger at me, “You have much more to you than a store like this.”

I left with a mixture of gladness and disappointment. Returning to somewhere you have been is always strange. The same but not the same. Like opening an old toy box. In it, pieces of yourself are a shattered mirror of your old reflection. Abandoned toys and bits of yourself messily scattered in shards between unfamiliar relics.

I recall the sewing machine that I inherited from my grandmother. After I got it as a delivery from my aunt, my aunt lied and told my grandmother I had already sewn a dress on it. “A little hard to do when the power cord is right here.” I can imagine my grandmother saying it in her typical salty attitude, holding the missing cord up. It undoubtedly thoroughly embarrassed my aunt, who passed the lies off as mine. I wondered if Marie would have seen through it if she were my grandmother. Would she have believed I was a liar through my aunt? Or would Marie have seen the embellishment of the truth and taken pleasure in my aunt’s embarrassment? Snickering later at how my aunt got all tongue-tied and how she deserved every ounce of that mortification.

Personally, I think that gives better closure to imagine Marie this way. A grandmother snickering at the weakly hidden truth, knowing the lie wasn’t my own. It is much better than the truth, our awkward meeting in the department store when she told me not to move backwards.


About the author

Nicole Hewitt

Stability is good, but my life is ruled by changes. Recently moving from Alberta, Canada to Nontharburi, Thailand for near 3 years! I love traveling, reading manga, gardening and cooking. Ask me to tell you a story and I am in my element!

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  • Velton Lorenzo2 months ago

    Nice work!

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