The Singing Sewing Machine

by Anna Mark Waldman as told to Sandi

During World War I, whoever remained at home tried to hide everything of value, in case the town should be overrun by the enemy, or the army. They would steal whatever they found. It was the women who had to hide the valuables ­ my mother, my aunt, and my grandmothers. Our property was near a small river or stream called the Gnila Lipa; the stream made an “L” and went across the bottom of our land and up along one side.

The back of the property, where the land was higher, was bordered by the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains. The house was on lower ground, closer to the Gnila Lipa. The women dug a hole in a cornfield, a distance from the house. In it they buried the metal head of the sewing machine. Then they piled up all sorts of junk on the sewing machine stand in the house, so that whenever someone came in to rob them, it would appear that the head had already been stolen.

The sewing machine was one of the most valuable possessions that Grandma Mollie and Grandpa Joe had. The sewing machine was not a small one in a case, like you see today. It had a stand, with a tabletop on a wrought iron base with a treadle that you pushed with your feet to drive the machine. The head of the machine was screwed onto the tabletop of the stand.

Grandpa’s job was to thread the needles for Grandma. She did the sewing. She made most of the clothes for the family, and even made some clothes for their cousin Nushe. Sometimes she had new fabrics; other times, she would re-use old fabrics to make new clothes. When my mother (Anna) was very little, Grandma would sit her on the sewing machine stand, on the side away from the needle and the moving fabric, and Anna would stay there near her while she sewed.

When Grandma sewed, she would sing ­ all kinds of songs. She sang in Yiddish, Hebrew, Ukrainian. She sang mostly sad songs, from the first world war. She had that sewing machine all of her married life, until they came to the United States. They were not able to take it with them. But somehow, when they got here, there was a sewing machine for her! When they got to Rabbi Gabe’s house (he was Grandma’s father), where they were going to be living, there was a sewing machine.

On the very next day after they arrived in the US, Grandma went out to scout out the neighborhood. She met some Puerto Rican ladies. Somehow they communicated. How could they have done that? Maybe by sign language! One of the Puerto Rican women must have asked Grandma, “Can you sew?” Grandma said, “Yes.” At that time, doilies were all the rage; you had to have them. The Puerto Rican lady got doilies from Puerto Rico. But the doilies needed to be finished, by sewing a strip of lace all around the edge. Somehow she explained this to Grandma, and Grandma assured her that she could do this.

So, on the day after they arrived in the US, Grandma had already found work, to help the family. They moved the sewing machine near the front window in the house, so that she could have good light. On the third day after they arrived in the United States, my mom returned from work to see that Grandpa and the boys had partitioned off the large front room into a bedroom for the boys, and a separate entrance hall and a place for Grandma to work on the sewing machine, right in front of the window. Mom has no idea how or where they managed to find the lumber and the tools to do the work.

Grandma would sit there all day long in front of the window and sew and sing. She sewed lace edging onto the doilies, around and around, all day long. She was paid ten cents or fifteen cents a doily. Grandpa would hear her singing as she sewed, and say, “Ah, the sewing machine is singing.” So it was Grandma’s singing sewing machine. After awhile, of course, they got the grocery store, and they worked together in the store. Maybe that was similar to how things had been when Grandma had helped out in Grandpa’s store in Rohatyn.