Essays >Darning Ball


It was just another ordinary day, the world’s economy collapsing, CNN blaring doom in the background. And then, as my students would say, It Happened.  My husband pulled his right foot up to put on his jogging shoes, and staring audaciously right at me was his big toe, sticking out from a hole in his socks.  

Pow! Instant wave of wifely horror.

“Oh, honey, there’s a hole in your socks!  Get another pair from the drawer – don’t be uncomfortable!  And throw those away right now!”  There’s something pathetic about somebody with a hole in his socks.  I suddenly wanted to touch him and say, “Everything will be all right.” 

I’ve got a feminist streak, but my Midwestern Protestant upbringing, faced with a husband’s holey socks, trumps a hundred years of sensible egalitarian dogma.  Faced with Ted’s holey socks, I turn into my mother. I hear her whisper:  a woman’s man should not have holey socks – that’s a serious cut to her domestic credibility – yea, verily, to her downright self-respect.

 But I’m not exactly my mother. My mother had a darning ball.  Almost every woman of her station had them in the Fifties – hers was a soft light wood, rounded and much pocked by decades of darning needles poked through the never-ending, dispiriting trail of socks, like worn-out soldiers dragging back from the front, of her peripatetic husband and kids. She darned our socks until there were patches on the patches, little overlapping criss-crosses of repair, and I think the only time she would throw them away was when they literally fell apart, when the only thing left was the yarn itself, the whole thing unraveling like a wind-torn spider web.  She was a frugal woman.

Well, I love Ted, but even in these extreme times, when you’d think we’d all be rediscovering the boundless joys of frugal living, I don’t want to darn my husband’s socks. 
They’re just so darn cheap, so to speak, spun off machines in Shanghai, and what harm can they do in landfills?  They’re not like Pampers, right?  Couldn’t they provide soft nests for some endangered species?  There is no end to my denial.

I try to imagine how my mother, dead now 15 years, felt about those darning hours. She was an intelligent woman and I always wanted her to be more exciting – did we ever, for goodness sake, see June Cleaver darning Beaver’s socks?  Instead, imagine my mother sitting in the fading natural light of a window, hour upon hour, fastidiously doing that crisscross thing, a little meditation. I hope that’s how it was– a calm ritual, one of those things where you could see results and say your day had not been wasted.

But that’s probably wishful thinking – one always wants to believe one’s mother happier than she really was.  Darning socks was pretty thankless. In our ingrate, take-her-for-granted way, our darned socks embarrassed us.  My mother never cared if the colors matched.  God forbid somebody’d see me take off my sneakers in gym, only to reveal an orange patch on the white cotton.  Sometimes there’d be a green patch on one sock and a turquoise one on the other.  And sometimes the yarn was scratchy and stiff, not soft and comforting like the pleasant material deteriorating around it. 

For decades, my mother, a child of the Depression, had a little paper taped to the knotty pine paneling over her kitchen sink. 

It said, “Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.”  I couldn’t remember the whole thing but found it on Google, half-horrified (for most of my life I found the motto grim and tiresome) to see that it’s still a chestnut being celebrated – perhaps now more than ever – on numerous websites.

I say half-horrified, because the other half of me thinks it was great.  My mom was a recycler because she had to be:  we lived on a relatively meager pastor’s salary, and she made it work.  Despite my childhood embarrassments, I never felt seriously deprived.  And as an adult woman I’m touched and impressed by her domestic devotion.

Further, there’s sweetness in it – all those socks in her hands, salvaged, intimately rehabilitated, given another chance.  So now I’m sympathizing with the socks – go figure.  I’m still not sure I’m ready for darning, but it hits me hard: we’re so quick to submit to entropy.  Why shouldn’t we give the things of our lives more TLC– why not fix that faulty dryer, recaulk the window, give the old beater yet another tune-up? 

The next day after the sock event, I took my old leather coat, a long-ago gift from my husband, to the dry cleaner to ask if they could replace the buttons – three had been pulled off and disappeared, and the fourth hung, humiliated, by a greasy black thread. 
Yes, they could do that – there’s a wizened Asian grandma (I caught a glimpse of her once) who sits in a back room and repairs things – two dollars a button, a bargain by any reckoning.  I had to go buy buttons, spending a happy ten minutes at the floor-to-ceiling rack of choices at Joann’s – savoring, surprisingly cheered up by the pluckiness of all those colors and shapes stapled onto little cards. For only a couple of bucks, the buttons said, we can help you keep things together.

I love my leather coat, which Ted bought me from a store that’s since gone bust. I still have Ted, and I still have the coat. And I love that tomorrow when I pick it up, it’ll have good solid buttons again, ready to cosset me against the inevitable chills of late winter. 
So, this is a column to say, maybe there’s love in not throwing things away. Maybe this is a time to cherish the stuff of our lives, take care of them, fix them, and keep them close.