Today would have been my grandmas 106th birthday.
My grandmother would bring me to the sewing factory with her in the afternoons when school was out, it smelled like fabric, and oil, and little like something was burning, that always brought up the anxiety in me. It was a safe place, yet a little scary at the same time; lots of machines, pressers, cutting tables, scary things; things that could hurt you if you didn’t know how to use them correctly.
The sewing machine next to my grandmothers was empty so that is where I set my bookbag and hung my red sweater; I always wondered why that space was empty. Lots of spaces were empty.
I would quietly walk around to visit each of the ladies at their machines, just stopping by to smile and maybe ask a curious question about what they were doing. Each one had a different job, one might be sewing the sleeves onto a dress, another putting the dress together, there was a process, it was methodical, I liked that.
They were all so nice to me, sometimes saving me a special cookie or piece of candy from their lunches. One always had a butterscotch for me, I liked that creamy buttery taste, it was something I had never experienced, but did not like the mint ones they were hot like a chili!!
I made the rounds, I was particularly interested in the woman who did the buttonholes, it was a special machine that was magic to me as a 7 year old. It sewed the thread all around then the opening was cut.
“How does it know how big to make the hole?”
“What if the cut is to long and it breaks the thread?”
“What if your finger gets caught?”
That horrified me!
It took several visits, and many questions to the lady with short curly white hair who was very tall, Josephine, to finally figure out that there was no magic to making a buttonhole. And I did find out what happened if your finger got caught one day when I spotted the band-aid.
Back then many of the woman in the factory were white and they all spoke some English. Even though grandma was from Mexico she spoke perfect English, she was proud of that and that she had become a citizen. The lady who set zippers, like my grandma did, wasn’t very friendly so I always skipped her, I realized later it was because she didn’t like my grandma trying to persuade her to register to vote.
One of the ladies in particular used to ask me if I was wearing lipstick because my lips looked like rosebuds. I would wipe my mouth with the back of my hand and show her that “no, no lipstick, see”! I was not allowed to wear lipstick! Even though my grandma was also an Avon lady and sometime would give us some of those little white sample tubes that would come by the dozen in the green plastic containers, we were only allowed the very light colors, and we only used those for dress up I explained.
The presser was always last, maybe because the big pressing machines terrified me, and my grandmother always said not to bother her, but Lupe was the youngest, probably 18, and she always would gesture, come over, say hello. I watched as she lowered the big pressing machine, ironing half a garment at once! I always wished I could bring my white blouses to be ironed here, they took me so long at home and I was so afraid of getting burned! Grandma had got Lupe the job there, she had not finished high school, I think grandma was afraid that I might distract her too much, she needed that job.
After I made the rounds I would sit at the empty machine, next to grandma and do my homework or read with the sounds of the factory in my ears.