4-H was huge in our rural area, and we farm girls could both exhibit livestock and learn to sew and bake. My main focus was the sewing, and in fact I garnered some blue ribbons. That is because I had the best teacher in the county: my mother. Miss Carol Jean Smith married Stanley Gingrich before she finished college, but she deserved an honorary PhD in Home Economics. I mean the noble, mid-century kind, which truly valued all the arts that made Home not only economical, but lovely.
Mom was a master seamstress. She always produced excellence and held me to her high standard. But she also had the ability to teach with patience and to supply consolation as needed. I cried over many crooked hems, many jammed needles, many poorly timed backstitches pedaled imprecisely on the old Singer. She had a little pink seam-ripping tool, which I learned to use with relative composure. If a button hole was crooked, she assured me that I would improve on the next one.
When I was about thirteen, I had an ambitious idea for Father’s Day: I could sew Dad a shirt! What a nice gift, something he would cherish from his only daughter.
The choice of style was easy: Dad loved to play golf. And he was a dapper man for his time and place, liked to look the part, liked owning (as he called them) “snazzy” shirts for on the course. He always enjoyed a new one. And as shirts go, it was the perfect choice for a young seamstress: fairly simple design, no zippers, no stiff collar needing a perfect point, and only three button holes. The casual style would forgive a pucker or two in the shoulder seams (as long as it was under the arms—otherwise, the seam ripper).
I’m sorry to say that, with this project, my mother had a rare failure of judgment. She let me pick out the fabric. I chose terrycloth. It looked so summery, so cool! Well, alright honey, I think that will work; No, I don’t think it will look like a towel. Look at all the colors available; terrycloth seems to be in style this year. Yes, white’s a good choice; it goes with anything.
The sewing went well, albeit a little slippery. There were a couple seams I had to repeat, but nothing to induce tears. All in all, I was pretty proud of that shirt.
Dad opened my neatly wrapped box with a stream of happy commentary: Hmm…what can it be? What did my favorite daughter give me? I’ll bet it’s something really special….As he lifted the shirt from the tissue paper, he poured out praise: I love it! I’ve been needing a white one. He hugged me and kissed my cheek and said all the right things. Of course Mom pretended I had done it all on my own. Dad hurried to the bedroom to try it on.
When he emerged, it was painfully obvious to all three of us that the shirt was too small. Way too small.
Turns out white doesn’t go with everything. When stretched taut, it becomes rather transparent, especially in a loose weave. And no thirteen-year old girl wants to see the results: man nipples and springing chest hairs (where the buttons can’t quite reach their holes). Add to that the problem of the legendary Farmer’s Tan: in too-short short sleeves, boundaries are exposed, and that deeply-established brown looks ten shades darker than the upper arms. Next to the shirt’s white glare, Dad’s normally impressive deltoids looked kind of…pink.
When he just a tiny bit suggested that the gift could maybe possibly fit a tiny bit better if the sides were let out just a little, my heart sank. As per instructions, I had carefully trimmed the seam allowances to one-quarter of an inch. There was no way even Dr. Mom could surgically expand my work.
But my father could expand his praise. During his daughter’s thirteen years, he had mastered the loving little lie, the exaggerated affirmation. He tugged that shirt down over his belly and pretended to be rapt with admiration; he waved his arms across his chest to show how the wonderful fabric allowed for great movement. You know, it’s fine; it’s perfect really. No no, it’s not too small. I’m wearing it! Nooo, honey, it’s just right. It’s great, in fact. To this day, I hear his voice--his kind, genuinely cheerful voice—and I see the squeezed smile on Mom’s face. I can even feel the wave of understanding that surely passed between them: Don’t say a word.
My heart teetered between hope and desolation. Dad really did look ridiculous. But he kept saying it was fine, it was fine, and I took the impossible leap of faith and believed him. Mom probably mustered all her imagination: maybe eighteen holes could make that shirt expand farther than the most affectionate fib, and in even better proportions.
No man can look snazzy in too-tight terrycloth. But a good-natured man with an irrepressible sense of humor can pull off something better. I’m quite sure Dad gave into temptation before teeing off. How can I blame him? I knew the reputation of his “golf buddies.” Burt and Ted and his brother Sed were great jokesters. I can easily imagine the scene: the guys chuckled when my father strolled up wheeling his bag behind him on a pushcart. They teased, So Carol finally shrunk your clothes, eh? as they ground cigars into the grass under their saddle-style shoes. What are you clowns talking about? my dad shot back. This shirt? This is my Father’s Day present, and by golly I’m wearing it with pride. You goofballs go ahead and laugh. Those pro-shop shirts of yours sure aren't going to help your lousy putting.
And for the love of his daughter, I bet you he beat them all. And afterwards, he collected their quarters and ribbed them some more and waved off the invitation to a round of beer, because his family was waiting for him at home. And he walked off getting the last laugh: Hey, Teddy, you might have fixed that bad hook, if your shirt hadn’t been so loose.
This past summer, my dad, at 82, shot under his age. That’s a thirty-seven and a thirty-nine, boys. You see, he can still play a perfect game.