The Dolly's Dress

Always make it a pair. When buying a bra, get the matching panty. When sewing a dress for a little girl, make one for her dolly, too.

Mom sat quietly in front of the sewing machine, the lamp shining brightly over her shoulder onto the tiny dress she held on her lap. A matching one, only slightly larger, already hung in a little girl’s closet, far away in Australia. 

Mom turned the dolly’s dress inside out to inspect the waistline seam she had just sewn. She frowned and slowly pulled out each little stitch: something wasn’t right. This was for her first granddaughter. The dolly dress must match the girl’s dress perfectly.

 Mom, Isabel, dress. Photo by Karen Dean.

Mom, Isabel, dress. Photo by Karen Dean.

My own sewing lessons ended abruptly years ago when I broke a fourth needle. Mom had, however, successfully taught me the satisfication of sewing—precision—particularly when attaching a full skirt to a fitted bodice. Each stitch must take in more fabric from the skirt than from the bodice, but it must do so invisibly. Begin by pinning the side seams to one another, then pin the center and the back of the skirt. Do not sew. A gathered seam must first be basted. Cut a long section of cheap thread and sew it first by hand. Squish, push, squeeze the fabric. Do not fold it: we are gathering, not pleating. 

Once the dress was finished, she hung it on a tiny hanger next to her sewing machine, anticipating the dolly’s next visit. Mom refused to mail the dress, preferring to gift it in person so she could savor the delight it would elicit. 

As the months passed, though, her cancer progressed. She could hardly walk by the time the little girl arrived, but in the middle of the international arrivals lounge, next to the luggage carousel, dolly was stripped and joyfully transformed into something quite perfect.


- After her mother’s death, Jerilyn Sambrooke took a renewed interest in sewing but has yet to master the fine art of a gathered skirt. Jerilyn currently lectures in the Rhetoric Department at the University of California, Berkeley. She is also working on a memoir, Alpenglow: A Year of Darkness, that narrates the year following her mother’s death. Her reflections on grief owe much to her academic research on religious practice and secular life in contemporary fiction.

How To Fold Sheets

“Tuck the corners into the ears,” you tell me from across the vast ocean of a bed sheet. You shake it, snap it, and I rock backward from your energy. Half a beat behind, I fold my corners and think of a minuet I learned in second grade. The “ears” are pockets made by the fitted corners. On your side of this housekeeping dance, one ear folds into another, makes a seashell.

My sheet ears are sloppy, soft, as if I can’t hear how to make edges.

When I was little, you made my bed with hospital corners. Why we knew how hospitals folded their sheets so tightly is another story, a long one. Tuck the bottom end under the mattress in one swipe, then tuck each hanging-over side under the mattress in two more swipes. It should look like an envelope, you say.

This is a thing I learn. With you dead three years now, and hospital corners on my beds for nearly fifty years, I wake if a sheet comes untucked at my feet. It rarely does, because those corners are tight.

The day you refolded every sheet in my linen closet, you tucked ears into ears, made origami of pillow cases. When you were done, you labeled your work with index cards. “Yellow sheets, guest room,” you wrote. “Blue sheets, king sized.”

 "My mother, holding me before I could fold anything."

"My mother, holding me before I could fold anything."

- Jessica Handler is the author of Invisible Sisters: A Memoir, named by the Georgia Center for the Book one of the “Twenty Five Books All Georgians Should Read.” Atlanta Magazine called it the “Best Memoir of 2009.”  Her second book, Braving the Fire: A Guide to Writing About Grief and Loss, was praised by Vanity Fair magazine as “a wise and encouraging guide.” Her nonfiction has appeared on NPR, in Tin House, Creative Nonfiction, Brevity, The Bitter Southerner, Drunken Boat, Newsweek, The Washington Post, More Magazine, and elsewhere. Honors include residencies at the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, a 2010 Emerging Writer Fellowship from The Writers Center, the 2009 Peter Taylor Nonfiction Fellowship for the Kenyon Review Writers’ Workshop, and special mention for a 2008 Pushcart Prize. She teaches at Oglethorpe University and lectures internationally on writing well about trauma. www.jessicahandler.com.

How To Be a Sister

When she teaches you how to be beautiful, it is a lesson in resilience. When she tells you to buy a dress, she means, “prepare.”

Together you curate wardrobes, with method and purpose in mentally categorized racks:

Obviously Made for You,

Novelty (buy on sale),

Potentially Amazing On (but questionable on the hanger),

Unflattering Even on the Mannequin, Slightly Outside the Comfort Zone/Worth a Try (rarely not horrifying), and

Basics.

Investment pieces are special, she says, simultaneously classic and unique, and almost always accidentally found. Their quality and timeless tailoring feel made just for you, and last decades.

