Every Penny Did Double Duty
The darning egg
It was called a darning egg, wasn’t it? I had seen one before, long ago. I could tell the handle had once been green, and it snuggled into my palm as if it belonged. It was slightly warm to the touch—or was that just my imagination?
I was clearing out my mother-in-law’s sewing room, if that’s what you could call the nook tucked under the staircase in the basement, next to the washer and dryer.
A shelf just big enough to hold spools of thread and a measuring tape was mounted to the underside of a stair. I smiled when I saw Marie had trimmed it with a scrap piece of lace. An embroidered linen tea towel covered her sewing machine, an ancient Sears special, and I smiled again. The tea towel was soft and limp with age. It must have dried many a dish before being pressed into dust cover duty. The sunny yellow paint on the desk was the latest layer of so many that the desk’s corners were slightly rounded.
The whole family called her Granmarie, and we all loved her. She had been the second wife of my father-in-law, who passed away many years before. She was born and grew up and had always lived on the Niagara peninsula, in the little towns of Port Dalhousie and Grimsby, right on the shores of Lake Ontario. That was back when rundown houses and railway tracks lined the lake before the waterside property became the fashionable retreat of wealthy Torontonians.
The old photos show a solemn, petite girl with golden curls and heavy glasses. She told me her memories of her unhappy childhood, how her older brothers and sister plagued her for her poor eyesight, which gave her headaches. They told her those funny eyes made her stupid, and so that’s what she always believed. She told us how her mother whacked her so hard she had permanent hearing loss on one side. How her father alternated between low-paying jobs that were never enough and alcoholic binges that were all too often.
She said the beaches of the lake were clean in those days, during the Great Depression and war years. How there was always a Laker visible where the water split from the sky, and how she played alone on the stony beach, unsupervised, to escape being punished for who and what she was.
She was the second one in the family to have a form of genetic semi-blindness. Her older sister, with Helen Keller as the family’s inspiration, received piano lessons and supported herself as a music teacher and church organist. By the time Marie came along, the family’s resources and patience were worn thin, and there were no more music lessons. They told her she was lucky to find herself a husband—anybody at all—who would take her on. Even if the man she married did sell their car when their son was still an infant and absconded to Nova Scotia with the money that very same day.
By the time I met her, when she became my father-in-law’s second wife, she was almost sixty, resourceful and capable of making every penny do double duty. She had raised her son, also afflicted by the family’s genetic eye disease, and sent him out into the world to be independent despite being legally blind. She supported herself as a pharmacist’s assistant at a local drugstore, a genteel job that paid minimum wage and barely kept her head above water.
She collected antiques she found at thrift shops and garage sales—small items like moustache cups, lustre-ware salt-and-pepper shakers, and stone marmalade jars, which she used to hold pens. She sewed teddy bears—meticulous replicas of antiques down to their button eyes and embroidered noses. Her hair was always tidy, her shoes and purse always matched, and her smile was always tentative. She was grateful for every friendship and kindness.
This quality must have attracted my father-in-law, as it drew everyone to her. He loved to be generous, and her response to any gift at all was boundless gratitude.
“For me?” she trembled whenever she received a gift. Behind her thick glasses was the child who had been told she was worthless and stupid over and over again.
“I don’t deserve it.”
Evidence of Granmarie’s thrift and industry filled the sewing cranny. Here were the old artifacts she loved—a wooden yardstick from the hardware store that used to be on the main street, shiny with age and use. The sewing machine passed down several times before it became hers. A small drawer filled with zippers and buttons snipped from worn-out clothing and a cotton bag embroidered with faded flowers, filled with weathered wooden clothes pegs.
And this—the darning egg I had pulled from her sewing basket. It had darned how many socks and woven together how many rips or tears? And now it was smooth and silken. That’s what they call a patina, something grown beautiful with age and use.
A darning egg of no value or any importance, having done its duty and fulfilled its purpose countless times over the years. Always there when needed and ignored the rest of the time. A relic from another era.
I slid it into my pocket and took it with me.