By Sue Smaltz Burrus
How is it that an innocent remark made by a seven year-old comes around again and again throughout life, still haunting me more than sixty-five years later?
When I was in the second grade I ran home from school quite excited, burst into Mom’s sewing room, bubbling over with the news. “Momma, our class is doing a play!”
“That’s nice,” she replied barely looking up from her sewing machine.
“I told my teacher that you could make the costumes!”
The sewing machine paused and she turned to face me. “What?” I explained the costumes needed. “When is your play?” she asked.
“Tomorrow”, I replied.
She dropped the fabric she had been sewing onto her lap. “Sue,” she said in her very serious voice, “That is impossible.”
I looked trustingly into her deep brown eyes and uttered the fateful words, “But momma, if you do the impossible often enough, you get used to it.”
I honestly don’t remember what happened then. Nor do I remember the play or the costumes. They all must have happened somehow because Mom never let me forget what I had told her. She continued to do the impossible and got used to it.
I am the oldest of five children. The youngest were twins and when I so desperately needed those costumes, they weren’t one year old yet. There were buckets of cloth diapers to go through the wringer washing machine. I believe we did have a dryer by then and I folded diapers every afternoon after school - white, fluffy mountains of them. The heaps never seemed to get smaller, until finally they morphed into heaps of regular laundry.
By the time I was in high school, my father’s heart failure had gotten to the point that the doctors gave him less than a 50/50 chance of surviving the surgery to replace a non-functioning valve. He chose to go with the 50% chance of life, had the surgery, and lived three more years. After he died, the neighbors speculated that it would be impossible for Mom to raise five children by herself. “Impossible?” she replied, “I’ve done it often enough…” and it became a family motto. Every time one of us said, “Oh no, that’s impossible.” Someone else would chime in - “If you the impossible often enough, you get used to it!” Mom’s sewing got us all through high school and on to college. The saying followed us through all life’s joys and challenges - school, marriage, children, divorce.
On a frigid February night my husband, daughter and I arrived at our rented trailer in a remote corner of North Dakota, where we would be living for the next six weeks as part of our graduate school teaching placement. We hadn’t unpacked the U—Haul yet. We had stopped at a grocery store on the way, but had no utensils other than a pop-top Coke can and an aluminum pie plate. Impossible? No! That morning we feasted on bacon and eggs, toast and coffee and then went out into the snow to unearth the kitchen box.
Almost twenty years later, even though my lawyer insisted I have my last will and testament in place, I set out to drive, post-divorce, from Alaska to Pennsylvania. Impossible? It was a journey full of of adventures.
Learn to play the harp after age sixty? Impossible? You know the answer. I’m still taking lessons, still practicing, and playing every Friday at the local hospice center.
So, when my granddaughter, K, now married and a sophomore in college came home one weekend in September this year with a pile of fabric and said, “Grandma, can you help us make Halloween costumes? We’re gonna be pirates”, I gulped when I saw those patterns. I had not made my living sewing like my mother had. “We got all the stuff… and here’s our sewing machine” she continued. I looked into her deep blue eyes, “I could say that’s impossible…” She chimed in on cue with the chorus, “If you do the impossible often enough, Grandma, you get used to it!” and she smiled. She knew the story.
“I’m very thankful Halloween is NOT tomorrow” I replied. She had also decided that the wide-wale corduroy for her husband’s jacket needed to be a few shades darker and the lady at the fabric store had told them that they could use coffee to dye it. So off to the grocery store they went to find cheap instant coffee. They could only come home on a few weekends between then and Halloween, so while the fabric soaked in the coffee, we cut up an old sheet to sew a sample to make sure these costumes would fit. We did make a few adjustments to the patterns as I had watched my mother do so many times, and they were off, back to college.
In the next few weeks, I discovered how heavy and slippery faux leather is and how bias tape really doesn’t like to go around tight curves. Mom always considered basting a waste of time, but my inexperienced hands needed to do that step - having been recommended by my Home Ec. teachers - especially through multiple layers of faux leather, interfacing, and lining material. The local fabric stores did not have a 9 inch jacket zipper. Amazon came through, even though the shipping cost much more than the zipper itself.
The coffee-dyed corduroy wasn’t quite dark enough, K decided. So, they came back one weekend in October with RIT dye for another go at it. I had cut out the pieces of fabric and said that they had to be dyed that weekend because I needed at least a week of sewing time - preferably two! We finally found buckles at a craft store, but there was no buttonhole attachment for either of our sewing machines anywhere in the Seattle suburbs and it was too late to order on-line by the time I got to that step. “Ah well”, I said, “I’ve never known a pirate who buttoned his coat anyway.” By that time, they both agreed. Piece by piece, the outfits came together and on the Thursday before Halloween, the first snow melted on the mountain pass so the road was clear and dry! We delivered the costumes and went to K’s fall band concert. “See Grandma,” she said, “It wasn’t impossible. You got used to it!” There were times I could have spit out a whole mouthful of pins at that statement, but they won the big costume contest prize on Friday night - a free slice of pizza at a local restaurant’s Jazz Jam. It was all worth the gallons of coffee and effort!
On Halloween night I was thinking about all of this as I sat in the garage behind a black cloth that covered the open door. I could see through the cloth, but the children coming to Trick or Treat couldn’t see me in the dark. In front of the black curtain was a basket filled with candy sitting on a card table surrounded by Halloween decorations. When I saw children coming down the sidewalk, I pulled on a string, which invisibly lifted the basket lid. “Happy Halloween!” the basket said in my best low gravelly voice. Kids who hadn’t seen it before looked startled. Those who remembered from years past replied, “Happy Halloween, Magic Basket!” They quickly reached in the basket’s open “mouth”, saying “Thank you” as they grabbed candy before the lid closed. Little ones were sometimes unsure and older siblings or parents helped them out. The Magic basket commented on how much they had grown - what wonderful costumes they had, and other small talk. Sometimes a skeptical child would say, “That’s impossible! Baskets can’t talk.”
“This one can,” the basket replied, “You’ll get used to it.”