A Sewing Machine From 1919

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My daughter and I stared at the machine.

“I like that it’s black,” she said.  “And those designs are so cool.  There’s so much detail.  Why doesn’t ours look like this?  I might even use it if it looked like this.  Wait…”  She turned to me.  “Do you think it still works?”

I peered at the machine sitting on the kitchen table, the sewing machine that I had inherited from my grandmother almost fifteen years ago.  Long before Selma was born.  I hadn’t laid eyes on it in all that time (even the few times I’d moved, I’d kept it packed away or covered).  And before that, I’d never seen it at all. 

I exhaled through my mouth and plopped down on a chair.

Selma looked at me.  “Are you okay?”

I couldn’t stop staring at the machine.  I shook my head, not in answer to my daughter’s question, but in disbelief, or maybe in an effort to shake off a feeling that had crept up on me.  A feeling I thought I’d left behind.  Guilt, mingled with…nostalgia.

“Dad?”

She took a step toward me.  I managed to snap my gaze away from the sewing machine and toward my daughter’s face.

“Have I ever told you about her? Your grandmother?”

Selma shook her head.

I frowned.  I’d expected her to say something like, “Sure, a little.”

“Really?” I asked.  Had I really never told her about my gran?

Selma raised her eyebrows in an expression of apology.

I sighed.  “You know how much you love your grandmothers?  How close you are to them both?”

Selma nodded.

I smiled.  “That’s how close I was to my grandmother—my mother’s mother.  My other grandmother died before I was old enough to remember her.”

Selma pulled up a chair, and as she did, I glanced again at the sewing machine.

I managed to glance away when Selma was settled before me.

I decided to start with the saddest part of the story, the day my grandmother died, without me by her side.

~***~

Less than an hour.  I was less than an hour late from arriving in time.  I was still in school and it was finals week.  My gran had been sick for several months.  I hadn’t visited her since she’d be prescribed bed rest by her doctors.  My mom had already flown out.  She and her oldest sister took turns staying with my gran. When gran took a turn for the worse, my mother called me and put her on the phone with me.

I told my gran that I would come right away.  She was quiet for a moment, and I thought I’d hear my mother’s voice next, telling me that Gran needed rest, and that we could try again later.

But then, Gran had spoken.

“Are you finished?”

“Finished?” I asked.

“With finals.  Are you on break?”

She knew what classes I was taking.  She even knew specifics about papers I was writing and professors I liked (and those I didn’t).  When I told her I had one final left, and was planning on asking the professor if I could take it once I got back, she asked me what the class was.

I told her.

“Forget it,” she said.  “I remember that guy.  He’ll never go for it.  Take the test, Cas.  Hand it in.  Then come see me.”

I gave the proper amount of protest, but caved pretty easily.  It’s not that I was dying to take that test, or even that I thought my future would be forever ruined if I failed that class.  My gran was more important.  It’s just that I thought I could manage it, as if I had any kind of say in death’s timetable.

My mom echoed what her mom said.  And unlike me, my mom was concerned about derailing my future.  Gran had lived a long and fruitful life.  She wasn’t surrounded by all her loved ones, but she was surrounded by a good number of them, including some of her other grandchildren.

I relented.

I told myself that it would be okay.  She knew I was coming.  We’d spoken over the phone.  I had told her I loved her.  And she had said “thank you” as she always did.

And she told me there was no rush.

By the time my plane landed, and I called my mom, less than an hour had passed since my grandmother had breathed her last.  My mother didn’t answer the phone.  She and her sister were wrapped in each other’s arms, weeping and just holding each other together.

One of my cousins answered.

Her crying sounded a little like laughing, and I wondered for a moment, if she was playing a trick on me.  A really nasty trick.

I rushed to the hospital.

***

“Not too longer after,” I said, my gaze flicking away from my daughter and to the sewing machine, “that arrived at our doorstep, addressed to me.”

My inheritance.

“Why did she leave you a sewing machine?” Selma asked.  “Was it some joke you guys had together?  Or…did she sew you a bunch of shirts on it or something?”

I frowned and shook my head.  “That’s the weird part.  I’d never even seen it in her house before.  Or even in their closet or attic.  She used to let me rummage through their attic.”

I stopped as a surge of nostalgia dizzied me.  I could almost smell the aroma of the stew that my gran would be making, wafting up through the open attic door.  A little meaty.  A little spicy.

