SALT LAKE CITY — The trip down the stairs takes a little longer now, with the aches a daily reminder that she is, after all, 99. But put MaRee Nelson in front of her favorite sewing machine, and the magic begins.
Three hours or less is all it takes for her to turn out a new child’s sundress or nightgown, beginning with a bolt of floral fabric and ending with a colorful bric-a-brac trim. In between, there are button holes to make, armholes to cut out and hems to stitch, but the routine is so familiar to her hands and her heart that Nelson never needs a pattern.
“Everyone should have a passion in life,” she says, settling in front of one of the three sewing machines that take up a corner of the basement in her east-side Salt Lake City bungalow. “I guess you could say that sewing is mine. But the thing I like most about making a new dress is imagining a little girl wearing it. That’s what is most fun: giving everything away.”
There is no telling how many handmade dresses, skirts, shorts and shirts Nelson has given away since she started sewing at age 12, but the number must surely reach into the high hundreds, perhaps even a few thousand or more.
“She can’t wait to wake up each morning and make another outfit for a granddaughter, a neighbor girl or somebody in need,” says Nelson’s daughter, Pam Brinkman, who suggested that I join her and her mom for a Free Lunch of takeout turkey sandwiches at Nelson’s home.
“She gives away dresses to everyone: the receptionist at the doctor’s office, a new family at her church, the guy who fixes her sewing machine. I know that she’s doing OK and is feeling good if I call her and she’s sewing. If my mom goes a day without sewing, then I know it’s time to worry.”
Nelson grew up during the Depression in the small town of Roosevelt, Utah, but never had to do without the latest fashions. One of her early gifts was the knack to draw what she’d seen in department stores and then create similar designs for herself and friends.
That talent came in handy years later when daughter Pam needed new school outfits, a pep club uniform or a prom dress. “We’d go to the mall, I’d show Mom what I liked and she’d come home and duplicate it,” recalls Brinkman, now 63. “I always had an amazing wardrobe.”
A former home economics teacher at Hillcrest High, Nelson never thought she’d still be sitting in front of a sewing machine at age 99. “I don’t know where the years have gone,” she says, “but I’ve sure had a lot of fun getting here.”
On her 99th birthday, her children and grandchildren “kidnapped” her in a limousine and drove her to some of the most important places in her life, including the house she was born in on Salt Lake City’s west side, the neighborhood where she lived while going to college and the Salt Lake City LDS Temple she enjoyed visiting with her late husband, Elmo. Her 68 great-grandchildren then gave her presents with a “99” theme. There were 99 chocolates, 99 flowers, 99 safety pins, 99 buttons — everything, says Nelson, except “99 bottles of beer on the wall.”
“I don’t know how they’ll top that for my 100th,” says Nelson, who admits to two vices: a daily glass of diet cola and a couple of dark chocolates. “I know the day is coming when I won’t be here, but at this moment, I feel like I still have some living to do.”
There is a large pile of fabric waiting in the basement, and her cabinet drawers are full of zippers, buttons and bows, ready to adorn a few dozen more “giveaway” dresses.
“As long as I can make it down the stairs every morning and my eyes and hands hold out,” she says, “I’m going to keep at it. The kids take the clothes about as fast as I can make them, and that’s how I like it.”
It’s nice to feel needed, she says, at age 99.
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Cathy Free has written "Free Lunch" since 1999, believing that everyone has a story worth telling. A longtime Western correspondent for People magazine, she has also worked as a contributing editor for Reader's Digest.