Sewing, Shop, and Cooking

Posted on August 29, 2020


I was watching my wife sewing the other day, down on her knees on a big enough space of the floor in the living room to make the initial cuts in her fabric. She learned to sew on a Singer sewing machine years ago and was now getting back in it.

We bought her new sewing machine online on the Internet. It was a Brother not a Singer, but I remember Brother as a good brand. As we go back in time a bit this morning—sewing machines, shop, and cooking—we are well aware we are living today, not yesterday. We danced a bit to the Bee Gees as I made breakfast for our dogs, but of course asked Alexa to play the music.

Life is a trade off between the far past, the past, the recent past, the present, the near future, and the far future. I’m sure there are some philosophers out there among you readers to give this situation a name—maybe “as time goes by,” but that is already a song. My Google browser advised me it was in the movie Casablanca, a classic, but it was also the name of a t. v. show and for all I know a famous cake mix done the old fashioned way which will make you fat and clog your arteries.  

Which takes us to cooking. Louise, my sewing and dance partner wife, also took cooking in high school, and watched her mom cook at home, and knows how to create scrumptious cakes, pies, roasts and all the other things on web sites like “ten foods you must avoid” or “20 foods that are bad for your health.” If you were to compile a list of those that cause everything from gas to near instant paralysis of your toes, the list would prohibit most everything except perhaps bread (not white bread) and water (and be sure it is filtered). Are we pampered? I don’t know. You be the judge.

When I was in prep school in New Jersey as my dad commuted into his job in the city, we took Latin, studied history, did math, laughed our way through crazy things we did in chemistry lab, played football, soccer and lacrosse, and took shop. We all had to take shop with Mr. Shawcross.

I don’t know if any of my class which graduated sixty years ago ended up working as carpenters. Most became businessmen, doctors, lawyers, judges, teachers since all sixty in our graduating class—with the sons of a tycoon or two in the mix– went to college

I made a box to polish and shine shoes in Mr. Shawcross’s shop class and was very proud of my work and it was around our home in Plainfield for years before my parents retired to Central, South Carolina to the farm where my father had grown up. I don’t know if my shoeshine box followed in the baggage.

Why did we take shop? My trajectory was similar to all sixty boys in my class. I went to college, took NROTC, into the Navy as a young officer, travel, the Caribbean, Mediterranean Seas, graduate school after Navy, Ph.D. surprising even myself, and a professor at UA all my career. No more shop or shoeshine boxes. I was a professional, a college graduate, and among the fortunate.

But I learned something about working with my hands, although I think the clear realization of what I learned came later in life. Not everything good comes to you through your brain intelligence or is facilitated through your alma mater, the University of X or Y College. Good credentials help, so does a family who can easily afford to send you to University X. But we are a big country and have room for all who want to make something of themselves and their skills, whether it is to become an RN and so help your fellow humankind when sick and down, an astronaut zooming into space, or an excellent carpenter to build the next generation of homes in your neighborhood.

I think the Pingry School was like many which cater to the privileged sectors of our society. Its founders built into it—Mr. Shawcross’s shop class—a need for us boys (now girls fill out the classes, a welcome change for those of us who went to single sex schools and were in awe of the other sex) to learn that privileged though we may be, working with our hands was just as important as getting into Princeton or Yale. I don’t know if Pingry still has a shop class, for boys presumably. Maybe the girls do a sewing and cooking class, but I suspect not. Too stereotypically old fashioned; modern girls learn different things.

Regardless of our backgrounds, all of us had to take shop. No one jumped to the front of the line in Mr. Shawcross’s determination of who was the best worker in the shop class because of their name or family.

That is just as true today as it was sixty years ago or one hundred and sixty years ago. It is part of our cultural baggage of freedom, liberty, and opportunity. Let’s guard it carefully to hand down to the next generation of carpenters and astronauts.

Published as “Memories of sewing, shopping and cooking” Sunday Aug.23, 2020 in The Tuscaloosa News.

Posted in: Life in America