Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Home Ick

Tell me: does Home Ec still exist ? In high schools ? If it does, I bet it's changed since the time when, week after week, we made baking powder biscuits and white sauce. That's all we made, I swear. Week after week. Mountains of biscuits, gallons of white sauce. And then, for a break, centerpieces. For the table upon which we would serve our baking powder biscuits with white sauce. Then we made more biscuits and white sauce.

I was thinking about Home Ec today as I did some enforced Home Ec. My study is being ravaged by the workmen who have been tediously overhauling our old house's ancient, Frankensteined heating system. Off the grid, I had no excuse to further delay months worth of button-sewing and mending. As I sat at the kitchen table stitching I thought of my earliest experience of Home Ec: sewing class, John Breen Elementary School, Lawrence, Massachusetts, third or fourth grade, circa 1959.

We -- a bevy of little girls -- were sitting around a wooden table at the side of the auditorium. Breen was an old building even 50 years ago; I am remembering tall widows, and, despite that, the room is shadowy, perhaps just with the shadows of time. Our first project was to make a sewing bag. We were sent home and instructed to obtain gingham out of which to make this. My mother and I dutifully went to the local department store, and I chose blue.

Sewing, we learned, was a methodical, stepwise process. One did not simply rush in, willy nilly, needles flashing. One cut, then pinned, then basted, then, finally, backstitched. Later, we learned how to hem. We learned that three, not two or four, tiny superimposed stitches terminated a row of sewing, although I've always mistrusted this advice and and added an extra three or four throws for good measure, always feeling a frisson of disloyalty to the ancient teaching. These were useful skills to acquire -- more useful than the physics or calculus I would later learn. Oh, if only I had had the prescience to take typing !

One day's lesson has always remained with me. It was in backstitching, and the teacher was circling the table behind us, clucking in disapproval.

Small stitches, girls ! she chided. She looked at my work. Those stiches are so big they look like basting ! she hissed. Look at Nazarie's work ! Like a sewing machine ! She held up a square of gingham and, chastened, we looked at the tiny, neat row of stitches. Nazarie was from Portugal. I was two generations into our family's American sojourn, and clearly had devolved from the Old Country standards. My Lithuanian Bubbi had and knew how to use a darning egg, and kept a clump of beeswax in her sewing kit. I rest my case.

I had devolved, and would yet further devolve.

In high school, in addition to studying biscuits and white sauce, we also had sewing classes. With sewing machines this time, and patterns. Our first project was to make an an apron, to protect our clothing from driblets of white sauce and biscuit dough. By now, 1967 or so, a glimmer of rebellion had ignited within me, whether feminist or simply adolescent, I can't say. The assignment was a report on fabric types, to be illustrated by swatches. This had, for some reason, so annoyed me that I had included a page -- appropriately illustrated -- labeled "Old Tissue." The teacher saw no humor in this.

Despite my brief rebellion, here I was, decades later, sewing on buttons and stitching up holes. It wasn't my favorite thing, but someone has to do it. In fact, I realized, that being in Altar Guild has plunged me straight into Home Ec's heart of lightness. DK shakes his head in disbelief as I iron corporals, lavabo towels and purificators. This was not the iron-averse woman he married, although, ever tolerant, he bought me a new ironing board.

Last Saturday two of us from the Guild were setting up for Mass. After we once again admired the team's recent handiwork -- wall altar covered with enormous poinsettias -- my eye was drawn to the freestanding altar, a beautiful piece of work constructed and donated by a parishioner. Not so much to the altar, but to that which was upon it.

But first a backstory.

About six months ago another parishioner had made a frontal for the altar. It's reversible -- one side is ivory colored silk with an appliqued embroidered gold cross in the center. The other side is a checkerboard of bright liturgical colors -- blood red, royal purple, forest green -- covered over with a flock of appliqued-on small white crosses. The whole thing is kept on the altar by a dull, flimsy muslin contraption, like a fitted sheet without the fitting. So, fine: with some rehemming and stitching we were able to get rid of the velcro and get the thing to sit relatively quietly on the altar beneath the fair linen. The fair linen that, uncanonically, does not cover the whole altar top.

