My grandmother became a seamstress at the tender age of 18, not by choice but by need. Wars tend to turn people’s lives upside down, and hers was no exception. Before the Spanish Civil War, my grandmother had been the spoiled youngest child of a well-to-do merchant and his society bride. Destined for a life of comfort and affluence, her education had been steered towards keeping house, crocheting, knitting, and sewing. Summers were spent at “verbenas”, outdoor festivals celebrating Spain’s cultural heritage, while winters were enjoyed in a cozy mountain cabin. Friends came and went, and life seemed careless and fancy-free.

Everything changed with the start of the war. Soldiers occupied the streets, food was rationed, my grandmother’s brother was sent to the front lines to fight a war he opposed, and their father (my great-grandfather) was imprisoned.
After living in limbo for almost two years, the family was able to flee to America: first to Cuba and finally to Mexico. They were safe among a people who welcomed them as refugees, yet their lives would never again be the same.

My great-grandfather, a successful merchant in the “Old World”, found himself peniless and at a loss for business opportunities in an unfamiliar land. My great-grandmother, who had never worked a day in her life, worried incessantly about the well-being of her children. Their only son, emotionally shattered by his experiences on the front lines, spent the last few years of his life living with ghosts of the past. Their oldest daughter, a classic beauty and talented piano virtuoso, suffered from chronic asthma and bronchitis that eventually lead to her untimely death.

At 18 years of age and with only an elementary school education, my grandmother was forced to use her knowledge of sewing to feed an entire family. She labored tirelessly, sewing for the growing Spanish refugee community in Mexico City and slowly making a name for herself.

She married at 29 out of fear of becoming a spinster. He was a compulsive gambler who eight years later would abandon her and their twin offspring after losing their meager savings. Penniless but determined, my grandmother continued sewing and caring for two frail siblings, two elderly parents, and two children who never again saw their father.

As a child, I remember navegating through my grandmother’s workshop, mesmerized by the colored threads, the ornate fabrics, the delicate lacework, and the intricate beading that went into every one of her creations. By that time she was a well-known wedding-dress maker, able to copy the most fashionable designs of the great European couture houses.

My grandmother is now 85 years old and lives with her son, 2000 miles away from me. She shows early signs of senility and is hard of hearing, but she’s still as strong and independent as ever. When I had the chance to learn the art of sewing from my grandmother, I was too impatient and irreverent to appreciate the opportunity I was being given. (They don’t call it adolescence for nothing…)

This evening, I sat in front of my brand-new sewing machine, staring in vain at spools, needles and levers. I put down the sewing manual and sat in silence, regretting the loss of an opportunity that will never again be available to me.