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Illustration by Chelsea O'Byrne

First Person is a daily personal piece submitted by readers. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines at tgam.ca/essayguide.

Latif likes the flowered material. We’re using the last of my mother’s summer dresses, the ones she sewed herself, to make face masks. I felt odd cutting it up. Tiny pink roses and bluebells, rather like the spring scillas that are coming into bloom in my garden.

She had wanted to live to experience one more spring. My partner, Gus, and I had set her up in the back room of our small house, a room that was sometimes a guest room and sometimes my office. We had hung a birdfeeder outside where she could just see it from her bed. But she died before the spring and before the birds found the feeder. But she wasn’t unhappy. Her life had been long and productive. Not perfect, but she had found a way to accept it and to be happy.

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Taking apart this last dress, tearing out tiny careful stitches, sewn by her hands. Cutting the cloth. Picking up the threads. Remembering her room, before she moved in with us, strewn with those stray threads. Those little end bits one must cut each time a line of stitching finishes. All the shopping bags and handbags and little change purses she made to sell for charity.

Latif, the new occupant of my mother’s last room, a young refugee from Afghanistan, has taken over the sewing of these masks. Eventually, he’d like to make a shirt from material like this. He says it’s hard to find men’s shirts in colourful floral patterns. Many of his family members are tailors and have been for generations. He learned to sew on his mother’s hand-turned machine. The same style of sewing machine on which my mother taught me to sew.

Here I am introducing him to the idiosyncrasies of my old machine, one I hadn’t used for many years. I was surprised to find that it still worked, with all of its quirks. I tell him: You must remember to pull the thread by hand before you cut it at the end, because the tension no longer releases automatically when you lift the foot. Latif takes to it easily. He recalls hemming his pant legs to fit when he would take over his fashionable older brother’s pants. The sewing is familiar but the words are not. “Bobbin.” “Seam allowance.” “Tension.” “Bias.” Words with double meanings. Latif’s English is perfect, but his vocabulary hasn’t gone into the rabbit-hole of sewing before.

I cut out the masks as he sews. We sing along to his music – today we listen to One Direction. He surprised us one day as he sang along to Gordon Lightfoot’s song Sundown, knowing all the words. He and his brother had fallen in love with it when they heard it in a movie or television show. They searched and found the song and practised it until they knew it by heart.

I started the sewing a few weeks ago, before we came out of our deep quarantine, when Latif was isolated in his little room. His doctor diagnosed him with COVID-19. He wasn’t tested. She didn’t recommend that, but when he lost his sense of taste and smell, along with his other minor flu-like symptoms, she guessed it most likely that he had it. She told him to stay in and advised us to isolate from him and to self-quarantine for two weeks.

Luckily, his room is adjacent to a bathroom and a short hallway off the kitchen. He jokes that he has claimed that little back room as part of Afghanistan. It also has direct access to the back garden and laneway. Latif was worried that he had infected us. He had been working at a hardware store when the province began the lockdown. He had enjoyed the work, hard but satisfying. Going to work was good. Before that, he had spent time at the Y, where he had a discounted membership, and he’d found the local youth drop-ins were a place to go where there were others his age. He found the young people there, street kids, often with mental-health issues and addictions, were worse off than he, but there was much he recognized in their struggles. Much that was familiar from Kabul. But now at the hardware store, with these new physical-distancing measures, he was nervous about the lack of care taken at the store. He was watching how the virus was spreading back home. He was worried about his family. And here – was he going to bring this thing home to us?

I am in my late 60s; Gus, in his 70s. But we encouraged Latif to stay at work. He was making some money. He was being productive. He continued to worry, and finally decided it was too much. On Thursday morning, he didn’t think he should go in. We encouraged him to go and give his notice in person. It wouldn’t be right to phone and leave a message, we said. So he went. A few days later, his doctor diagnosed him with COVID.

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We laughed as much as we could through those tense two weeks. All of us a bit nervous. We set Latif up with a kettle, some dry foods and a small table outside his door where we would deliver his meals. Gus did all the food preparation – he always does our dinners, but during this time, he also served Latif his breakfast and lunch. We joked about how it felt as though we were serving a prisoner. We handled all the used dishes with plastic bags covering our hands as we transported them straight to the dishwasher. Somehow neither of us developed symptoms. And Latif got better.

Now, he’s sewing face masks. And waiting with the rest of us to begin life again. Do you think they are still processing applications for permanent residency? He wonders about his application for work. It’s unlikely to come through anytime soon. And what about university in the fall? So many lives on hold.

I hesitate, as I hold the fabric of my mother’s frock between my fingers and measure and cut the face masks. Time stops momentarily, as I experience the sensation of destroying something precious. I mark the passing of what would have been her 98th birthday, only a few weeks past the one year anniversary of her death. So much has changed.

Mary Newberry lives in Toronto.

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