Helping Others to Honor Her Own

A woman honors her departed granddaughter by sewing dresses for girls in Haiti.

by
- Posted on Sep 21, 2012

Julie Burns with a photograph of her granddaughter Paige

Slowly I sorted through the stacks of fabric piled high on the worktable behind my sewing machine. Green and white gingham. Pale blue cotton with a pretty flower print.

Under that, creamy white covered with tiny rosebuds. Corduroy. Soft velvet. Denim. A rainbow of colors. Enough to make dozens of little girl dresses.

But my fingers felt leaden. My heart wanted to be anywhere but my sewing room. It hurt just looking at all the material I’d bought over the years. All of it meant for my granddaughter Paige. My first grandchild and the joy of my life.

She’d been born not long before my husband died of cancer. A blue-eyed angel, a gift from God, I was sure. She was my reason to get out of bed in the morning. I would have done anything for her.

Like make her lovely little dresses. I couldn’t begin to count them all. I had let Paige pick out the fabric and I loved how she would twirl in front of the big mirror in my bedroom when she tried on my newest creation, both of us giddy with excitement.

“Oh, Mimi,” she’d exclaim, using her nickname for me. “So pretty!”

Then Paige herself was diagnosed with cancer. The one thing I couldn’t do for her was make her better. She died at age four, and it felt like a light had been extinguished inside of me, as if even God had turned away from me.

Even sewing, something I’d loved since my grandma taught me how to make dresses for my dolls, didn’t bring comfort. I hadn’t given it up entirely in the years after Paige’s death. I still did some work making costumes for local theater groups. But no little girl dresses. Too painful.

Still, I’d held onto the fabric. I told myself it was my way of honoring Paige’s memory.

But ever since that meeting of my women’s group at church a few weeks back, I’d been wondering if it was just that I couldn’t let her go, couldn’t let go of the sadness inside of me.

Everyone in the group was talking about the earthquakes in Haiti. I’d been watching the coverage on television. The stories were heartbreaking.

Hundreds of thousands of people left with no homes to take shelter in, children with no one to look after them anymore, subsisting on rations, their only possessions the clothes on their back. I wanted to help. But how could I?

I couldn’t sift through rubble or do construction. I couldn’t set broken bones. I wouldn’t even know how to go about volunteering at a refugee camp. All I could think to do was send money. But that seemed so removed.

The meeting began. “We need volunteers to sew dresses for little girls in Haiti,” the leader announced. “We want to give these girls something bright and pretty, to give them a little bit of hope in their lives and let them know that there are people who care, who are praying for them.”

Several women immediately raised their hands. The leader passed out a pattern for a simple sundress. Then it seemed as if everyone in the room turned to look at me. They knew I could sew a dress like that with my eyes closed.

I wanted to volunteer. I could see the stacks of fabric in my sewing room—perfect for this project. I felt awful, selfish even. But I could not lift my arm. Just the thought of pinning that pattern to the fabric meant for my granddaughter made me want to cry.

So I sat there, blinking back tears, not looking at anyone.

“Okay, then,” the leader finally said. “When you’re finished with your dresses drop them off here at church.”

I left the meeting and drove home frustrated with myself, my grief suffocating. I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t just throw it off like a heavy blanket on a hot day.

I went upstairs to my bedroom, and there in the mirror it was as if I could see Paige when she was three, her face shining as I slipped my latest creation over her tiny shoulders, a dress covered with bluebirds the color of her eyes.

“Oh, Mimi,” she cried, “this is the most prettiest dress in the whole world!” Her sweet smile lit up my soul.

The memory was so painful I’d pushed all thoughts of dresses out of my mind...until this morning at women’s group when a friend rushed up to me.

“Did you see the news last night?” she said. “There was a little girl in a tent city in Haiti and she was wearing the dress I made. The very dress! She was so happy I thought she would burst.”

I knew exactly what she meant. I could even see the girl, like she was there in front of me, twirling, radiant, her face as bright as the colors of her dress. A burst of sunshine in a world desperate for light.

No, I couldn’t build houses or set broken bones. But I could make dresses. I needed to. For the little girls in Haiti. For Paige. And for me.

Now I picked through the stacks of fabric, unsure of where to begin. Dear Lord, I prayed, give me the strength to serve you even in my grief.

My eyes went back to the green and white gingham at the top of the pile. Wasn’t green the color of renewal, of hope? I could picture little Paige picking out this fabric herself, telling me, “Oh, Mimi, this looks like spring!”

I poked through my notions box and found some daisy-chain trim that would add just the right finishing touch. I unfolded the pattern, smoothed it flat and pinned it to the gingham. Steps that were so familiar and yet I got goose bumps.

I picked up my shears and cut out the pieces, my heart growing lighter with each snip. I’d make the prettiest dress in the whole world. Somewhere in Haiti was a little girl who needed it, who needed to know that God was watching over her, that she could give her sorrows to him.

I smiled, knowing just how amazing it was to finally feel that assurance myself. Then I sat down at  my machine and began to sew.

 

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