Gramps would be listening to some radio show, ignoring the television that one of their children had purchased for them.  He only liked watching television when there was a bunch of people gathered in the living room.  When he was by himself, he would listen to the radio, or old records.  And the sound of that would reach the attic too.

I suddenly turned to Selma.  “Did you find the letter?”

Selma’s brows quirked up.  “Letter?”

***

We took a quick visit to our own attic.  I never really went up there much these days.  But Selma did.  She liked to hang out up there and read, especially on rainy days.  She liked throwing down her sleeping bag (which had yet to be used for an actual camping trip), and snuggling in there with a baggie of snacks and a bottle of water.  We’d started keeping it cleaner up there after she started doing that.

My grandmother liked the rain, just like Selma did.  It was raining the day she and Gramps met.  She said it was raining the day she was born.

And she liked to read too.  In fact, she favored mysteries, just like Selma did.  It was strange that Selma should have so many of her characteristics.  She had never met her great-grandmother, had never been influenced by her.  And she was adopted, so she hadn’t genetically inherited any of her great-grandmother’s characteristics.

And Gran had not left behind any of her personal writings.  She’d kept a diary.  I’d seen her writing in it sometimes.  But no one had inherited those any diaries after she passed.  We just figured maybe she destroyed them.  Maybe there was too much that was personal or embarrassing.

I found the table that accompanied the sewing machine.  It had four little drawers, two on each side.  The table had arrived separately.  I guessed I never put the two together.  So when Selma found the machine, it was clear across the other end of the attic.

Selma leaned under the table, where there was something that looked like a footrest, and a large wheel on the right side.

“Whoa, how does it work?” she muttered.

I opened each of the drawers one by one, not sure if I would find what I expected to find.  It was possible that I’d put the letter with other—

“Ah,” I said.  “Bingo.”  I pulled the letter out from one of the bottom drawers.

I handed it to my daughter.

She read the letter out loud.  The first part spoke of how my gran hoped that she had chosen to leave me something that I would treasure.

“’Because, you see, contained within this sewing machine is my treasure,’” Selma read.  “’Perhaps the most valuable treasure that I may share.  And I leave it to you, for there is a mystery here to be solved.  A mystery worthy of your curiosity.  The treasure is locked away.  If you wish to claim it, you must unlock it.’”

Selma stopped reading and looked at me, her eyes wide.  “What is it?  What’s the treasure?”

“I don’t know,” I said, sighing.  I was not surprised to see the disappointment on her face.  “I never tried to find out.  I couldn’t do it then.  I still had school.  And the only way to not be so sad about losing Gran was to put the sewing machine out of my mind.  And to keep telling myself that it was okay that I missed being with her when she died, because I had nothing I still needed to say to her.”

“But what if she had something to say?”

I shook my head.  “I wasn’t ready to hear it.  I know that sounds mean, but—”

“No, I get it.  It’s like when I’m upset and you guys wait until I calm down before you try to have an actual talk with me.”

I narrowed my eyes.  “Okay, yeah.  It’s like that.”

“But you’ve waited a long, long time now, Dad,” she said.  She whispered her next words.  “Longer than I’ve been alive.”

I grinned.  “You know what’s even older than you and me combined?”  I gestured with my thumb toward the sewing machine.  “When we first brought you home, your mom and I discussed how we would tell you about our family.  And she told me it might be time to take a look at my gran’s sewing machine.  She did some basic research into what kind of machine it was and when it was built.  But she couldn’t go much further than that.  And I didn’t want to go any further.”

“Why not?”  Selma’s expression was a cross between dawning horror and incredulity.  She couldn’t fathom letting a mystery—particularly one so personal—just lie unsolved.

“I had a more precious treasure to think about,” I said.  I gazed at her as lovingly as I could.

My daughter rolled her eyes and shook her head.  “I’m not going to give up as easily as mom did.”

I narrowed my eyes again.  “Selma…when did you find the sewing machine?”

She pressed her lips together and looked at the letter.  “Recently.”

My eyes narrowed further.  “Give me a specific timeframe.”

“Like, maybe, a month ago.”

“A month!”

She shrugged.

I sighed.  “Your mother told you not to bring it up, didn’t she?”

Selma said nothing.  But I could almost see the gears in her head, attempting to devise an answer.

“You figured, you’d get away with it, because by the time mom got back, any hard feelings she had would have faded.  Am I right?”

