My mother has had a lot of heartache in her life. In 1989, my father died, and she took it badly. Still, she survived. She’s a survivor, for sure.
In 2007, my mother and her boyfriend Sid considered getting married. Then they got into a fight and didn’t tie the knot. That was January. In February, Sid went to the doctor for some stomach pain that he had been having for quite a long time. He was a very thrifty man, so he had waited till the last possible minute before he saw a doctor about his symptoms. The doctor did some tests and determined that it was stomach cancer.
By summer, he was dead.
In the years since, my mother has lived alone. She has spent a lot of her time sewing. She has sewn quilts, aprons, potholders, table runners, and whatever else she can put stitches in. She has dove into Brazilian Needlepoint. She has studied Amish quiltmaking. She has exhibited her creations at the county fair and won awards. In the beginning, it was the way she dealt with her grief. Later, it became the way she dealt with loneliness and old age.
After a few years, the stack of sewn masterpieces has grown higher and higher, until she now has a stack of lovely, colorful creations that nearly fills an entire room. She gives them away for Christmas and birthdays, but she still makes them faster than she can give them away.
In the spring, I told her that she should try selling them on eBay.
“I don’t do the computer well,” she said.
“I’ll help you,” I said.
So I listed a few things, but nothing sold. Our friend John, who is a top seller online, advised us not to give up.
“Wait until winter,” John said. “People buy a lot more quilts in winter, especially before Christmas.”
So we pulled the items off eBay and waited. In September, my mother bought a computerized sewing machine.
“It feels like I’m not even doing the sewing,” she said. “In a way, it takes all the fun out of it.”
In fact, the machine will sew your name into a quilt in a fancy font with just the push of a button. In a way, that’s great, but in another way, it’s unsatisfying. After all, the act of sewing calms my mother. It even brings down her blood pressure. The other day, for example, when my mother’s plumbing sprung a leak and flooded her hardwood floors, and the insurance company sent out a team to hack up the floor and clean up, leaving her half a floor, concrete slabs, and loud industrial fans to dry everything out, I knew my mother was stressed.
“I’m worried about you, Mom,” I said over the phone. “You should take your blood pressure. Remember, you’ve had two strokes. You should take some deep breaths and calm down.”
“You’re right, I know.”
“The thing I have to do is sewing,” she said. “That’ll calm me down.”
In November, we relisted the quilts and other items on eBay again. We listed 14 items on eBay and 3 items on etsy and waited. We promoted on Facebook. We tweaked the words to get them just right. We offered an array of products.
(To see her online store, go here.)
But price was a factor. My mother didn’t want to short-sell the items that she had poured so much of her passion into. She wanted to sell them for what they were worth. But there are companies that sell sewn items for quite a bit less. Their secret: They cut corners. They contract out to China to manufacture the items in sweatshops staffed by unskilled workers. They use cheap fabric that isn’t obvious on an online listing. They don’t use high-quality thread. After a few washings, the items start unraveling. And something my mother can’t do is get cut-rate prices on fabric by buying in huge quantities.
Other online items are put together by hand by beginners in America. My mother can spot them. When we browse through eBay, she says, Oh, she did this wrong, or Oh, she did that wrong. My mother has studied this stuff, and even earned a Master’s Degree in Home Economics. She took classes in the chemistry of fabrics. She knows how they burn, how they unravel, how the molecules change under different stressors, everything. And after she graduated, she taught Home Economics in college. She’s all about quality.
“I want to make a profit,” my mother said. “I don’t want to give these things away.”
I agreed with her.
“Charge what they’re worth, Mom.”
Finally, the other day, I called my mother.
“Mom, we got our first sale,” I said.
Her voice suddenly perked up.
“Yes, I’ll tell you when the money has fully transferred to PayPal.”
My mother was so excited. Finally, the object of her passion, sewing, was turning into a saleable commodity. When she was young, it had been a way to assuage her poverty. When she was middle aged, it had been her profession. After deaths, it had been her way of dealing with pain.
Turns out a young woman in Monterey County named Maria had bought a fabric children’s book that my mother had sewn. It was washable and you could fold it up. It was sold to a woman on Facebook who had been following my own magic performance since she saw me performing on the street at Fisherman’s Wharf in Monterey last year. After Maria made the PayPal payment, I put them in touch with each other by phone, trying to figure out whether Mother Goose was more appropriate for her daughters, aged 5 and 8, or whether she should go with ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas, also a fabric book.
(To see her etsy store, go here.)
On the phone, my mother discovered that Maria is a single mother who was born in Mexico and lives in a tiny home in a poor community in Monterey. She doesn’t have much money, but she scraped up enough to buy the fabric book for $30. Her daughters were so excited about it. As my mother listened to Jessica’s story, something happened. My mother became Maria. Because she had once been a young Mexican woman, too. She had once lived in the barrio. She had once had little children, age 5 and 8, whom she loved.
“So you want the Mother Goose book?” my mother finally said.
“Yes. When I get some more money, I’ll buy the Christmas book for my girls,” Jessica said. “They’re so excited.”
The next morning, wrapping the gift to send to Monterey, my mother stumbled upon a moment of truth. My mother placed both books into the package, and then tossed in a $5 bill, too. After all, they were more than just products to her, quilts and table runners and aprons and fabric children’s books, they were from the heart. And my mother was more than just a seller, a profit maker. And Maria was more than just a customer.
“After all, it’s Christmas,” my mother said to me on the phone by way of explanation.
On Christmas Day, a message was posted on my Facebook page:
“I am feeling so happy and blessed with my two daughters. We just opened the books you mom send us, David Groves and both of my daughters are so excited and so happy with he book I bought for them.
— feeling blessed with David Groves.”