A few weeks ago Rev. S. emailed me. There had been a winespill. On the altar. On the fair linen and the muslin, not the frontal itself, thanks be to God. I swaggered about a little -- that would be the sin of pride, or hubris, if you will -- pleased to have been summoned at this moment of laundry crisis. Of course I knew next to nothing about stains. There had been that scorch mark that I successfully removed with peroxide, a towel and my iron. Google was indeed my friend. But winestains on the muslin of the silk frontal ! I would have to spot clean it. I turned to Nurse P., my office mate, with mounting anxiety. They hadn't covered stuff like this in Home Ec. What to do ?

Oxy-Clean, she replied, as if I had asked her the first and easiest question in the catechism.

Oxy-Clean ?

I nodded as if I knew what she was talking about, and scribbled it down on a post-it. I am not up on domestic chemicals. I usually skip that aisle in the grocery. I had made a foray into it at the beginning of my Altar Guild days, for the can of spray starch that I later learned was a huge no-no for liturgical linens. By then I had developed a minor addiction to spray starch. I would have to return to that aisle for this "Oxy-Clean" stuff, whatever it was, solid, liquid, gas, who knew.

Well, this being America, it was available in several flavors of each. Was I the only woman in America that did not know about and own several bottles of this stuff ?

So I bought my chemicals and retrieved the stained linens. I would start with the fair linen. It was a small stain, semicircular, right near the edge. I laid out a towel, placed the linen on it, and squirted on the "Oxy-Clean." My God ! It worked. I watched the stain lighten before my eyes. It was a laundry miracle ! I was a genius ! I swaggered about the basement. Why hadn't they told me about "Oxy-Clean !" Think of the needless decades of louche stains that I and my family had borne !

Emboldened by success, I spread the frontal on the towel. There it was: a little, pink semicircular stain in the muslin a few inches in from the silk. Piece of cake ! I was a stain expert. Soon Heloise would be asking ME for hints ! I squirted away and went upstairs to start dinner. I would give Oxy a chance to do it's Cleaning miracle.

Could I have imagined the scene of horror that awaited me in my basement when I returned 20 minutes later ?

Home Ec may have left me ill prepared for Altar Guild, but Physics hadn't. Two words:

Capillary action.

Capillary action had wicked the oeniferous "Oxy-Clean" down the muslin into the frontal itself, which, as you will recall, consists of an ivory silk recto, and a partly blood-red, non-colorfast verso. Which, wet, had happily bled through the silk in a fat tongue of pink, gleefully mocking my hubris.

Hours later, after a chastened frenzy of further chemistry (more Oxy-Clean, then a 1:1 solution of Dawn Detergent and H202) and of blotting, unstitching, restitching and ironing, all had been put to almost right. There remained the merest hint of watermark on the silk, pinkish in the right light. I emailed the priest my Mea Culpa.

So let's just say I am sensitive to matters of that which lies upon the freestanding altar. That's why my eye was immediately drawn to it last Saturday -- to the oblong of fair linen on the side extending beyond the protective covering.

It was wrinkled. Hideously wrinkled, in fact. I pulled off the covering and gazed in horror at the welter of peaks and valleys, troughs and countertroughs on that which should be -- and had been at last notice -- perfectly flat.

AND (will horrors never cease) it was pink. Completely pink, as if it had gone round in a hot wash with someone's new Christmas sweatshirt. A subtle pink, mind you, but pink. My Altar Guild mate agreed. Wrinkled and pink.

Poor, poor fair linen ! I gazed at the neat hand stitching of the hem and mitered corners, tiny stitches that might have been placed by Nazarie's Portuguese great grandmother. I began to channel my third grade sewing teacher. I could feel a self-righteous, ectoplasmic outrage rising from my toes venting upward through the top of my head.

Well, obviously something had happened and someone had tried to make it right. Sound familiar ? I stuffed the Home Ectoplasm back into her bottle and got on with matters. Google was my friend, my new non-judgmental remedial Home Ec teacher. Home Ec as a second language, as it were. Nevermind that all this domestic stuff was making me feel as if I were wearing drag. I was the director of the Altar Guild, by God, as odd as that might seem, and there was work to be done.

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