My Sister the Seamstress

I had four n95 masks in my possession. I was reusing them and would have to do so until september when the ones i’d bought on back-order were set to arrive. During hot sunny days i locked them in the car and parked in the sun to sterilize them with heat. During overcast days i placed them in a steamer basket in my instant pot and steamed them for 10 minutes, then hung them up to dry. I did the same with my buffs and my cotton shawl that i was using as a head scarf. The community was angry that healthcare professionals were wearing their scrubs to the grocery stores after work. I highly doubted they’d appreciate me wearing my n95 mask i’d worn all day at work to the grocery or post office as well. However, i didn’t own a sewing machine and though i knew bungee cords held elastic, i was not domestically gifted in the least. I did not know how to sew a mask out of fabric and bungee cord. Women in the community began making cloth masks out of whatever fabric and opened bungee cords they could find. They were of varying sizes and shapes. Some were too narrow to cover the nose and mouth at the same time. I noticed this right away and vowed to look for one that was wide when the opportunity arose. You see, the women would make these masks, drop them in bags at the front door, and ring the doorbell. However, we rarely got our hands on them before management confiscated them to manage the resources in an orderly fashion. People were trying to take four or five masks at a time, so, management confiscated all of the masks. Eventually they stated that everybody could pick one mask. So everybody got to pick one cloth mask but they did it on a monday (my off day) so i missed it. Finally i got a hold of the bag and was able to pick and sign that i had received my one cloth mask. After we all got one we expected they’d let us pick another mask from the bags and bags of cloth masks the women of our community kept sewing and leaving on our doorstep. However, they came down with the decree that we could work on locating and purchasing our own masks; that the cloth masks were to be given to the patients and used exclusively by them. So, as the community continued to make and donate more masks on the doorstep, we had to turn the bags in to the company and keep distributing them to the patients. The patients didn’t need 7 masks. They were on lockdown and couldn’t leave their rooms. The majority of them had dementia and didn’t wear the masks. They became alarmed when we tried to put them on their faces, refused to keep them on, and didn’t understand what we were trying to do. The patients who did understand what was going on were not handling things much better. They were constantly losing or leaving the masks behind. They didn’t want to wear them as they said it inhibited their breathing. The treasure these women had slaved over their sewing machines for days to give us was kind of lost in translation. I picked a pink cotton mask with tan flowers on it. It was loose enough behind my ears and wide enough to cover both my nose and my mouth. I wore that to the post office and the dollar general store. It allowed me to keep my work and community ppe separate. However, i lived in fear of the elastic breaking. I had ziploc baggies that held each one of my masks. The cloth one was kept in a ziploc in the center console of my car. I was grateful to whoever had sewn my cloth mask. I knew i’d never know or get to meet them, but i was grateful that someone had put the tiny white stitches into the textured pink fabric. They had come down with an order that everyone in the city was to have their mouth and nose covered when in public. That meant i couldn’t go to the gas station, the dollar general, or the post office without a mask. I guarded the thing as if it were gold and fretted to no end the one time i put it on the seat rather than the center console and thought it was somehow gone. At this time my sister began contacting our family members. She asked who needed masks. She said she had some fabric and was going to try to sew some. None of us wanted her to go to the post office. She’d been working from home and we wanted her to stay safe from possible exposure to the virus, but she wouldn’t hear of not going. She took tally of how many family members needed masks, got to work with her sewing machine, and divided the total number of masks created between us. Then she placed the masks into bubblewrap lined envelopes and sent them to us in the mail. She sent me 3. As i opened the package in the post office i realized she’d sent me a resource better than gold. And they were good thick masks too. They were nice and rounded so they covered the nose, mouth, and chin all at once. The straps tied around the back of the head, making them adjustable. My coworkers all wanted to know where i got mine. They were better fitting and more well made than most of the cloth designs we were getting our hands on. I had a coworker offer me 50 dollars for one mask. As for my n95s, i actually had a coworker offer me 100 dollars for one of those. She told me she had kids and to think of her baby that she was going home to at the end of the day before i decided whether i would sell her one of my four n95 masks that were supposed to last me until september. I didn’t need to think about it. The answer had to be no, for one reason. Everybody had kids and i didn’t have enough for everybody. If i sold to one person, all the others would want to know why not them, what about them and their babies? I began hiding my masks and my hand soap and refraining from admitting i had them as people offered me more and more money for the little bit of hand soap i had. I wouldn’t sell the masks my sister had made me either. She had made them for me with her own hands. People became jealous of the masks and started to get upset with me. They asked each other, “How come she has that kind and we only have these?” My frustrated mother replied on a phone call one night, “because you have a sister that loves you.” Indeed, my sister did love us, and from her own state she had created and sent these masks to make sure that we had some to wear in the community. I was proud of her for taking care of our family and i was grateful. I no longer worried about not having a mask to go to the post office in. She was doing her best to keep us safe.

Over the next few weeks people would find some of the people sewing masks in the community and go directly to them to buy some. It became the new quarantine job to have with everyone out of work. People began selling cloth masks for 5 to 7 dollars a piece. After people started getting some better fitting cloth masks in a variety of colors and patterns the masses forgot about wanting my sister’s masks and i relaxed a little bit. In times of scarcity, desperate people seemed capable of surprising things. I made a note of that.

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