Excerpt: The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd
That day while I helped out Aunt-Sister in the yard, mauma was in the house, working on a gold sateen dress for missus with a bustle on the back, what's called a Watteau gown. She was the best seamstress in Charleston and worked her fingers stiff with the needle. You never saw such finery as my mauma could whip up, and she didn't use a stamping pattern. She hated a book pattern. She picked out the silks and velvets her own self at the market and made everything the Grimkés had—window curtains, quilted petticoats, looped panniers, buckskin pants, and these done-up jockey outfits for Race Week.
I can tell you this much—white people lived for Race Week. They had one picnic, promenade, and fancy going-on after another. Mrs. King's party was always on Tuesday. The Jockey Club dinner on Wednesday. The big fuss came Saturday with the St. Cecilia ball when they strutted out in their best dresses. Aunt-Sister said Charleston had a case of the grandeurs. Up till I was eight or so, I thought the grandeurs was a shitting sickness.
Missus was a short, thick-waist woman with what looked like little balls of dough under her eyes. She refused to hire out mauma to the other ladies. They begged her, and mauma begged her too, cause she would've kept a portion of those wages for herself—but missus said, I can't have you make anything for them better than you make for us. In the evenings, mauma tore strips for her quilts, while I held the tallow candle with one hand and stacked the strips in piles with the other, always by color, neat as a pin. She liked her colors bright, putting shades together nobody would think—purple and orange, pink and red. The shape she loved was a triangle. Always black. Mauma put black triangles on about every quilt she sewed.
We had a wooden patch box for keeping our scraps, a pouch for our needles and threads, and a true brass thimble. Mauma said the thimble would be mine one day. When she wasn't using it, I wore it on my fingertip like a jewel. We filled our quilts up with raw cotton and wool thrums. The best filling was feathers, still is, and mauma and I never passed one on the ground without picking it up. Some days, mauma would come in with a pocketful of goose feathers she'd plucked from mattress holes in the house. When we got desperate to fill a quilt, we'd strip the long moss from the oak in the work yard and sew it between the lining and the quilt top, chiggers and all.
That was the thing mauma and I loved, our time with the quilts.
No matter what Aunt-Sister had me doing in the yard, I always watched the upstairs window where mauma did her stitching. We had a signal. When I turned the pail upside down by the kitchen house, that meant everything was clear. Mauma would open the window and throw down a taffy she stole from missus' room. Sometimes here came a bundle of cloth scraps—real nice calicos, gingham, muslin, some import linen. One time, that true brass thimble. Her favorite thing to take was scarlet-red thread. She would wind it up in her pocket and walk right out the house with it.
The yard was over busy that day, so I didn't have hope for a taffy falling from the clear blue. Mariah, the laundry slave, had burned her hand on charcoal from the iron and was laid up. Aunt-Sister was on a tear about the backed-up wash. Tomfry had the men fixing to butcher a hog that was running and screeching at the top of its lungs. Everyone was out there, from old Snow the carriage driver all the way down to the stable mucker, Prince. Tomfry wanted to get the killing over quick cause missus hated yard noise.