Mama wasn’t sentimental. In fact, I never knew of anyone who grew up in the Southern mountains during the Depression who was sentimental. They all said they were trying to forget, not remember.
So, as I continued to unpack Mama’s belongings after the disaster of a winter’s broken water line that destroyed her former home that is now my office, I didn’t expect much sentimentality.
I, however, am extraordinarily sentimental. When the contractor pulled down a medicine chest in the bathroom to reveal ancient, pretty wallpaper, I pulled off pieces to save.
Each box, though, reminded me of her uniqueness and the footprint she left on my life. In the sewing room, her Singer machine — so old that it is metal, not plastic — brought to mind the days of my childhood when she had taught me to sew. I remembered my frustration while learning the complexity of putting a zipper in correctly or my joy when I turned pretty fabric into a lovely dress.
There as in the kitchen, I found strong evidence of her devotion to squeezing a nickel into a dime. There were endless bolts of double knit fabric. Remember when? She must have thought that hot, heavy, stretchy knit would make a comeback one day.
There were eight irons, seven of which were broken but she had refused to throw any away. My sentimentality did not stretch far enough to keep me from tossing them out, though.
I loved the drawers full of spools of colorful thread she had. And, of course, there were at least a dozen spools onto which she had wound small pieces of thread. She would wind three or four different colored threads onto an empty spool, the lengths only enough to sew on a button or hem a skirt. She threw nothing away. I picked up a couple of spools to throw into the trash but I could not.
Because I remembered.
See, Mama was part of that prized generation that took whatever they had and made the most of it.
She was such a talented seamstress that she could look at a dress in a store window, cut a pattern for it out of newspaper and duplicate it perfectly.
When time came for me to go to college, she turned a spare bedroom into a sewing room and started what became a profitable little business.
Her nimble fingers and shrewd business mind paid my way through an expensive, private college, one dress at a time. She made custom clothes for women, but she would also buy fabric on clearance and resell it for a profit or make a dress from it and sell it.
I flipped through one of her “sewing books” as she called the composition notebooks that held the measurements for a couple hundred customers. She listed name, phone number and precise measurements.
That little sewing room was pivotal to who I became. It paid for braces and college degrees but it taught me other important things. One, that an entrepreneur is simply someone who takes a skill, finds a market niche and keenly understands profit versus loss. Two, that dreams can be stitched together in inventive, out-of-the-box ways. And three, that if you are willing to apply ingenuity and elbow grease, any mountain can be climbed.
Today, I keep similar notebooks as Mama’s but mine hold ideas for stories or books and the listing of columns as I send them out to newspapers. I may never be named to a Fortune 500 list.
But like Mama, I know how to turn a profit. And that’s what counts.
Ronda Rich is the best-selling author of “What Southern Women Know About Faith.”