Saturday, August 11, 2018

calico time machine

Growing up, with a regularity approaching a liturgical once-a-week, my mother carted all the haphazard denizens of her brood to the truly magical land of Mill End. Mill End (pronounced MILLehnd in my heart, to this day) was one of those locales frequented so often in childhood it was a common backdrop for childhood dreams and nightmares (as was the children’s clothing section at Target, which became populated with Disney villains in its dreamworld counterpart).

Its full name was Mill End Fabrics, and it was exactly that—fabric remnants and overstock from cloth mills—but I never really understood the concept behind the warehouse store. Just that we Got Better Deals than at Hancock Fabrics or Jo-Ann. And, more to-the-point, you could run around and explore at Mill End, and no one—including Mom—seemed to mind.

At the front of the store were bright, colorful cotton prints. These my sister and I religiously referred to as Calico. The heroines of the Little House on the Prairie books and Understood Betsy and all the Dear America diaries were always wearing their Best Calico Dress and this, we figured, must be the sacred stuff itself. We would pull bolts of fabric off the shelves, hold them up to each other’s face, make judgements on which print went best with whose eyes, and pretend to be in the market for a certain coy print called gingham (also favored by our 19th century prairie heroines).

We would wander through the endless lanes of cotton cloth back to tall, tall leaning pillars of fleece, to which we always added the prefix “polar.” You could climb in between the tall vertical bolts, or hide your little brother in them. You could lean back into the wall of fuzzy fabric, and feel it hold you up, while pulling you into its depths.

Next were the satins and the silks, admittedly less interesting. They were alluring to the touch, but without the warm luxury of the velvets. In the end, they were never quite as fascinating as the iridescent squares of nylon and polyester that could be turned into a leotard for gymnastics or a swimsuit for summer in Ontonagon.

The final stop was always the "notions" section—buttons, lace, ribbons. They were located conveniently close to the checkout counters to provide diversion during the endlessly long process of adults talking. We would rummage through the bins of buttons to find the ones shaped like roses or small cameo broaches. We would drool over the grosgrain and satin ribbons, color-coordinated into a rainbow running down the length of the wall. We would unroll spools of lace and imagine it trimming a dress, like Sara Crewe or a small Borrower daughter.

Underneath our small explorations were the comforting sounds of the bolt of whichever fabric our mother had purchased being turned over on the cutting countertop—thwack, thwack, thwack—and the metallic sizzle of capable counter woman’s (always a woman with glasses on a decorative lanyard) sharp scissors slicing through the fabric in one quick movement.

Being completely unable to draw or cut in a straight line at the age of six, I was overwhelmingly awed by her capability.

The other day, my mother told me Mill End closed.
- Why? I asked.
- Oh nobody sews anymore, she said.

I suppose Mill End was a sort of time capsule, even then. Connecting us, quite materially, to all the cultures of the past that populated our books. It was the sort of place your imagination, fired up on all the stories from a different world—the past—was given literal material with which it could play. Words read were connected with their material counterparts—notions encountered were given tactile form and shape.

The connective tissue between human beings is so silly and arbitrary, made up of such inconsequential and mundane things like calico.

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