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 Set a Table

Set the table early. With precision. Unfurl the tablecloth. Release its starchy scent into the morning air. Run your hands over it. Take care that the cutlery is polished to a fine shine. Check the place mats for smudges. They are immaculate but wipe them over just in case before setting down the china plate. God forbid there be even a speck of dirt.  

Fork to the left of the plate, knife to the right, blade pointing inwards because outwards would be rude. Place the soup spoon, because there is always soup, even in summer, to the right of the knife. The dessert spoon and fork face left and should be set above the plate, but not too close because people move their plates when eating. The wine glass, delicate and long-stemmed, goes to the right, and after that the tumbler for cold drinks. The napkin, matching the tablecloth, should be folded into a neat triangle and fixed under the fork.

photo by  Emily Chen-Morris

photo by Emily Chen-Morris

For special occasions, fold the napkin into a lily and sit it in the center of the plate. This will be a nice touch that your dinner guests will appreciate.

Step back and survey your dinner table waiting quietly, obediently, for the guests to arrive. Be ready at least fifteen minutes before the appointed time. Laugh when they arrive, fashionably late, and tell them it was no bother at all. This is how you were brought up and you do this all the time, you really do.   


- Joanna Chen lives on the edge of a forest, where she walks almost every day with whoever will come with her. Most days it's her dog, Pudding. Joanna writes exactly what she thinks at This is Not a Story  and also has a column at The Los Angeles Review of Books, The View From Here.  As for laying the table correctly, Joanna prefers eating with her fingers whenever possible.