The small but mighty pioneer who inspired me to start my own business
This story was originally written and published in Age of Empathy on Medium, in response to a writing prompt: Women Who Inspire, in honor of International Women’s Day, March 8, 2023.
I don’t know much about her life before I knew her. From the little I’ve heard, it wasn’t easy. She never gave any clues to her past. I only knew her present.
She gave me my first job when I was thirteen years old. She taught me how to make a product and sell it. She made me feel important, competent, and valued.
She was my Grandma C.
She’s been gone nearly thirty years, but she left an indelible impression on my life.
Grandma C was a pioneer. She owned her own business before women-owned businesses were in vogue. She was also a superb seamstress. She, and the vintage doll clothes she made, were renowned in the doll community. Handmade silk and satin period dresses, festooned with ribbons, bows, and intricate lace. Bonnets adorned with feathers. Handmade leather shoes. She carefully constructed them all.
I can still picture her sitting in her big chair in the corner of her living room, a lamp illuminating her hands while she hand-stitched her delicate dresses.
It was Grandma C who inspired me to learn how to sew.
When I was eleven or twelve, she bought me a tiny black vintage Singer sewing machine, and that’s what I learned on. Eventually I graduated to my mother’s Pfaff.
When I was thirteen, Grandma C gave me a job.
She paid me to sew. The fancy doll dresses she made were designed to be worn over the top of plain white cotton slips. Grandma C taught me how to make those plain white slips. She even bought me labels to stitch inside each one. They read, Made by Debbie.
One weekend, after I’d sewn up a large batch of slips, Grandma C invited me to attend a doll show with her. I packed up my slips, and Grandma C drove us to the Scottish Rite Temple. The words “Doll Show” lit up the marquee outside the large building.
When we entered the hall it was bustling with people.
Tables lined the floor, each one displaying dolls and various doll paraphernalia for sale. There were elaborate dresses covered in ruffles and lace. Hats and millinery supplies. Shoes, gloves, and undergarments. And, tables overflowing with exquisite fabrics, colorful ribbons, feathers, beads, buttons, and bows. It was a doll collector’s delight.
I followed Grandma C until we arrived at an empty table, covered in a clean white tablecloth.
“This is us,” she said, as she began unpacking her dolls and clothes and arranging them on the table.
“You can lay your slips right here,” she instructed as she pointed toward the end of the table.
I carefully placed my simple white slips, each with its Made by Debbie label sewn inside, on the table. Once everything was positioned to Grandma C’s satisfaction, we pulled up two metal folding chairs and took our seats behind the table.
I sat there with Grandma C all day as she talked to potential customers.
“This is my granddaughter Debbie,” she’d say beaming with pride. “She made all of these slips.”
She sold colorful silk and satin dresses, feathered bonnets, and handmade leather shoes. I sold plain white cotton slips. But Grandma C treated me like her partner. And I felt like a grown up.
Before that doll show, Grandma C had simply been my grandma, who happened to collect old dolls and sew vintage doll clothes.
I wouldn’t realize it until years later, but that day she became more than just my grandma. She became my mentor. My inspiration.
Grandma C didn’t just sew clothes, she owned a doll store, too. While Grandpa C went to work and did whatever it was he did, Grandma C worked in her store. I don’t remember how long she had the store, and I don’t know how successful it was, but it was hers. She must have been doing okay because she liked to spoil my siblings and me with her earnings.
One way she did that was to take us shopping for a new outfit to wear on the first day of school. I still remember the emerald green skirt and white ruffled blouse she bought for my first day of second grade.
I also remember what she told me when she bought it, “Don’t tell Grandpa. This is our little secret.”
Years before I was born, when my own mother was still a child, Grandma C left Nebraska, and Grandpa.
She moved my mom and uncle to Texas, to live with her sister. Mom never talked about this. I’m not even sure how I found out. But that’s pretty typical for my family. The mess was always kept behind closed doors. My knowledge of this potentially scandalous story almost feels rumourous. Except that I know it to be true.
Eventually Grandma C and Grandpa reunited and settled into a house in San Diego, overlooking the bay, where they lived the rest of their lives. Grandma C’s doll store was not far from that house. I wonder if it was her haven.
I never progressed beyond sewing plain white cotton slips for Grandma C, probably because my interests changed when I became a full-fledged teenager. I did however retain my love of sewing. I made myself clothes throughout junior high and high school. I even made my own wedding dress and veil.
When my husband and I bought our first house, we couldn’t access the money we needed for our downpayment in time to close escrow.
Grandma C stepped in. She lent us $10,000 so we could buy the little white bungalow with green trim. We paid her back a few months later when our funds became available.
We outgrew the tiny 700-square-foot bungalow as soon as our daughter was born. We sold it for a profit and bought a larger home. After our son was born, we outgrew that house, too. Six years after buying the little bungalow with Grandma C’s help, we bought the home we’d end up spending the next twenty-five years in.
We invited Grandma C over to see the big beautiful home we’d been able to buy, thanks to her help getting us started with the tiny bungalow. I can still see her sitting on my cream-colored leather sofa in the family room, a big smile covering her face. She looked so proud.
Grandpa had been gone close to ten years by this time, and Grandma C was still living in the house overlooking the bay.
The doll store was gone, but she was still sewing vintage doll clothes in her big comfy chair in the corner of her living room.
One Saturday, less than a year after Grandma C visited our new home, I got a phone call from Mom.
“Grandma is gone,” she said.
Grandma C had suffered a stroke a few months earlier and had been living in a nursing home. She was bedridden, slept most of the time, and no longer recognized us when we visited. And now she was gone.
After Grandma C passed, I found out she had left me, and each of my siblings, $10,000 each. I wondered if it was the same $10,000 she’d lent me years earlier to buy the bungalow.
Once again, Grandma C’s generosity would help me realize a dream.
My kids were in elementary school at the time and I was working in an advertising agency. It was a stressful, high-pressure job with long hours. It didn’t allow me to be the kind of mother I longed to be. I’d been considering opening my own business, but I was scared. Financially, it was risky. And I didn’t know the first thing about running a business.
But that $10,000 gave me the courage to do it anyway. That, and maybe subconsciously the fact that Grandma C had done it, too. She’d opened and run her own business. If she did it, so could I.
I ran that business for twenty-five years and never again had to sacrifice time with my kids to help support my family.
I wonder if Grandma C knew anything about running a business before she started sewing and selling vintage doll clothes?
I wonder if she was scared when she opened her doll store?
I wonder if Grandpa was supportive of her entrepreneurial efforts or if she just pursued them anyway?
I’ll never know the answers to these questions, but I’m pretty sure anything Grandma C did, she did because she wanted to do it.
She was tiny but mighty. Strong. A woman before her time in many ways.
I hope she realized how much of a pioneer she was.
I hope she knew she forged a path for me to follow.
And I hope she knew she instilled in me the courage to follow it.