She shrugged again.

“That’s your answer to everything now, is it?”  I crossed my arms.  “Okay, but fair warning.  I knew a guy once who made the same decision, and one day…his arms fell right out of the sockets.”

“Ewww!”

I laughed.  And then I took pity on my poor daughter, and on myself.  We both missed her mom.  She’d be gone for six more months, and I’d thought the daily video chats would be enough.  But I was wrong.

And I would have been wrong to deny my daughter the solving of a family mystery, or at least the attempt at it.  I hadn’t realized that ten years had gone by without my even mentioning my grandmother to my daughter.  I vaguely remember her asking me, when she was maybe four, where my grandparents were.  And I told her they had left for a beautiful country where we would all go someday, but only after we had finished what we were supposed to do in our lives.  But that was it.

And then, too, it was wrong of me to deny myself, and maybe the rest of my family, whatever treasure Gran had left in that sewing machine.

***

“Maybe it’s a map,” Selma said.  “A map to a bunch of gold and jewels.”  Her eyes widened.  “Or a book of spells.  That would be even better.”

I nodded.  “Maybe, but it’s probably just a packet of old letters or something.”

“Secret letters?”

“Well…”

“Maybe she was a spy,” Selma said.  “Dad, what if she was a thief?  Like…an international thief?”

And maybe whatever she had stolen was sealed within the body of the sewing machine.

“I can’t picture your great-grandmother as any of those things,” I said.

Selma and I kept brainstorming possibilities.  We’d brought up some chairs and a folding table into the attic, along with Selma’s laptop, where she’d started taking notes.

We’d brought the machine back up too, and set it on its table.

We knew the machine, a Singer brand, was built in the year 1919.  The same year that my gran was born.  If she had the machine when she was a young woman, someone might have shipped it to her.  I hadn’t done any research yet into whether or not the company sold their machines internationally.  We’d probably need some help with that.  But only if it was relevant.

Selma thought it might indeed be relevant.  Maybe the machine was used to send messages during wartime, messages hidden within some secret panel.  Whenever visitors would come to Gran’s and Gramps’s house, maybe they would collect the hidden message and hide one of their own.  Or maybe the secret to the lock hiding the treasure was engraved into the machine itself.  We found the machine’s serial number.  And we found a metal plate attached to one side of the machine that was engraved with a quote, “Whosoever sews a single stitch ties together a world too easily torn apart.”

I began to worry then.  What if we found out my grandmother was an enemy spy?  Or a sympathizer?  Or even someone who had no choice but to convey messages on behalf of criminals and cutthroats?

I tried to shake off such morbid thoughts.  Because if they were true, why would Gran share the machine with me and tell me that there was a treasure within?  Why couldn’t it be the opposite?  Why couldn’t she have been a heroic spy?  A resistance spy?  Why couldn’t she have been conveying messages that saved the lives of soldiers?

“Maybe we can find a mechanic or repair person who can get inside  the main body without damaging it,” I suggested.  “And maybe they can also tell us if it’s still working or not.”

“Do you think she hid a flash drive in there?” Selma asked, placing her hand on the top of the machine, on which was painted in gold calligraphy, the words “The Singer Manufacturing Co.”

I tried to remember how big flash drives were fifteen years prior.  “Probably not.”  But that made me wonder about the days of microfilm, and cassette tapes.

We checked the sewing table for hidden compartments.  We gently rapped the surface of the table with our knuckles, moving in a deliberate and organized pattern to make sure we didn’t miss a spot.  Whenever we thought we heard a thud with a different quality, we would stop and push on the spot that we thought sounded different, jiggling and jostling in the hopes a panel would slide or pop open.

We didn’t find anything.

We were both hesitant to meddle with the machine too much.  I had suggested, though it was a long shot, that what we were looking for might be present in the operation of the machine.  And if we tinkered with it too much, we might break it.  We lifted the machine to see its inner workings from the bottom, and found nothing.  No flash drives.  No microfilm.  There were screws that we could have undone to access other parts of the inner workings.  We found videos and guides online.  But it still seemed like a good idea to find someone who’d done it before, and who knew what they were doing.  One of the people who’d posted a detailed article on maintaining vintage sewing machines worked in a repair shop an hour away from us.  Selma and I both considered it worth the drive.

***

“Gerry!”

Selma and I exchanged a glance after the man who’d been minding the counter screamed the name.

