There are things about this aging process that are so interesting that I wonder why so much of the writing about aging centers around all the things we lose as we get older. Certainly those things are noticeable, things like strength, memory, youthful looks. But what I find much more interesting are the subtle changes going on constantly in the subterranean regions of our minds and emotions. They indicate how fluid and ever-changing we humans can be, no matter how old. I’m often reminded of this in unexpected ways, and recently one of those ways was my curtain sewing project.
I’ve always disliked curtains. They block out part of the views that windows provide, and let less light into every room. Many of them look silly, especially if there are ruffles, but we’ve become so used to them we don’t notice anymore. They’re magnets for dust and scorpions. Yes, they’re good for privacy at night, but even better are window shades. Shades have evolved over the years, from those flimsy always-curling-on-the-edges things we had in the ‘40s and ‘50s to elegant performance pieces that now can even be activated by a mere touch of a button. They disappear at the top of the window during the daytime, and subtly transform a room in the evenings.
I don’t have curtains, and for years I didn’t have shades either. My house looks down on my neighbors’ roofs, so I felt plenty private, until a friend stayed in my house once when I was off on a trip. He was freaked out by how exposed he felt in the evenings. When I got back I tried to imagine what that felt like for him, and my imagination was so vivid that soon, after ten years of living happily with bare windows, I was sure eyes were looking in at me every night. I immediately ordered shades.
It’s in my Scamp that I’ve had to revisit the whole subject of curtains. It wasn’t until after I got home from my first summer trip with the Scamp, back in 2014, that I discovered that the curtains that came with it were see-through. I had spent four months exploring mountains: the Sierras, the Tetons, the Rockies, a crescendo of mountains leading up to Glacier Nat’l Park at the Canadian border. Almost every night on that trip I would close the curtains, turn on a light, heat a pot of water, take off all my clothes and voila! a delightful sponge bath. I still do that, and I’m still ecstatic with the luxury of it all, after all my years of tent camping. But that first trip, at night, with the light on and the curtains drawn, anyone could see clearly everything I was doing inside. What can I do but laugh ruefully, thinking of the entertainment I provided in each campground during those mountain months? How is it nobody told me?
For the next two summers I just folded an extra layer of material over the curtains every night. It’s surprising how annoying such a small task can become, but I tried to think of it as just part of my bedtime routine. This spring I decided to find someone in Oracle who could sew opaque curtains for me, but after many phone calls I was unable to find a seamstress to do the job. I researched blinds for trailers, but they are too expensive, and many comments online told of frustrations with them. One morning I heard myself say “Then I’ll do it myself said the Little Red Hen, and she did.”
So I did. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the whole process of making those curtains. It began with looking for just the right material. I hadn’t been in a fabric store for years, and as soon as I walked into the first one I was pulled back into memories of the 1950s when I did most of my sewing. I remembered poring over the pattern books – Simplicity, Butterick, McCall’s, Vogue. I again let my hands brush over the edges of the bolts of cotton fabrics lined up on the shelves, the material pulled tight and smooth, always looking so full of potential. I was riveted by the huge rainbow of colors that the spools of thread made. As I made my way through these fabric stores I saw them as colorful hotbeds of possibility. Everything in them is in a dormant state, waiting for someone to bring them to life.
When I didn’t find anything that met my Scamp needs in any of the fabric stores, I started in on thrift shops to look for an opaque bed sheet. I would go directly to the linens department of the thrift shop, find all the sheets that were a neutral beige, hold them up to the fluorescent lights on the ceiling and see if they were completely opaque. It was weeks of tenacious looking before I found exactly what I wanted.
In the meantime I had become overwhelmed by my online research into sewing machines. The last one I had used was in the 1950s, when I was a teenager. It had been left in the old barn of a redwood house that we rented in Santa Barbara from 1949 until 1955. The sewing machine, a Singer, was probably made in the 1930s. How I loved working that treadle, the feel of it under my foot, the whirring sound it made, the trembling of the old house’s redwood boards when I got going really fast. I sewed clothes for myself and shirts for my boyfriend. I could make buttonholes and put in zippers. Luckily, curtains don’t require any advanced sewing technique, only straight seams.
I was able to give up trying to choose one machine from the zillions that showed up online, when I discovered a store in Tucson that sells only sewing machines and vacuum cleaners. This store should be the model for all small businesses. They helped me choose the most basic machine, and then spent an hour with me, showing me everything about it. Later that week they had their monthly sewing class, so I went to that too. I was the only person who showed up, so I had a private tutorial. A week later, when I couldn’t figure out how to unscramble the bobbin, I took the machine back to them, and again they spent time with me, explaining and fixing. What a difference it makes to have a store stand behind a product like that. The people who work there are mostly middle-aged women who all seem to have a lively sense of humor and a true desire to help everyone learn to sew. I keep hoping I’ll have another problem so I can go back again.
It wasn’t until after I had bought my lovely new sewing machine that one of the thrift shops had exactly what I was looking for. And it was a king size sheet, so there would be plenty of material for mistakes and do-overs, if needed. It’s a neutral beige, it’s a thin material that I can pull back from all the windows during the daytime and they won’t be noticed, and best of all, it’s completely opaque, even with all five lights turned on inside the Scamp.
I got all set up on my dining room table, cut out the curtains, and with great excitement started to sew. I made every mistake that can possibly be made with such a straightforward, simple job, and all the hems look as though I suffer from palsy or was sewing during an earthquake. But finally they are all sewn and hung up in the Scamp. They look just fine, and I know that in a while I won’t even notice them. They’re just curtains, and they’re good enough.
I was surprised by the sense of potency this small project gave me. At this stage of life, retired from my work and no longer playing the cello, I don’t often get that sense, the feeling that I still have agency in the world. I wanted more of that feeling. So, after my curtains were finished, for the first time in years I vacuumed my house. For over 25 years, it has given me a luxurious feeling to hire someone else to do it, but I think maybe I’ve had enough of luxury. Now a sense of accomplishment, no matter how small, is more satisfying to me.
I find that my needs and desires continue to change. Old age is definitely not a static end zone, a passive waiting for death. It’s quite possible that I’ve changed more since I turned 70, eleven years ago, than I did in many previous decades. The changes all feel like real growth to me. I understand so many things more clearly now, including myself.
From my little curtain-sewing project I’ve learned that for me, at this age at least, feeling useful outweighs comfort and luxury. I’ve seen how stimulating it is to challenge myself to do new things. I’ve seen also how easy it is to fall into a rut, doing the same familiar things over and over, never daring to strike out in a new direction. While figuring out all the details of making those curtains, my brain felt livelier and more interesting. It wouldn’t surprise me if I even stood up a little taller and straighter, and maybe even walked a little faster.