The day I found the sewing machine was the day after my mother’s funeral, and the last time I was alone in my childhood home. Entering through the front door, I had a hard time coming to grips with the fact that in a few months this place would no longer belong to my family. Having lived there for over fifty years, my mother had stained this house with memories. It still smelled of her cooking, and it seemed like at any moment she would walk in and say, “Will! Come taste my soto!” and I would happily oblige. The meals she created never once disappointed me, or anyone else for that matter.
Sitting on the green sofa in the living room, I diverted my attention to the painting of the moon orchid that hung over our fireplace. I pictured myself as a six-year-old again, sitting on this same sofa at night, legs crossed, asking my mother where we’d gotten the painting of the flower. “Your father made it himself,” my mother told me, her bum resting on her feet, while stroking my hair. I didn’t answer her, impressed as I was by the talent my father possessed. In the years that followed, I would see my dad create more impressive paintings, but I knew that the one I was looking at right now would always be my favourite, probably because it reminded me of the first time I was confronted with my father’s creativity. It was my older sibling, Lucy, who inherited his talent. She could draw in a way that made you look twice to see if it was actually a drawing and not a photograph.
The reason my mother loved this house so much, I always thought, was because, in her hectic life, it was a constant factor. Despite the changes she went through, this home was always hers. It was the place she left every morning but knew she would always return to. I scratched my head and got up from the sofa. As I made my way upstairs, I noticed the door of my parents’ bedroom was wide open. I could see their wicker furniture and the bed that my mother had neatly made, part of her morning routine. “You see, a made bed serves for a clean mind,” she would explain to me, and not a day would go by when she didn’t make her bed with the greatest care in the world. My mother was all about rituals and her own traditions. Once, while my parents were fighting, my father had told her to “stop being so superstitious” and my mother, out of pure spite, spent the following three weeks doing ridiculous things. I once caught her putting lemon juice on my father’s pillow, and when I asked her what she was doing, she straightened her posture and replied “Nothing.” She didn’t seem to realize her eyes betrayed her mischievous intentions.
I made my way up the rickety pull-down ladder to the attic, where I thought the vintage briefcase with family pictures I wanted to display the following day at her memorial would be. I’m glad we chose to do a closed casket yesterday. I’m sure if I’d seen my mother lying there, I could never picture her again without thinking of her in that cramped space. The whole attic was overflowing with junk, which was the reason why I’d always hated going up there. Unlike my mother, I liked throwing stuff out. Every once in awhile, I’d get rid of everything I had no use for anymore. My mother, on the other hand, saved everything. Our attic was a graveyard of times past.
“Mom, you have to stop hoarding all this useless crap!” I had said to her once, throwing my hands up in annoyance.
“I don’t see how wicker baskets are useless. They can be used for loads of things!”
“That doesn’t mean you need eighty of them,” I had mumbled to myself, realizing that arguing with my mother was about as useless as owning eighty wicker baskets.
Later in life, I’d learned how her hoarding was something her entire Indonesian family did. Besides the wicker baskets, the attic held a treasure trove of useless items: a broken chair, an old microwave and, lying on its side, an easel that had belonged to my father. My father died quite suddenly several years back, so when we buried him we had to wait for a tombstone to be made. My aunt suggested that while we waited we should put his easel on his grave. “An easel on the grave? What are you gonna do when I pass, then? Put a wok on my grave?” my mother had joked.
After climbing into the cramped attic, something my back would resent me for the following day, I had to half-crawl my way through it to look for the photos taken the year my mother left Indonesia. I hadn’t yet spotted the briefcase when I saw my mother’s sewing machine. It was the kind of object that you never would’ve thought of again if you hadn’t stumbled upon it, but when you did, it brought up the clearest memories. I instantly stopped in my tracks and couldn’t help but reach for the machine. It had been white once, but after years spent in this attic, it had yellowed. The red letters printed on it spelled “Singer.” I let my finger slide over the brand-name, taking off a thick layer of dust. I hadn’t seen my mother use it in ages.
She made me red pants with it when I was about ten years old, and the day I wore them to school I had gotten tons of compliments.
“Those are some colourful pants!” my teacher had said, smiling.
“My mom made them!” I told her, as I’d been telling people all day, with an enormous smile plastered on my face.
I’d always been incredibly proud to be born into a family of creatives, even when I started my medical studies. My mother never understood what it was about healthcare and medicine that appealed to me, but when I told her that I just wanted to help people, she’d smile and say something about how noble that was (though I knew she still didn’t get it). I wore those same pants to school the day the janitor entered the classroom and asked for me. I remember that moment vividly, the way the other children looked at me, wondering what I had done wrong. Normally I would have known, but this time I had no idea what was going on either.