All I’d done was nod hello, set the machine down on the table where the man gestured, and lifted the wooden lid.  The article I’d found had no specific author. I took it this Gerry was their resident vintage sewing machine maintenance expert.

A woman my mother’s age came out of the back room.  She was wearing an apron over her cardigan and slacks.  She had her sleeves rolled up.  She grinned at us both as she reached out to shake our hands.

This was Geraldine.  And she took one look at my grandmother’s machine and tipped her head to the side.

“Oh, you need a bit of love, don’t you?” she said.

“It was my great-grandmother’s,” Selma said.

Gerry smiled at her.  “It’s lovely that you’ve kept it in the family.”

“We didn’t trust that we’d be able to do the maintenance ourselves,” I said.   “Even with some online help.”

“Ah, you found my article.”  She waved a hand.  “Well, that’s for people who really want to go for it.  I can understand you not wanting to ruin a family heirloom.”

“We tried to make an appointment but—“

She waved her hand again.  “Come on back.  We’ll see what I can get done today.”

***

We spent the morning and afternoon at Mrs. Zechman’s Vintage Appliance Repair.  Selma insisted on watching the whole time.  She wouldn’t even go use the restroom unless I promised to take her place.  When I wasn’t on sewing machine duty, I was outside, sitting on a bench they had, or pacing, as I made phone calls.  I called some aunts and uncles.  They were slightly awkward conversations.  I kept in touch with cousins, but I rarely spoke to my aunts or uncles outside of family gatherings.  It was even more awkward that these phone calls were, maybe, fifteen years late.  I had to admit to them that I’d been sitting on what could be perceived as my grandmother’s last request for me.  Only a few of them thought they remembered the sewing machine that I described.

The great skill everyone remembered Gran having was in the kitchen.

A few mentioned hearing her speak of the job she had in the old country, at a hotel.  Someone remembered talk of curtains and suggested that maybe she’d sewn and embroidered curtains for the hotel.  She hemmed a pair of pants or a skirt every now and then.  But no one had any special memories of the sewing machine or of their mother sewing.

I spoke to my own mother last.  As much as I missed Gran, I knew my mother missed her more than anyone else.  More than the seven other children that Gran had born.  I could still remember enough of my gran to know that she was human, as wonderful a human as she was.  But as far as my mom was concerned, Gran was a saint who had never done any wrong.

She knew I had the sewing machine.  She too had rarely seen it before, and assumed it was a broken heirloom that only had sentimental value.  But I had never told her about the letter, which had been delivered to me with no return address.  I fibbed a bit and told my mother that I found the letter in the sewing machine table and was now trying to solve its mystery, with Selma’s help.

I was surprised by her reaction.  She asked me if we had checked inside the machine.  And when I told her we had and that we’d found nothing, she sounded relieved.

“Some secrets are for parents to share and some secrets are for parents to keep,” she said.  She sounded tired.

“I’m sorry, Mom,” I said.  “I didn’t mean to make you sad about Gran.”

“No, no.  That’s okay.  But don’t worry about the sewing machine.  Just enjoy spending time with Selma.  Give her more Dad, so she doesn’t miss Mom so much.”

I chuckled.  “Will do.  Actually, she’s just inside.  Let me hand her the phone so you can say ‘hi.’”

I walked inside and traded places with Selma again.  While she caught my mother up on her latest shenanigans with her friends, I checked in with Gerry.

“I’ve cleaned and oiled all the inner workings,” Gerry said.  “There was a bit of rust and wear, but not too bad.  And you’ll need to let the oil drain a bit before you sew with it.”

She had the top part lying on a stack of books, so she could access the bottom.  She narrowed her eyes and pinched her brow while she peered at it, as if she had some question on her mind.

“What is it?” I asked.

She looked at me.  “Do you happen to know where your grandmother got this machine?  Maybe who bought it for her?  Or whether or not she ever had it repaired or…modified?”

“No, why?  What do you mean ‘modified’?”

Gerry creased her brow

“You see the throat plate here just below the needle?  The needle has clearance to move vertically, horizontally, and diagonally, all kinds of directions, actually.”

“That’s not normal?”

“In a modern machine?  Sure. They can stitch intricate patterns and designs with the switch of a knob.  But this one…it should only be able to do a straight stitch.”

“And that’s not all.”  She shifted aside, so I could move closer.  She picked up a pencil and a penlight.  She shined the light into the interior of the machine.

