Recently I read (and watched) a story about the first lie the author ever told as a child. Years later, the author — now a teacher — still vividly remembers the experience. Reading his story, I realized that my own first lie is just as indelibly branded on my memory.
I was four years old. It was my family’s first year living in a tiny cabin next to the Stikine River in British Columbia, where we trapped furs for income, hunted and fished for meat, and grew a huge garden full of vegetables that we preserved for winter food. In that remote place, there was no electricity, unless we used precious fuel to run a generator — something we did only on laundry days to run our ancient cylindrical wringer washing machine.
My mother’s sewing machine was a worn but elegantly beautiful foot-treadle-powered Singer sewing machine with a wooden cabinet and a painted metal head, which I called the “horse.” She doesn’t have it anymore, but I found a picture of a nearly identical machine (this one has a wooden cover that’s shown in a different photo; my mother’s allowed the top to rotate down into the cabinet) at Copycat Collector:
I loved the whir of the flywheel and belt and the rhythmic thump of the treadle when my mom sewed. But most of all, I was fascinated by the shining blur of the speeding needle.
My mother had been sewing one afternoon while I watched, when she found she needed something outside. “I’ll be back in a minute,” she said. “DON’T TOUCH THE SEWING MACHINE.” I had just learned how to time one minute on the clock. I sat myself down on a chair below the pear-shaped wooden clock my dad had made, and kept my eyes fixed on the second hand. It went all the way around one time, but my mother was nowhere to be seen. Perhaps I’d been mistaken in my attempt to count off a minute. I watched again. Still no mother. Clearly, she had gotten lost and was never returning.
Tears welled up, my chin wobbled, and I opened my mouth for a hearty wail — which was stopped, abruptly, by my realization that I was not just motherless, I was unsupervised. I could do whatever I wanted. I could…I could…
I could touch the sewing machine.
I approached the shining, forbidden machine slowly, carefully. Reached out one finger. Stroked the painted design. Strummed the leather belt. Examined the shining silver balance wheel (that’s the small wheel at the end of the head, for those that care). I gloried in the machine’s beauty, now all mine. Finally, I ventured to touch the most dreaded part of the never-to-be-touched sewing machine: the needle. I slid my finger under the point, relishing the delicate scratch of the sharp tool. Then I rested my finger below the needle, on the toothy feed dogs (the teeth that pull the fabric forward), and eyed the wheel speculatively. When turned by hand or by the belt connected to the treadle down below, the silver balance wheel put a series of hidden cogs into motion, causing the needle to flash up and down. I’d seen my mother turn the wheel many times with a practiced hand, to position the needle correctly or to boost the motion when starting a seam so as to put less strain on the leather belt. I was tall enough to stretch one hand to the wheel while resting my finger under that seductive needle. My mind raced with the possibilities. Finally, motherless, I could do what I’d always (I now knew) wanted to do: race the needle.
I was positive I could do it. Surely my finger could move faster than the needle. I would turn the wheel slowly at first, for practice. But I failed to take physics into account. Turning the balance wheel slowly still caused the needle to flash oh, so very quickly, right into my waiting finger. It slashed a red furrow into the side of my finger, which quickly welled with blood. I stared, aghast. My beloved machine had betrayed me. Suddenly, being motherless lost its appeal. I opened my mouth and bellowed: “MOMMMMMMYYYYYY!”
Instantly, like magic, there she was, wrapping me in her arms, soothing my tears, prying my hand open to see the source of the blood, and demanding sternly, “Did you touch the sewing machine?” And I, weeping with the shock of the needle’s cruelty, streaming blood from a needle-shaped gash in my finger, sobbed, “N-n-n-noooooo!”
For years afterward, I believed that I’d successfully convinced my mother that I hadn’t touched the machine. I wrestled with guilt and shame: I had lied to my mother. I had deceived. I was almost certainly going straight to hell. The experience was so wrenching — the lie, not the gash — that I never lied again. Ever. I bent the truth slightly on occasion; I evaded; I distracted and misdirected when necessary; but I never a lie. To this day, I can’t do it. It’s simply impossible. I relive the horrified, ashamed ache in my belly that came with the lie, and I just can’t manage it. And it’s all because I was betrayed by a beautiful piece of mechanical art.