Stitches in Nine [essay] by Eileen M. Cunniffe

I’ve commandeered the dining room table, unfurled the cutting mat, lined up my tools. The sewing machine sits at the head of the table, its hot, bright bulb illuminating my immediate work space. My left hand feeds layers of fabric slowly under the presser foot, while my right hand extracts each pin before it reaches the needle. Within arm’s reach—but not too close to the pattern-shaped pieces of fabric I’ve cut out and pinned together—is a glass of iced tea, covered with beads of sweat.

In the next room, my grandfather has commandeered the far end of the kitchen table, the evening paper held high, at arm’s length. He is simultaneously working his way through the day’s news and through a bowl of orange Jell-O floating in milk, a concoction I’ll never comprehend, though for years my sister and I have faithfully taken turns dissolving that sugary powder in boiling water to keep him supplied with his favorite treat.

On the kitchen desk sits a clunky black radio. And though we each have our own reasons for wanting to be awake at this late hour, while the rest of the household slumbers; and though we make no effort to converse as I stitch and sip and he reads and slurps; and though there never will be more than a tacit acknowledgement that we are each glad to have the other nearby, we know we are in this thing together. We are listening to a staticky late-night broadcast of a Phillies game from the West Coast, in the distant 1970s when most of our baseball experiences were transmitted through that radio.

I’ve learned to calibrate my pressure on the foot pedal to the cadences of the play-by-play, slowing down or finding other tasks when the game gets interesting; speeding up during commercials or when things start going south for the Phils. The radio has to be low enough not to disturb my parents and six siblings, but loud enough to carry into the dining room, over a chorus of crickets and the attic exhaust fan.

We take turns adjusting the antenna or fiddling with the dial when the signal starts to fade—which it does pretty often, especially during summer storms, and almost always at critical moments. When Mike Schmidt laces one over the fence or Steve Carlton notches another strikeout, I lean forward in my chair, grinning, and he lets his newspaper dip to catch my eye. Occasionally, a situation on the Astroturf three thousand miles away is so promising or so dire that I temporarily abandon my station and join him in the kitchen, and he lays down his paper. Together, we stare at the radio, our hopes pinned to that distant diamond. Sometimes we talk back to it, in disbelief or in joy.

But mostly we are silent partners, sharing the relative quiet of a summer night, the rustle of turning pages, the steady stitches from my Kenmore, and the well-known yet never predictable rhythms of a game we both love. A game with enough pregnant pauses to accommodate my efforts to stitch together new clothes for the fall. A game with enough narrative threads to hold our interest well past midnight. We rely equally on the announcers and the sounds of the game—ball on leather, ball on wood, umpire’s voice, cheers or moans from the crowd—to “see” each play unfold.

In my memory, this is a long-running ritual—my grandfather, me, my sewing machine, the radio. In real life, I realize, it played out over just a season or two—my first summers after high school, his last summers to enjoy baseball. Seasons leading up to the Phillies first World Series championship in 1980, which he didn’t see. Maybe we shared a dozen late-night games this way, maybe not even that many. But enough to leave a pattern.

I still love baseball on the radio—although these days I’m more likely to listen in my car than in my house. I almost never use my sewing machine anymore—that same one, which I’ve had for nearly 40 years. But in my mind, baseball on the radio has a background soundtrack that includes the revving of a sewing machine motor. And on those rare occasions when I hem a new set of curtains, even in the depths of winter, I could swear I hear the ghost of a game of baseball as I measure, trace, pin and stitch.

 

Image of 1930s Switchboard Operator

[Refer: This essay refers to the poem “On the Radio” by Robert Sabo.]

Image by SharonLChapmann

Eileen Cunniffe’s essays have appeared in journals such as Hippocampus Magazine, Ascent, Superstition Review and Stone Voices. Three of her essays have been recognized with Travelers’ Tales Solas Awards and another received the Emrys Journal 2013 Linda Julian Creative Nonfiction Award. Her website is eileencunniffe.com.