“It’s hard to see, but there is a piece in there that is set with a series of pins.  I don’t mean needle pins.  I mean like…tiny metal pegs.  They look like they can click up and down at various heights.  Nine levels of height—that might have something to do with how there are nine digits.  And there are thirty-five pegs.  One for each letter of the alphabet and again, nine extra for the digits, I think.  There’s a tiny gear assembly inside that looks like it’s in charge of connecting that panel of pins to the workings of the machine.”

Selma rejoined us then, having hung up the phone.

“I can’t really be sure,” Gerry said.  “It’s not my area of expertise.  But if I didn’t know better, I’d say this was some kind of mechanism for storing a specific program.”

“Like a fancy stitch?” I asked.

“More complex than that.”

I stared at the pin assembly.  “This mechanical machine is storing information?”

“So…not a flash drive,” Selma said, a grin dawning on her face.  “A hard drive.”

Gerry pressed her lips together.  “I mean, for lack of a better phrase…”

I gaped.  “There’s information stored in there, in the machine?  How…how do we…?”

Geraldine nodded.  She put a hand on my shoulder.  “Some of these machines worked with a hand-crank.  This one works with a treadle, a foot pedal.  You said you had a table at home?  I spotted some other modifications in the mechanism that allow the machine to be wound up and then…played.”

I frowned in confusion, but said nothing.  Was she saying that my grandmother’s sewing machine…had an operating system?

“Do you know what an automaton is?”  Gerry asked us.

“No,” Selma said.

“It usually refers to a mechanical construct that resembles a person and can move by itself.  But in general it’s anything mechanical that can move on its own without needing external help.”

Selma stood on her tiptoes, trying to peek inside the machine.  “Like a wind-up toy?”

“Mmmm…more complex than that.  A puppet, for example, is not an automaton.  But, if you were to build gears and things into that puppet, and then maybe a machine with a battery, or some way to wind it up mechanically, and then set a sequence of actions so that the puppet looked like it was waving to you, that would be an automaton.  Now, I don’t think your great-grandmother’s modified sewing machine can wave at you.  But I do think it might be able to sew some specific patterns.”

“Like words…sentences?” I said, staring at the machine.

“Possibly.  We wouldn’t know until we cranked it up and set a program in motion properly.”

I turned to Gerry.  “Have you ever heard of anything like this?”  It sounded so sophisticated.  So advanced.  So serious.

Gerry shook her head.  “Honestly, no.  But I’m just one person.  You’d have to ask all the people who ever built or repaired these sewing machines.”

“I somehow doubt the manufacturing company had anything to do with it…unless they were in the business of building sewing machines that could be encoded with messages for wartime, for our own forces and our allies.  Maybe secretly?”

Gerry raised her brows.  “Oh, that’s what you’re thinking?”

“I don’t supposed you found any signatures or maker’s marks.”

“No, but we can keep looking.  And I can get a few other mechanic friends to take a look, with your permission.  I know someone who does vintage watch repairs who would flip if he saw what I’m seeing.”

“I’ll have to think about it.”  I took a deep breath.  “So if we take this machine home tonight, and we set it up on the table, loop some thread in, put a piece of cloth under the needle, and crank it up, as you say, it will start writing a message?”

“Not exactly.  I tried to move one of the pins, just one.  It wouldn’t budge.  It’s locked in place.  I have a feeling that you may need to take an extra step to unlock this particular function of the machine.  Otherwise, it’ll work all right, but it will work like you’d expect.  It’ll be just as spectacular to see a hundred-year-old sewing machine stitch a perfect straight line.  But you won’t be seeing any unusual or complex patterns.”

“How do we unlock it?” Selma asked.

“I’m not sure.  Did your great-grandmother leave you any clues?  Maybe a code?  A drawing of this assembly with a different configuration of pins?”

I passed my fingers through my hair.  “You’re telling me…my grandmother put a password on this hundred-year-old sewing machine?”

“So cool,” Selma whispered.

“Assuming any of what I’ve said is close to the truth, I second that sentiment,” Gerry said to Selma.  Then she turned to me. “And yes, your grandmother put a password on your hundred-year-old sewing machine.  I think—and again I could be wrong—that if you decipher that password and arrange these pins to…spell it out, then you might be in business.”

