Mirror Mist and My Mother
By Cathy Adams
My connection to sewing began when my mother stitched up scratchy, shimmering pageant dresses resembling enormous frosted cupcakes made from what we mistakenly called Mirror Mist, the go-to beeyootee pageant fabric of the 70s. My crunchy, iridescent dresses in pale pink, sky blue, and sugary white were all so wide the three of them took up their own closet. Oh, how I whined as a preschooler at having to stand on the dining table turning at my mother’s directive while she, with pins clinched between her lips, pinned up the hem. Each tiny dress she made was fluffed underneath and on top in rows of ruffles. Good lord, those ruffles were the Reddi-Whip of pageant dresses. She used a rather simple dress if one just followed the pattern, but my mother cut the skirts full circle and put crinolines underneath so that they stuck out like shimmering mushrooms. The puffed up sleeves nearly touched my ears. It wasn’t until last month that I learned the real name of that monstrously uncomfortable yet glamorous fabric was actually called Miramist. My mother never learned the correct name. She died June 12, 2020, never knowing that we had made up our own name for this quintessentially southern, itchy textile.
On my last visit to my mother in summer of 2019, all the fabric stores in her vicinity were gone. But it was not to worry because my mother still had a dresser full of cloth, some of it dating all the way back to my childhood. Atop her sewing cabinet she also had the button jar from my childhood, the one I poured out on the floor and pretended they were coins. Her thread rack hung on the wall lined with spools light to dark, just as I’d organized them on my visit the year before. We dusted off her Bernina, and I asked her to thread it for me. After twenty minutes, it was clear she could no longer remember how to do it, and a little part of me broke to see her try.
Her closet shelves were stacked with fabric from the days when we would buy a few yards of this or that just because we “might make something” from it. At her insistence, I took two yards of cream-colored broadcloth back to my home in China and made a sleeveless sheath dress. I sent her a photo and she emailed a glowing missive about how impressed she was. “You learned more than I thought you did,” she admitted. And I had. Sewing was the last and best thing she taught me, but I pushed my skills far past Miramist pageant dresses and began designing my own garments. Sewing was the skill that connected us despite my living in China for the past eight years. Her death came in the middle of what we will surely look back on as some of America’s worst days, but I had what Mother gave me to help me through in a way I never anticipated needing.
My husband and I were in Germany when my employer emailed me with the message that China had a new virus going around and it wasn’t safe for us to return home to Shenyang. We’ll wait it out, we said. How bad could it be? It’ll burn itself out in a few weeks. Right?
Fast forward two months after temporary refuge in Czechia and then London, and we ended up in a friend’s apartment in Kansas City, Kansas, with nothing but two suitcases of winter clothes. This was when it began slowly sinking in that we were not going home anytime soon, and warm weather was coming with not a stitch of summer attire for me. The entire world had become a ball of terrifying uncertainty. Depending on how well I had myself together on any given day, I oscillated between worrying over whether or not we would survive the pandemic and if I had enough eye liner to get me through the season. I found it was infinitely easier to focus on silly things like eye liner than to think about dying. As the temperature climbed, the cashmere sweater and boots in my suitcase quickly became obsolete.
After two months dependent on our friend’s good graces, we moved into a rental house nearby and tried to settle in for the pandemic long haul here in the U.S. This was when the skill came back to me that would both solve my clothing problem and my stress: sewing. An online order of needles, thread, marking chalk, interfacing, six-inch measure, zippers, fabric, scissors, and two patterns put me back on track. I spoke with my mother each week, and her one-hour long, garrulous conversations dwindled to no more than fifteen minutes before she ran out of things to say. When I told her about my idea to hand-stitch a summer wardrobe she was flabbergasted at such a foolhardy plan. “Just let me mail you my sewing machine and serger,” she offered. I had to remind her that before I returned home to China I’d just have to mail them right back to her, and the shipping cost would be obscene. When I finished my first garment, a geometric print dress, I won her over just a little. Each week I’d email photos of my progress: a green linen blouse, a pair of blue woven cotton slacks with a matching sleeveless shell, and an admittedly superfluous ensemble: cotton candy pink silk slacks with a matching top. On our phone calls, after we covered what we’d both eaten for lunch, what was going on in her senior facility, and complained about the lousy government handling of the pandemic, I told her about my sewing projects, a topic she was always glad to converse about. This was always punctuated with her disbelief that I was “doing all that hand sewing when I orta have a sewing machine.” I called her on a Wednesday and described the blue kimono I’d just cut out, a garment she insisted should be a bathrobe. I laughed. My daily hand sewing had become my coping mechanism for the pandemic, and though she didn’t admit it, I could tell she was proud I was sticking to it.