The janitor must have seen the confusion in my eyes, because he quickly added, “Oh, you’re not in trouble!” I sighed in relief and followed him into the hallway. He laughed loudly, “No, not in trouble this time! It’s just that the principal asked me to tell you that you’re going have to walk home by yourself today. Your sister went home sick.” I returned to class with my shoulders hanging, knowing I had to tell my classmates something completely boring when they asked me what was going on.
That afternoon, I cursed myself for not bringing gloves. My mom had told me to do so, but I had refused. “Do you want to get sick or something?” she had snapped at me. In my defence, I shouldn’t have had to wear them. It was the 26th of November, and gloves were something for the real winter, which I decided should start in December. When I arrived home my mother was cooking, so I made my way to the kitchen.
“What are you cooking?” I asked, holding my hands above the stove to warm them. My mother swatted them away quickly, the annoyance clear in her movements.
“Soto,” she answered. I narrowed my eyes, trying to remember what the Indonesian word meant. Her eyes widened when she saw I didn’t understand. “Soup!” she exclaimed. Though she didn’t raise us bilingually, my mother didn’t like it when we forgot Indonesian words and whenever a term slipped my or Lucy’s mind, she would say the same thing, “You should know your Bahasa! You’re disrespecting me!” Lucy and I had often mocked that. Her love for the Indonesian language also showed in our attic. In a stack of books that I could barely reach, I spotted three different versions of the Kamus, the Indonesian dictionary. I had mastered the language later in life, to my mother’s delight.
The day after my hands had almost frozen off, my mom ordered me to deliver a note to Lucy’s teacher. She shoved it in my hands, which were covered by woollen mittens. “Be careful, honey!” she said, before pressing a sloppy kiss on my cheek. I wondered why she was being so affectionate. I did my duty the minute I entered the school building, walking towards Lucy’s classroom instead of my own.
“Miss Bax?” I almost whispered, knowing that though she was very fond of Lucy, the teacher couldn’t stand me. She didn’t respond. “Miss Bax?” I repeated, louder this time, clinging to the doorframe.
“Will?” she asked, her eyebrows knotted in confusion as she made her way towards me. “What are you doing here?” she continued, even though she had already seen my outstretched arm offering the note signed by my mother. She snatched it out of my hands, pouting her red-painted lips, read it and said, “Still? Wish her well for me, will you? I’m sure she’ll be feeling better in a few days.” I nodded in response, waiting for her to dismiss me. An awkward silence followed, which she broke off by saying, “What are you still doing here? Go to class!”
I truly wish I could say she was being unreasonable for hating me, but she wasn’t.
A few weeks before, I’d been looking out of my bedroom window with my friend Harry. There was a person sitting on the bench in front of my house, and out of pure boredom, I spat out the window, aiming for the dark-haired woman. The spit was blown away by the wind, so Harry and I decided to grab a glass of water and try it again, but this also didn’t work.
“Your aim is terrible,” Harry concluded. “Let me try.” He raised the glass to the window, not thinking about the consequences of his actions. It all went by very quickly. He turned the glass over and the water landed right on the woman. She jumped from the bench, shrieked, and looked up instantly. We quickly pulled our heads back through the window, but I could still hear her screaming “What the hell?!” At first, Harry and I laughed, but we both fell silent when we heard the doorbell ring. With shoulders tensed, I tiptoed to my bedroom door to close it (as if the woman would otherwise burst into my room), and pressed my ear to it, reporting to Harry exactly what I could hear. It wasn’t much, but I did hear the woman scream that she saw a curly-haired boy disappear from the window. The moment the voices stopped and the door closed there were a few seconds of silence. My heart was beating in my throat.
“Will! Harry! Get down here this instant!” I hung my head as we descended the stairs. My mother was waiting for us, wearing her apron, her black hair put up in a bun, her hands on her hips. “What were you thinking?!” she exclaimed. Though I’d been expecting some kind of punishment, the tone of her voice made me snap my head up and look at her in surprise. My mother never really got angry at anyone—this was the first time I’d experienced her this furious. “Are you two insane? That was Lucy’s teacher, anak nakal!” (I looked up the meaning of the words in the Kamus afterwards. It meant naughty child.)
“Miss Bax?” I asked, the confusion temporarily replacing my nervousness.
“She lives in one of the apartments a few doors down. I told you that!” She didn’t, in fact, but I knew better than to go against my mother like that. I looked at Harry, resenting him for his sudden silence.
“Go to your room. I can’t deal with you like this. Harry, you go home.” She sighed in exasperation, and I hurried upstairs, waving at Harry quickly, thankful for the escape rope. It was one of the worst afternoons of my life. My mother had never called me an anak nakal. Later that day, however, when I hesitantly tried coming downstairs, I overheard my mother telling the story to my older sister.