Gerry then gave us a walk-through of the differences between the factory model and my grandmother’s modified machine.  She explained how she believed the mechanism worked, and sent us a few links to videos that would help us set up the machine for the trial run.  As for the “password,” we were on our own.  Gerry had tried punching in the machine’s serial number as the password.  It hadn’t worked.  I planned on taking a second look at my grandmother’s last letter for clues when we returned home.

***

Selma had wanted to invite Gerry over for the first trial.  But I wasn’t sure it was a good idea to have a stranger—even a kind one—present when some big family secret might be revealed, even if that secret was something good.

Though how could it be completely good if it had to be hidden?  I kept wondering that.

It was only a few days after Gerry had cleaned and oiled the machine.  I’d followed her instructions for what to do once we got the machine home.

My stomach lurched as I threaded the needle, and set the piece of cloth underneath.  At first, I just pumped the treadle, the foot pedal, and managed an uncertain line.  So the machine worked.

I recalled my mother’s words from the other day, about parents keeping secrets.  We had a working machine, a remembrance of my grandmother.  Anything we stitched on that machine would be a remembrance of her.

Did we really need to go further?

I pulled out the letter from one of the table’s drawers.

Selma and I had wracked our brains trying to figure out what the password or passcode might be that would unlock the machine’s deeper functions.

We spent those days questioning whether Gerry was right or wrong.  We could see that our machine had more parts inside than the machines in all the diagrams we could find online and even in our local library.  I tried to find someone who might be able to give us a second opinion.  But I couldn’t really find anyone locally, and I wasn’t about to ship the machine to anyone.

I tipped the machine over, resting it on a stack of books, just as Gerry had done.

And I tried to enter the machine’s serial number by pressing the pins or pegs down with the smallest flathead screwdriver I could find.  The pins did not move.  I tried to enter Gran’s name, Gramps’s name, my mom’s name, and the names of all her brothers and sisters.  None of it worked.

“Dad, what about that?” Selma asked.

She sounded uncertain as she pointed to the small metal plaque that was screwed onto the front of the machine.  Someone had crafted it so that it blended in well with the design of the machine.  The letters were gold and ornate.  It was the motto.

Whosoever sews a single stitch ties together a world too easily torn apart. 

It couldn’t be that simple.  Or that cumbersome.

I tried entering the first letters of each word at first.  It didn’t work.  That is…most of it didn’t work.  The first letter did work.  The peg I was trying to move, shifted its position.

I stared at the motto.  There were an awful lot of similar letters.  I asked Selma to count them.

“Usually ‘e’ is the most commonly used letter.  Are there more ‘e’s’ than anything else?”

“Not exactly,” she said.  “It’s tied with the ‘t’s.’  There are eight of each.”

“Eight, and the pegs have nine levels.”

I shook my head.  “Okay, let’s try it.”  I punched in the entire motto.  Each time I encountered a letter I’d already punched in, I pushed it down one more level.  All the pegs moved now, instead of what seemed a random few ones.  It took a while, but I got to the end at last.”  I turned and gave Selma the thumbs-up, expecting some quip about how that was more complicated than our wi-fi password.

But she just took a deep breath and blew it out of her mouth as she kept her gaze fixed on the machine.

I turned back to the machine and saw that some of the pegs I hadn’t touched had moved on their own.  The pegs that we thought might represent the numbers zero through nine.  A few of them were pushed down one level.  I was sure I hadn’t done that.  I pressed one of them and found it moved freely.  I clicked it up again, using a flathead screwdriver.  I reached in and twisted the knob that Gerry believed controlled the automaton function.  When we’d tried moving it in her shop, it hadn’t budged.  Gerry was sure it wasn’t because it was rusted shut.  She could see that it was locked in place, and she believed that punching in the correct pass code would unlock it.  The knob moved freely now.  So freely that I didn’t know which direction to move it in.  I went clockwise.  And then after a few dozen turns, I felt some tension.  I slowed down and when I felt some resistance that did not give, I stopped.

I righted the machine and put it back into position.

Selma and I watched.

Nothing happened.

I pressed on the treadle a few times to get the needle moving.  It moved and I moved the cloth to make another slightly wavering straight line.  But then, I felt the change.  I lifted my foot and watched as the treadle moved on its own.  I was so startled, I forgot to move the cloth.  The thread was starting to bunch in one spot.

I exclaimed and started to pull the piece of cloth gently away from me.  From the corner of my eye, I saw Selma leaning over my right shoulder.

