Innocence and Experience

I piled the mail—opened and unopened—in a stack and set it on the shelf above the desk. Onto the cleared surface, I lugged my secondhand sewing machine, ecru and smelling of oil.

I plugged the machine into the wall, and set the pedal below the desk. I loaded the bobbin with the greatest amount of the most neutral thread on it into the bobbin case and closed the little door on the front. I hit the space bar on the computer starting an episode of Selected Shorts, then I turned to the Girl Scout vests.

Tonight I had two vests to work on: my daughter’s brown Brownie vest, which needed to be updated before the next week’s bridging ceremony, and her brand-new green Junior vest. After two years as a Brownie, it was time for her to level up.

I sat cross-legged and laid them both on the floor in front of my knees. I tore open the plastic packages of badges and patches and taped them to the fronts of the vests, consulting both the Brownie book and the Junior book to make sure I placed everything properly and trying to ignore the crookedness of the badges I’d already sewn on.

For the brown vest there were the Making Games and Inventor badges, the World Thinking Day and Global Action badges, and the pin and patch she got from our recent visit to Girl Scout founder Juliette Gordon Low’s birthplace in Savannah, Georgia. On the green Junior vest I arranged her Bridge to Juniors, her Council ID patches, and her “wings,” signifying that she’s “flying up” to Juniors.

Into my sewing box I went, looking back and forth between the partially used spools of thread and the colors of the insignia I would be sewing. I picked out brown, green, yellow, white, and blue, the colors I thought would best camouflage my inexpert stitches. As I threaded the machine, I had some trouble seeing the end of the thread in relation to the eye of the needle. To focus better, I shifted my glasses to the bridge of my nose and peered over them, a first for me but something I’d seen my mother do so many times it seemed almost natural to me. “Presbyopia,” I thought. “I’ve been expecting you.”

My thoughts hummed along with the hum of the machine. I thought of the photo of me so proud in my green Junior vest, skirt, knee socks and green beret, my little brother peering around my hip. I remembered going through my badge books, checking off the requirements I’d already met and circling those I planned to do to finish earning the badges. I thought of standing on stage at my junior high school for my first public reading of my own writing, a poem I had written for the younger girls’ bridging ceremony. The words of the poem were still there, and this time I managed to think of them without cringing.

Young wings soar ever so high,

Reaching into the bright blue sky.

Now they are Juniors, tall and strong,

Spreading through the world their happy song.

As I traded the brown thread for the green, I thought of my daughter, of the poems and songs she writes in her own journals, of how excited she is to wear her new green vest. I thought of the night nine years ago when a trickle of amniotic fluid signaled that soon I would hold in my arms the child I’d known so intimately for nearly ten months. So focussed on that moment, I could barely even imagine what would come after. I didn’t know then that the intensity and self-doubt of birthing my daughter would be matched and at times exceeded by the intensity and self-doubt of birthing myself as a mother. I thought of labor and birth as a distinct process with a beginning, middle, and end, forgetting in the anticipation of meeting my girl that it was, in fact, a process of ending my life as a not-mom and beginning all of the years that would come after. That lack of foresight was a mercy; at that point I had all I could handle just birthing this human.

An hour after I’d started sewing—and with miraculously little swearing—I was finished. I snipped the loose threads and balled them into the trash, then I reached behind the sewing machine and turned off the light over the needle. I unplugged the machine and put it, now warm, back into its case.

On the once again empty desk, I set out the vests. Side by side, the Brownie vest looked so full and the Junior vest so bare, representing the fullness of my daughter’s past experiences and the promise of all of the experiences yet to come. They seemed to me also to represent a cycle of innocence and experience, always starting from a new baseline and working up to the next unknown.

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