Out of necessity, my maternal grandmother, Catalina, had never been a housewife. Born in Ponce, Puerto Rico, in 1916, the second of 12 children (additional siblings had died at very young ages or were stillborn), she was raised in a traditional Spanish household. Her ancestors were from Spain, some possibly from the Canary Islands. From a young age, she helped my great grandmother, Clara, with household chores and the care of her younger siblings. My great grandfather, Segundo, laid down the rules: girls didn’t wear pants, his daughters couldn’t date unchaperoned. My grandmother’s education ended around the eighth grade. Because Puerto Rico was under US rule by then, she had learned English.
I have often considered my grandmother’s upbringing in light of the woman I knew growing up: a divorced single parent living in her own apartment in Harlem in Manhattan.She’d done radical things for a woman of her generation. She had married her first cousin Rafael—their fathers were brothers—who promised to bring her to the United States. Puerto Rico was a really poor island. My grandfather worked in sugar cane fields under the hot sun, the air heavy with humidity and filled with mosquitoes. My grandmother had a few miscarriages and stillbirths. And then in 1942, she had my mother, delivered by my great grandmother, her son—my grandmother’s youngest brother—looking on from close by. He was only about four or five.
A few years later, my grandfather kept his promise. He brought her to the states, hoping to fulfill his dreams of being a batboy for the Yankees. He never did, though he remained a loyal Yankees fan until he died. “Los jankees,” he’d say in his accented English. Instead, he worked in the Waldorf Hotel’s kitchens—years later, I found silverware in her drawer stamped with the hotel’s insignia—and taught himself bookkeeping.
Sometime early on, my grandmother grew tired of his drinking and suspected he was having an affair. They separated, and my mother stayed with her. Periodically, my grandmother sent my mother back to Puerto Rico to live with her parents in Ponce for months at a time because of her job. She needed to support herself and my mother. My grandfather stayed in the picture, visiting regularly and providing money for child support.
In the 1950’s, my grandmother worked long hours stooped over a sewing machine at the Eve Stillman lingerie factory in the Garment District. She’d arrive at work in stylish dresses or suits, felt wool hats, long gloves and high heels and change to a housecoat, just as the other women did. Despite Manhattan’s cold winters with its bracing winds sweeping up from the Hudson River, she never once wore pants. In that way, she obeyed her father, who had never known temperatures below 50 degrees, no doubt.
Grandma kept a Thermos of coffee or tea by her side. She took coffee, smoking and lunch breaks, per the ladies’ garment worker union rules. In the large room surrounded by rows of industrial sewing machines and cutting table, she hand-embroidered flowers and other designs on fine cotton or silk nightgowns, camisoles and other undergarments. She sewed delicate lace and transformed thin scraps of fabric into tiny bows and straps amidst the fabric dust, hissing irons and whirring sewing machines.The lingerie was sold at upscale stores, such as Bloomingdales and Henri Bendel, places my grandmother could never afford. The lingerie was popular with many Hollywood stars, including Joan Crawford, Debbie Reynolds, Ida Lupino and Barbara Stanwyck. My grandmother hand-sewed the lingerie for Grace Kelly’s trousseau, which she took with her to Monaco when she married its prince.
My grandmother took pride in her work. Sewing was more than a means to earn a living. She made clothes for herself and my mother. She bought yards and yards of heavy fabric, which she stitched into pleated drapes and sofa pillows. For her, sewing not only saved money, it was a hobby. She looked down upon store-bought clothing. Grandma believed homemade clothing was of better quality and proved to the world that you weren’t lazy. With a careful eye, she matched seams, sewed even stitches, tailored a dart here or there, took pains to make hem stitches invisible on the right side of the fabric. In stores, she’d examine seams and sneer in Spanish, “machine made.”
For a while, two of my grandmother’s sisters also moved from Puerto Rico to live New York. Mostly, though, my grandmother had no family around her, except her ex-husband. She enrolled my mother in boarding school—St. John’s Villa Academy elementary school—a ferry’s ride from Manhattan. She knew that my mother would be safe under the watchful eyes of the nuns. My mother, though, was not one to hold her tongue. After the first week in school, my mother was moved to the next grade. “She told us she already knew how to read and knew everything,” a nun told my grandmother upon arrival on Friday to pick her up.
When my grandmother told me these stories, half in Spanish, half in English, her hands were always occupied: making arroz con pollo or other Puerto Rican dish, knitting a sweater, crocheting a blanket, stitching on buttons, and always, a cigarette perched on her lips. The wispy smoke would drift upwards into her hazel eyes. I was riveted and asked her to tell me these stories again and again. Her life had become my own, some of the patterns repeated in mine. Perhaps these tales would help me adjust to my own circumstances.
I admit this: I also loved hearing about the stories she told about my mother when she was a little girl. I was amazed that my mother talked back at the nuns. She rebelled, answered the nun with sarcastic retorts, failed classes. We’d gone to the same boarding school. And yet. I emerged complaisant and quiet and fearful. She had driven the nuns crazy doing what seemed to me outrageous acts: reading novels hidden within her textbooks during class, chewing gum, getting demerits, sitting in detention. I had endured punishments as well, though never for any behavior remotely close to hers. I didn’t dare.
My mother and I did share one thing about boarding school: We both hated it.