Her style blends effortlessly with yoursher wide cuffed black trousers, your navy blue pencil skirt, cashmere crewnecks, iconic printed accessories. Your favorite is a gray suiting dress. It has a drop waist and a single inverted pleat. You wear it to an interview, New York, London, to her funeral and then your father’s and then another, to your best friend’s second wedding, the Union League, to family court. You build a wardrobe around a life that disappears. Who were you when you bought that wool crepe dress with her?

In a dressing room alone somewhere, you remind yourself of her lessons: Choose carefully and invest in clothing that lasts. You’ll need a dress for starting over, and more than once. You slip on a long silk cardigan that should have been hers and is yours now, by default, and you pray: If I am pain, may I also be grace.

Nichole Cordin is a Chicago writer and contributing editor of Dead Housekeeping. When not actively mourning, she enjoys taking photos of her geriatric Boston Terrier and can be found at @NicholeCordin.

Fresh Linens

My mother was practical and prudent. She didn’t iron sheets—“It’s a waste of time,” she said— but she didn’t need to. She was exacting about making up the beds when she changed linens. 

“Don’t yank on the corners,” she would remind me, “unless you want to use your allowance to buy new sheets when they tear. Watch me.” She would line up a corner seam of the fitted bottom sheet with a corner of the mattress and ease it into place. Then the other corners, gently, never tugging hard, not even on the last, stubborn one. The result was taut and smooth, not a wrinkle to be seen. Then the top sheet, hospital corners folded and tucked with military precision. 

She took special pride in her method of putting on pillowcases. She’d turn the case inside out, all but the very end, then reach in and grasp the tips of the corners at the closed end. With these she’d grab one end of the pillow, pinching the corners into the ends of the pillowcase she was holding and shake the pillowcase over the pillow. Faultless: none of the lumps and bumps you get from cramming a puffy pillow into a barely-big-enough case. She’d hold it up, as if demonstrating a magic trick: “See?”

 "See?"

"See?"

Forty years after her death I still bask in her presence when I change the sheets. And I still do it her way.  “Don’t yank on the corners,” I remind my husband. 


- Alice Lowe reads and writes about food and family, Virginia Woolf, and life. Her personal essays have appeared in numerous literary journals, including Permafrost, 1966, Upstreet, Hippocampus, Tinge, Switchback, and Lunch Ticket. She was the 2013 national award winner at City Works Journal and winner of a 2011 essay contest at Writing It Real. Two monographs on Virginia Woolf have been published by Cecil Woolf Publishers in London. Alice lives in San Diego, California and blogs at www.aliceloweblogs.wordpress.com.  

 

How to Fold Fitted Sheets Alone

My husband learned another trick of folding, this time for fitted sheets, that I’ve never forgotten. It is harder to do alone than the towel folding but it is designed for one person, too.

 (ghost hand)

(ghost hand)

Take two corners of the sheet and put your hands inside. Make ghost hands, wide spread, to smooth the wrinkles in the corners. Then point your index fingers into the very corner of these corners, and bring them together. Now, flip one of the corners over the other so they nest.

Here is the part that is hard to do alone: Straighten the whole, and fold into a square as closely as you can. Fold the rounded corners inward until they do not show. Fold vertically and then--as with the towels--horizontally once, then thrice until your result is a neat, smooth, trifolded packet. It’s hard to describe how satisfying it is to do this right. My husband would fold & refold until he perfected it.

One of his last full acts on earth was folding laundry. He was listening to the game in our bedroom, vague and spacey on a toxic brew of Valium and Oxycontin, barely able to stand as his hipbone now crumbled with cancer, but folding, folding, folding with care.

 

- Lisa Schamess is a Founding Editor of Dead Housekeeping. The companion piece to this essay is "How to Fold with Only Two Hands: Honoring the Integrity of Towels," which was the first piece we ran when we started this site three months ago. 

 

How to Properly Dry and Fold Cloth Diapers: A Tutorial in Several Steps

Be a nine-year-old girl in the 50’s with a new baby sister and a mama with a clothesline that stretches the length of the yard.  There’s a pole to make the line taller, you have to have that pole because if you don’t the line will hang low from the weight of the wet clothes which will drag in the dirt.

 The author, with clothesline pole

The author, with clothesline pole

Keep the wooden clothespins in a handmade bag that you will never leave outside for fear of bees nesting inside or birds shitting on the pins. 

The basket will be huge and very heavy and your mama will carry it.

Hang the Birdseye diapers together.  (All items must always be hung with like items.)  

What’s a Birdseye diaper?

Oh, the one with the straight edges. 

Why do some have rickrack edges and are longer? 

Just made that way.

Use separate pins for quick drying, hang side by side as the laundry has to flow.

Bring inside for folding.  No clean laundry will ever sit in a basket even though in the future laundry will sit in baskets for days and sometimes weeks, even though there will be entire generations born who do nothing but move clean clothing unfolded from basket directly onto waiting children, for now the laundry will be folded.

Fold diapers like this: 

- sides meet in middle

- fold back end down

 

Girls pee backwards, she says.  It’s why she likes these diapers best: they’re thicker in the middle. 