On a Friday in June, the phone rang and it was my cousin, her caregiver. Mother had been discovered by a neighbor, dead on her floor.
At that time, the pandemic infection and death rate was a mere fraction of what it is as of this writing. But it was enough to make me too afraid to fly down to Alabama for her funeral, a decision I was torn about at the time, but with the state’s rising deaths, I now know it was the right decision.
The week after Mother passed, while I holed up at home in my pandemic cocoon, I spent my days sewing and nostalgically nosing through fabric websites. That is how I came across a vintage fabric offer on Etsy, a white Miramist wedding dress, circa 1978, festooned in rows of tiny, Reddi-Whip ruffles and lace. Before the pandemic I would have preferred to mourn my mother and self-soothe by doing one of the things I love most, visiting fabric stores and touching the bolts, imagining what I might make with the cottons, knits, and rayons. Visiting fabric stores was one of the best memories I have of my mother, though as the years passed and brick and mortar locales for fabric became fewer, we made these outings less often.
One of my earlier trips with my mother was to the famed Alabama Chanin textile and design studio in Florence, about an hour from my mother’s home in Athens, Alabama. I was in fabric and design heaven; my mother kvetched about the $29.50 a yard cotton knit fabric for sale in the studio shop. There was no Mirror Mist to be found in this place. My attempts to explain the connection between the agricultural and studio business network of economic support that is created when we buy American grown and processed cotton was met with, “You can get this stuff at Hancock’s for $5 a yard.” What she was remembering was true about twenty years ago, and what she was forgetting was that Hancock’s, once strung across the Bible belt as the southeast’s royal palaces of fabric glory, was long since out of business. But even in death, our connection via sewing held fast.
Mother’s attorney sent a copy of her will, and it was there that she left her legacy of love. She bequeathed two sewing machines and two sergers to me. Mother and I had stitched and serged hundreds of garments on those machines: denim jeans from junior high school, my first pair of madras plaid shorts, an ill-fated attempt at a swimsuit, a flannel gown embroidered at the collar in the spirit of Little House on the Prairie, many quilt tops, a business suit I wore to my first conference, and countless slacks, blouses, shorts, dresses, pajamas, skirts, and jackets ranging in fashion from bell bottoms to formalwear. I would so love to be able to touch those machines again and recall the days when my mother and I cut out patterns together on the kitchen table, and she taught me how to decipher sewing instructions. As much as I hate breaking that thread to my mother’s memory, I won’t ever see those machines again. When this pandemic is over and I am able to return home to China, I’ll be taking only my suitcases. The four huge machines will have to be left to someone else with their own memories to be made. It saddens me to have to leave them behind, but I still have the best part of Mom’s legacy, my love for making clothes which has evolved into my newly honed skill at hand sewing. The slowness of making each stitch in the cloth is not discouraging, but calming and centering. I’ve found there is something freeing about sewing at any place and at any time, as long as I have a needle, thread, and fabric. Thanks to my mom, I will always be able to clothe myself, and the act of the making will keep her close to me.
Cathy Adams’ latest novel, A Body’s Just as Dead, was published by SFK Press. Her writing has been nominated twice for a Pushcart Prize. She is a short story writer with publications in The Saturday Evening Post, Utne, AE: The Canadian Science Fiction Review, Barely South, Five on the Fifth, Southern Pacific Review and 46 other journals from around the world. She earned her M.F.A. at Rainier Writing Workshop, Pacific Lutheran University, Washington. She was born and raised in Alabama and later resided in Georgia and North Carolina. Due to Covid-19, she is residing temporarily in Kansas, but her home is in Liaoning, China, with her husband, photographer, Julian Jackson.
“Mirror Mist and My Mother” was selected for our “Separation” theme about feeling disconnected. Read the rest of the stories related to this theme here.