“Oh, Lucy. It was so bad! She was completely soaked!” I almost didn’t believe my ears when I heard the following sound. Was my mother… giggling?
Sitting in the attic, I smiled to myself, realizing that it was that same year I’d last seen the sewing machine. At that point, Lucy had been home, sick, for two weeks. I missed our private conversations on our way to school and back, I missed her in general. She hadn’t even had dinner with us for two nights in a row, and though I did see her a few times each day, she was always too tired to have an actual conversation. My father stayed home more often during that time, helping my mother with her daily chores and taking care of my sister. One night my father asked me about my day while my mother was leaning her elbow on the dinner table. I told him in great detail, speaking hastily and nervously, desperately trying not to have silence disrupt our meal. I went by Lucy’s room that same night, in spite of my mother’s protest.
“She might infect you!” she told me while she ripped the “December 10th” page from our tear-off calendar (another one of her rituals—she did this every day, right after dinner).
“Let him talk to her. I’m sure it’ll make them both feel better. Besides, the doctor said it isn’t an infection,” my dad said while putting an arm around her shoulders and kissing the side of her head.
“Hey, you,” Lucy said when I sat down next to her. She hoisted herself up on her elbows, resting against the bedframe.
“How are you doing?” she asked me, though I should be asking her that question instead.
“Fine.” I wasn’t sure what to say.
“Been up to anything evil in the past two weeks?” I didn’t notice how soft her voice was before.
“No. You?” I responded, and we both laughed.
“I wish. I did have this dream though, where I replaced dad’s coffee with tea. You should do that sometime.” I smiled to myself but kept quiet. Our dad hated tea with a passion. “Lukewarm leaf juice,” he had called it once.
“Will you be better soon?” I asked.
“Before you know it,” she assured me.
“Are you kidding? Of course, I will be!”
The days grew colder, and Lucy grew more and more ill. At school, my teachers were incredibly nice to me. When I got into a fight with one of my classmates, Miss Bax let out a deep sigh but did not jump at the chance to punish me. No one asked about Lucy anymore, and I wondered if they’d forgotten about her. I realized later that the opposite was true.
I overheard a conversation between my mom and dad on the night of December 22nd.
“What if they make her go to the hospital?” my mother asked my father desperately.
“I’m sure that won’t be the case,” my dad replied, his voice softer compared to my mother’s, not realizing that he was in denial.
“Don’t say that. It’s bad luck.”
“It’s not,” my dad said, picking at his nails.
“It is! I don’t want her to end up in the hospital, Peter. She needs to stay here. With us. I can’t—” her voice broke and I closed my bedroom door quickly, suddenly realizing I’d been listening to something I shouldn’t have heard.
Two days later, Lucy was in the hospital, in a room that she shared with other children her age. The room was, in one word, white. White, cold and sterile. I didn’t like it very much. Seeing Lucy lying there, I suddenly realized how thin she had gotten. I told her so, which resulted in my mom swatting my arm. “Will, don’t say that!” she hissed, but Lucy laughed. “I know, I know. The food here is so gross! Eat double portions of mom’s dishes for me, will you?” I nodded in response and rested my head on my mother’s shoulder.
When we were about to leave, as I was putting on my coat, I heard my mom ask Lucy if there was something she could do for her.
“I would really like some blue pyjamas, Ibu,” she said. “Can you make those for me?”
“Of course I can, sweetheart.” My mother kissed my sister’s forehead and Lucy winked at me as we made our way out of the room.
Afterwards, my mom dragged me to a fabric store.
“I thought we were going home!” I whined.
“After this, honey. There’s something I need to do,” my mother told me while letting her fingers glide over the different shades of blue cloth.
I felt kind of claustrophobic in there—the small store was stuffed with so many prints and materials. My mom, not seeming to mind how cramped it was, picked a captivating shade of sky-blue. We walked home in the wet snow, and when we entered our house my mother didn’t start cooking like she usually did around this time. Instead, she placed the sewing machine on the mahogany table and sat down behind it. I let myself fall onto our green sofa and eyed her movements. Before I knew it, the machine started sputtering as she let the blue fabric glide through it.
It was the only thing she seemed to think about in the days that followed. All I saw her doing, apart from visiting my sister, was sitting behind the sewing machine, the red letters of “Singer” forming a sharp contrast with the blue material. While the small bulb in the machine cast light on her busy hands, I heard her mumble, “I’ll finish your pyjamas, Lucy. Don’t worry.” She didn’t seem to realize I could hear what she was saying.
Two days later, on Christmas day, Lucy was laid out in the hospital, her hands folded and resting on her stomach, looking as if she were asleep, wearing her beautiful blue pyjamas. My mother had put the machine away for good after that, still spooled with the sky-blue cotton thread.