In 1954, I graduated from the 8th grade at St. Leo’s School in North Fairmount in May or June, and then in September was one of more than one hundred and fifty Freshman classmates to start high school at Mother of Mercy, on Werk Road in Cincinnati.
At the time, my parents were still living in Fairmount and it only took two buses to get to school; after we moved to North College Hill when I was fifteen, it took three buses and a lot of walking. Meantime, it was 1954 and one of my majors was domestic science. My freshman class roster included sewing class.
The first thing freshman girls were required to make was an apron. When the teacher introduced us to the sewing machines, she asked if I could gather. “Sure I can gather” I said and proceeded to fold the fabric into the machine.
“That’s NOT how you gather,” said the teacher (annoyed, I think), instructing me to take out all my bad stitches.
“I learned from my grandmother,” I explained. “That was how SHE gathered.”
I had already made a bad impression on the teacher, one of the few women at Mercy who was not a nun.(I redeemed myself later on with all written tests and exercises—I could memorize anything).
Now, the next thing 99% of the students in sewing class made was a wool skirt. It required two pieces of fabric, a front and a back, with a belt-size piece of fabric, a waist band that went around the waist. The most difficult part of the skirt was putting in a zipper. I didn’t want to put in a zipper so I elected to make a pair of pajamas that went to the knees, like Capri pants, in a lavender print fabric that my mother must have had laying around (I don’t remember ever going to buy fabric) The thing about these pajamas is that they had French seams everywhere. If you don’t know what a French seam is, don’t waste your time learning how – it’s like the seam on the outside of a good pair of jeans. To this day, I remember those French seams.
Here’s what happened: I had sewing class two or three days a week. I would work on my French seams for an hour, then squash the pajamas into my sewing box and take them home to my mother, who would tear out my bad seams and re-do the whole thing.
Months later the pajamas were finished and they lasted for years. I once hyperventilated when I saw a piece of that fabric in a quilt that my mother made for my sister, Susanne.
The next thing I made was a dress. The fabric was a lovely pale dotted swiss. The dress went back and forth in the sewing box too—I think it was finally finished at the end of the school year—by then my breast size had increased and the dress was too tight for me to wear. I don’t know what my mother did with that dress, either.
Now here’s the thing—my two best friends from childhood (when we sat on our front porches making doll dresses for little dolls that predated Barbie) – both sew all kinds of things and both of them quilt as well. My friend Patti even has names for her sewing machines – she has two. They are Sweetie One and Sweetie Two.
ALL of my friends sew. My best friend here in California, Mary Jaynne, has been doing all of my mending and took up Bob’s new Dockers whenever he got a new pair of pants—she does all of my mending and alterations; I make soup for them. I freeze the soups, stews, and chowders in 2-quart Glad Lock plastic containers. When frozen solid, the soup or stew pops out and can be put into a zip lock freezer bag—and then labeled with a black Sharpee pen. (Mrs. Cunningham, my cooking teacher, would have been proud)
I think all of my girlfriends quilt as well. I don’t sew; I gave it up when my Freshman year came to an end.
I do have a button box; when I was married my Ex couldn’t understand how someone who didn’t sew could have a button box. “I like buttons”, I explained. He never got it. I played with my mother’s button box when I was a little girl. No sewing onto things was ever required.
Four Years at Mercy
Class of 1958
In 1954, we were the freshman class,
girls from many parishes,
wearing new blue uniforms
with crisp white blouses,
bobby socks and
blue and white beanie caps;
assigned our lockers,
and a list
of the rooms
of all our classes.
In my dreams
I still lose the slip of paper
with my classes
and have to go to
Sister Emily’s office
to get another.
I may have lost
once or twice
I may have been
Religion, English, General Math,
Science, Domestic Science (Sewing)
I was not very good
and spent a year
making a pair
with French seams.
I had a class in Public Speaking?
I did not like P.E.
(and it did not like me. I think
the teacher took pity
on the girl
with two left feet–I became the coach).
In 1955, we were the Sophomores
No longer the new kids on the block.
We were worldly, experienced,
and knew our way
around the halls
and up and down the stairwells.
I still lost my list of classes
once or twice
until I had them memorized.
Religion, English, Biology
(Sister Joseph, I remember you well–oh
that all the world could have been
World History, Public Speaking (again?)
Domestic Science (Cooking Class. I love you
Mrs. Cunningham, Where ever you are).
How did I ever get a 97.5 average in P.E.?
(Is this really my report card?)
In 1956, we became Juniors.
No longer babies.
(I graduate from 2-finger
Typing to using both hands)
(Sister Joseph again. We practiced
for weeks. Sister was a stickler
for getting it right.
To this day,
I write a pretty good check.)
(How did I ever get a 92.5 average?)
A in Conduct.
Ok, I could live with that.
In 1957, we became the Senior Class.
Problems of Democracy,
(Democracy is still having problems
Fifty years later)
Typing, (loved typing class)
The Senior Prom.
Getting our class pictures taken.
in front of the school.
Of all the things–
birth certificates for
and bits of paper
that have trailed me through life
(not to mention many moves)
much has been lost
along the way.
I have managed
Four important report cards.
Proof that I was there,
for four years
from Mother of Mercy
June 4, 1958.
–Sandra Lee Smith (Schmidt)
Class of ’58