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Phillip Tutor: Masks and a mother's love

Sheriff virus masks

Debbie Wade (Sheriff Matthew Wade's mother) sews virus face masks for the Calhoun County Sheriff and Deputies. Photo by Stephen Gross / The Anniston Star

Down in Alpine, not far from Sylacauga, Debbie Wade read the news, and it was ruthlessly bleak. The darkness was unabated: the spread of the novel coronavirus, the sickness, the deaths, the fear, the unknown. And there was nothing she could do.

Well, there was one thing.

“I’m not a seamstress,” she said, “but I can sew.”

So she started sewing.

And, yes, Debbie’s last name is the same as the Calhoun County sheriff’s because she is Sheriff Matthew Wade’s mother. She’s intrinsically connected to the sheriff’s office’s deputies and staff members. 

She’s cooked them meals of chicken and dumplings. She helps out at the department’s annual turkey frys. She’s a regular at the place. “I have to say, I think they like my cooking,” she said.

And she’s worried about those people, her people. Law enforcement are particularly exposed to the COVID-19 disease because they have no choice but to deal with the public and inmates. So she and her sister in Heflin, Stacy Gordon, this week began a two-woman crusade to provide every Calhoun County Sheriff’s Office employee a hand-made and washable face mask. 

That’s more than 100 masks, if you’re counting.

“I want my son and all the department to be safe,” she said. “You know, you just have to protect them the best you can. He’s my baby and I love all those people. They are always so nice when I go over there, they all give me a hug. They are just all special people.”

The masks are needed because of the way COVID-19 is transmitted — and because the dwindling global supply of medical-grade masks is one of the pandemic’s most grotesque traits. It’s an astonishing story.

“All over the country,” The New York Times reported this week, “homebound Americans are crafting thousands upon thousands of face masks to help shield doctors, nurses and many others from the coronavirus.”

Farhad Manjoo, an op-ed columnist at The Times, explained Wednesday that 80 percent of the world’s masks are made in China, where the virus began and exports have dramatically slowed. He wrote: “Given the vast global need for masks — in the United States alone, fighting the coronavirus will consume 3.5 billion face masks, according to an estimate by the Department of Health and Human Services — corporate generosity will fall short. People in the mask business say it will take a few months, at a minimum, to significantly expand production.” And that’s not good enough.

So Americans are sewing.

Debbie, a retired high school science teacher, didn’t have a pattern for face masks. So she did what everyone does today. She turned to YouTube.

She asked her sister — whose son, Kyle Gordon, is a Calhoun County deputy — if she wanted to help, even though she’s only had her sewing machine since Christmas. 

She said yes. And off to the Sylacauga Wal-Mart they went.

There each bought two yards of tightly woven cotton fabric and “inner facing” to help filter the air. Medical-grade masks are usually white or some other monochromatic bore. But not Debbie and Stacy’s. “We tried to pick out something colorful,” Debbie said.

They bought swaths of cotton cloth in varying hues and designs: blue-and-gray plaid, blue-and-yellow paisley, even cloth that looks like bandanas in shades of black and blue.

By Wednesday morning Debbie had already made about 20 masks and needed more cotton cloth. She’s eying a few yards that feature yellow and green polka dots. 

“We tried to keep in mind that there are men and women (at the Sheriff’s Office),” she said.

A yard of fabric yields about 13 or 14 masks. Each mask takes about 30 minutes to make, and here’s how they do it:

Using hand-drawn patterns, they cut shapes out of the fabric and inner facing. (Debbie’s husband, Jerry Wade, is helping with that chore.) They iron the inner facing to the cloth, essentially sandwiching it between two cotton sheets. They pin the ear straps — some are elastic strips; others are repurposed women’s headbands in bright colors — in place.

Then, they sew. Each mask requires about 15 minutes at the machine.

This home project born out of desperation will likely be finished by the end of the week, 100-plus masks made by two Alabama sisters looking to help, someway, somehow.

“You can split hairs about this that way or the other way,” the sheriff said, “but these two ladies care about their sons and the people who work with me. It makes me proud.”

And that their handiwork isn’t medical grade?

“These masks,” he said, “are made with mothers’ love.” Good enough, in other words.

Phillip Tutor — — is a Star columnist. Follow him at