Hope that American Bandstand is still on.

 

- Linda Poore is a wife, mother, grandmother, sister, daughter (of dead people) and friend to a few.  She is retired and spends many hours dog walking while recalling life events (of dead people.)  She worries that when she’s gone no one will know her stories.  (But it really doesn’t matter.)  She lives in Virginia with her husband and her poodle, Penny Poore.

Sleeping Bags for Two or One

Few people know the proper technique for using sleeping bags. I learned how at an early age. Once you learn, you don’t forget.

                                                                                                                        illustration by Ilana Shabnam 

                                                                                                                       illustration by Ilana Shabnam 

You’ll need two sleeping bags, and a best friend. If you don’t have a best friend, I feel sorry for you because best friends are magic. Find one who is kind, likes the same things you do, and has asthma so they’ll stay behind with you to play pretend and tell stories, when the other kids run off to play sports. Go everywhere and do everything together. So that if your best friend died, and someone made a collage for her funeral, they wouldn’t find a single photo of her that didn’t have you in it.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Open both sleeping bags all the way. Place one on the ground. Place yourself and your best friend on top. Cover yourselves with the second. Cuddle and whisper all night. Bite each other’s shoulders as a joke. Giggle, but quietly, because your babysitter is mean when she’s sleepy. Hold on to your best friend very tight. Because she’s magic, and has great ideas about sleeping bags. And because she’s Black, and lives in a poor neighborhood. So if her asthma ever gets too bad, and the ambulance won’t come to her “dangerous” neighborhood, and she’s brain dead by the time her mother drives her to the hospital, and nobody has the courage to tell you what brain dead means, and you write letters and poems and drawings that nobody will tell you she can’t read, and when they finally tell, you climb into your sleeping bag and pretend to be dead as hard as you can, but no matter how hard you try, you can’t cry yourself to death and join her. That, they’ll tell you. So hold on tight. 

                                       text by Ilana Shabnam

                                      text by Ilana Shabnam

Maybe if you hold on tighter.  Maybe if you zip the sleeping bags together. Maybe if you spend the rest of your life shouting about injustice, ambulances will show up at little girls’ houses when they’re called.

I recommend two Little Mermaid sleeping bags. Available wherever Disney products are sold. 

- Ashley Nicole Black

 

Five Star Mixtape

Dress Like a Lady

Carry yourself like a lady. Dress like a lady. Don’t take foolishness from anyone.

I learned those things from my paternal grandmother, a tiny woman who was always well-dressed and –coiffed, and whose tolerance for the antics of others was miniscule.

I carelessly put on a poorly ironed (perhaps un-ironed) shirt once during a summer visit to her spotless home.  Because I was a teenager, and therefore a young lady, this was simply unacceptable.  She pulled out her ironing board and iron, and gave me a thorough lesson in proper pressing.

  "My grandmother is dabbing her eyes at my parents' wedding and looks perfectly put-together. She may as well have been crying about my future lack of ironing skills."

"My grandmother is dabbing her eyes at my parents' wedding and looks perfectly put-together. She may as well have been crying about my future lack of ironing skills."

1.     Start with the collar. Use plenty of elbow grease. She didn’t have starch when she learned to iron, so I didn’t need it, either.

2.     Iron the collar flat, then fold it down on its crease and iron that.

3.     Next the back.

4.     Then the sleeves.

5.     Finally, the front. This is what people will see first. Saving it for last makes it less likely to get wrinkled before you hang it up or put it on.

I put my freshly pressed shirt back on. She told me I had done a good job. My arm was stiffening up from all of that elbow grease.

Then she added a final step.

6.      When you get married, do not iron your husband’s shirts. If you start, you will be ironing his shirts forever. Take his shirts to the dry cleaner.

My husband irons his own shirts. I’ve watched, and he does it wrong.

- Jacqueline Bryant Campbell

How to Fold with Only Two Hands: Honoring the Integrity of Towels

This is how my dead husband folded linens.

 First, a towel, because it is easier to do alone, and because I still know what to do, even though he is not here. There is no gap in my knowledge about folding towels the proper way, only lapses of will and the urgency of daily life.

I often no longer do it. Here is a diagram of what I should do.

 [figure 1]

[figure 1]

Fold horizontally, once. I often do the fold in mid-air, with a brave flourish, but then I have to lay it flat for the rest. It is the rest of this that matters, not that first impetuous sweep of linen through the air. After that bold start, what matters most is painstakingly matching the corners for this fold and the next. Do it again and again till just right.

Fold horizontally a second time. Again, be ridiculous about the corners. No. Not that way. Do it again.

Fold the towel into neat, even threes. It will feel just a bit like rolling, with a gentle smoothing motion to reassure your towel it is home. The result will be a towel burrito with reassuringly neat ends. This towel will display well on shelves, stack evenly in cabinets, and retain its architectural integrity when handed to a guest.

 [figure 2]

[figure 2]