It must have been hard work to keep up with the mending in our house. Four boys had to be kept in repair besides Father, and there was no special person to do it. The baby’s nurse did some sewing, and Cousin Julie turned to and did a lot when she was around, but the rest of it kept Mother busy and her work-basket was always piled high.
Looking back, I wonder now how she managed it. I remember her regularly going off to her room and sewing on something, right after dinner or at other idle moments, when she might have sat around with the rest of us. My impression as a boy was that this was like going off to do puzzles–it was a form of amusement, or a woman’s way of passing the time.
There was more talk about Father’s socks and shirts than anything else. Most of this talk was by Father, who didn’t like things to disappear for long periods, and who wanted them brought promptly back and put in his bureau drawer where they belonged. This was particularly true of his favourite socks. Not the plain white ones which he wore in the evening, because they were all alike, but the coloured socks that were supplied to him by an English haberdasher in Paris.
These coloured socks were the one outlet of something in Father which ran contrary to that religion of propriety to which he adhered. In that day of sombre hues for men’s suits and quiet tones for men’s neckties, most socks were as dark and severe as the rest of one’s garments; but Father’s, hidden from the public eye by his trousers and his high buttoned shoes, had a really astonishing range both of colour and fancy. They were mostly in excellent taste, but in a distinctly French way, and Wilhelmine used to tease him about them. She called them his “secret joys.”
Father got holes in his socks even oftener than we boys did in our stockings. He had long athletic toes, and when he lay stretched out on his sofa reading and smoking, or absorbed in talking to anyone, these toes would begin stretching and wiggling in a curious way by themselves, as though they were seizing on this chance to live a life of their own. I often stared in fascination at their leisurely twistings and turnings, when I should have been listening to Father’s instructions about far different matters. Soon one and then the other slipper would fall off, always to Father’s surprise, but without interrupting his talk, and a little later his busy great toe would peer out at me through a new hole in his sock.
Mother felt that it was a woman’s duty to mend things and sew, but she hated it. She rather liked to embroider silk lambrequins, as a feat of womanly prowess, but her darning of Father’s socks was an impatient and not-too-skilful performance. She said there were so many of them that they made the back of her neck ache.
Father’s heavily starched shirts, too, were a problem. When he put one on, he pulled it down over his head, and thrust his arms blindly out right and left in a hunt for the sleeves. A new shirt was strong enough to survive these strains without splitting, but life with Father rapidly weakened it, and the first thing he knew he would hear it beginning to tear. That disgusted him. He hated any evidence of weakness, either in people or things. In his wrath he would strike out harder than ever as he felt around for the sleeve. Then would come a sharp crackling noise as the shirt ripped open, and a loud wail from Mother.
Buttons were Father’s worst trial, however, from his point of view. Ripped shirts and socks with holes in them could still be worn, but drawers with their buttons off couldn’t. The speed with which he dressed seemed to discourage his buttons and make them desert Father’s service. Furthermore, they always gave out suddenly and at the wrong moment.
He wanted help and he wanted it promptly at such times, of course. He would appear at Mother’s door with a waistcoat in one hand and a disloyal button in the other, demanding that it be sewn on at once. If she said she couldn’t just then, Father would get as indignant as though he had been drowning and a life-guard had informed him he would save him to-morrow.
When his indignation mounted high enough to sweep aside his good judgment, he would say in a stern voice, “Very well, I’ll sew it on myself,” and demand a needle and thread. This announcement always caused consternation. Mother knew only too well what it meant. She would beg him to leave his waistcoat in her work-basket and let her do it next day. Father was inflexible. Moreover, his decision would be strengthened if he happened to glance at her basket and see how many of his socks were dismally waiting there in that crowded exile.
“I’ve been looking for those blue polka-dotted socks for a month,” he said angrily one night before dinner. “Not a thing is done for a man in this house. I even have to sew on my own buttons. Where is your needle and thread?”
Mother reluctantly gave these implements to him. He marched off, sat on the edge of his sofa in the middle of his bedroom, and got ready to work. The gaslight was better by his bureau, but he couldn’t sit on a chair when he sewed. It had no extra room on it. He laid his scissors, the spool of thread, and his waistcoat down on the sofa beside him, wet his fingers, held the needle high up and well out in front, and began poking the thread at the eye.
Like every commander, Father expected instant obedience, and he wished to deal with trained troops. The contrariness of the needle and the limp obstinacy of the thread made him swear. He stuck the needle in the sofa while he wet his fingers and stiffened the thread again. When he came to take up his needle, it had disappeared. He felt around everywhere for it. He got up, holding fast to his thread, and turned around, facing the sofa to see where it was hiding. This jerked the spool off on to the floor, where it rolled away and unwound.
The husbands of two of Mother’s friends had had fits of apoplexy and died. It frightened her horribly when this seemed about to happen to Father. At the sound of his roars, she rushed in. There he was on the floor, as she had feared. He was trying to get his head under the sofa and he was yelling at something, and his face was such a dark red and his eyes so bloodshot that Mother was terrified. Pleading with him to stop only made him more apoplectic. He said he’d be damned if he’d stop. He stood up presently, tousled but triumphant, the spool in his hand. Mother ran to get a new needle. She threaded it for him and he at last started sewing.
Father sewed on the button in a violent manner, with vicious haulings and jabs. Mother said she couldn’t bear to see him–but she couldn’t bear to leave the room, either. She stood watching him, hypnotized and appalled, itching to sew it herself, and they talked at each other with vehemence. Then the inevitable accident happened: the needle came forcibly up through the waistcoat, it struck on the button, Father pushed at it harder, and it burst through the hole and stuck Father’s finger.
He sprang up with a howl. To be impaled in this way was not only exasperating, it was an affront. He turned to me, as he strode about on the rug, holding on to his finger, and said wrathfully, “It was your mother.”
“Why, Clare!” Mother cried.
“Talking every minute,” Father shouted at her, “and distracting a man! How the devil can I sew on a button with this gibbering and buzz in my ears? Now see what you made me do!” he added suddenly. “Blood on my good waistcoat! Here! Take the damned thing. Give me a handkerchief to tie up my finger with. Where’s the witch-hazel?”