We both stared at the piece of cloth.  I was so nervous that my hands kept slipping off the metal surfaces of the machine.

“Dad…”

Selma shifted positions.  She was now looking over my left shoulder.  That was because something was appearing on the piece of cloth.  I was moving it vertically away from me, and then when there was a beat, I moved it over a bit to the right, and then toward me.  I kept moving the cloth that way, away from me, over, toward me, over, away from me.  I was so focused on making sure I moved the cloth correctly, so nervous about having another piece ready when I got to the edge of this one, that I didn’t look at what the machine was stitching, though I could see that it was words and even numbers.

Selma could read it though.  She had another piece of cloth in her hand, ready to hand me.

And she began to read the message aloud.  I had botched the first word.  She figured out that it was a month, but whether January or February, she couldn’t tell.

“Twenty-five, nineteen ninety-eight.  Good morning, my friend, my keeper of thoughts both secret and plain.  The temperature may be chilly, but my mood is warm.  One of my grandchildren will be graduating soon.  I cannot recall if it is this year or next.  It does not matter.  He will flourish.  He is my Cas.  My heart is bursting.  Because he will be visiting soon.  And I can say here what I do not say to him, to his sweet and happy and mischievous face.  Because, because I do not know.  I was not raised that way.  That is my excuse.  But I will make him all his favorite foods.  And they will say it for me.  They will tell you, Cas, that I love you…”

Selma stopped reading.  We were both silent for a few beats.  The only sound was the sound of the treadle moving up and down.

“Dad…it’s okay to cry in front of me.”

I was breathing hard, trying not to do the very thing my daughter just gave me permission to do.

“But only if they’re happy tears,” Selma said.

I started laughing.

And I started crying.

 

*~*~*

We figured it out.  In time, we figured out the pegs just like we figured out the pass code, and how to disengage the passcode for those times someone visited and we just wanted to show off the sewing machine’s normal functions.

I became pretty adept at moving pieces of fabric through the machine when it was in what we came to call “automaton” mode.  We figured out how big a piece of fabric would have to be for each “page.”

And we figured how to go to different pages, using different combinations of the pegs that represented the digits.  We were beginning to assemble quite the tome.

As for how the information was stored in the machine, we still didn’t know.  In her writings, Gran mentioned something about a rare metal or alloy.  I hoped there were more details in pages we had yet to reveal.

I did end up inviting Gerry to the house, so we could show her that she was right, and ask her to find out how my grandmother had “scanned” pages of her diaries into the sewing machine.

There was no way it was just mechanical.  There was no way a technology like this could just get lost, especially if the people who used it and knew how to use it were still alive.  But then, there was a lot we didn’t know.  There may be some mysteries of the sewing machine that we would never manage to solve.

As to why the modifications existed, we figured that out pretty quickly once we started reading more pages from Gran’s diaries.

So far, there was nothing about being a spy.  She did indeed work at a hotel, sewing and embroidering curtains and other upholstery.  She became so adept at it, that she was given a gift, her own sewing machine for using at home.  It came all the way from the West.  It was about twenty years old by the time she received it, but she loved the machine.

As war approached, things changed in her country.  It became dangerous to speak of things that once could be spoken of freely, to live or to pray in ways that were different from one’s neighbors, and even to read certain kinds of materials, like dissident poetry.  And much that was tolerated, even embraced, in times of peace and under more just rulers, became intolerant.

Those who still longed to record their thoughts did so in code, and some were discovered, but others were not.

An ingenious mechanic modified my grandmother’s machine, so that she could record her thoughts, and even the thoughts of others around her, and keep them hidden.

And now, her grandson and her great-granddaughter had just unlocked them.

There was a world of stories in that sewing machine, and at times I felt a twinge of guilt that I had waited so long.  Maybe some of the people who would have benefited from hearing some of those stories had passed away while I let that machine lie idle in my attic.

But at other times, I marveled at the machine as it spoke in my grandmother’s voice.

She spent quite a few entries telling her children and grandchildren that she loved them.  Those entries were just for her family.

But the rest, the rest we would share, according to how and with whom Gran would have wanted.

It was our turn now, Selma’s and mine to manifest that motto as best we could.

Whosoever sews a single stitch ties together a world too easily torn apart.

And it was our turn to carry on my grandmother’s legacy.

 

 

Copyright © 2018  Nila L. Patel

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