Since I was young, I’d associated my grandmother with being an animal loving, fiery tornado of a woman. She was the one who fed every stray dog in the neighborhood while raising four kids. But there are three words that I associate with her, above all other: The Ladies Shop. Her custom dress shop was a sanctuary for the women in her neighborhood, a place where dreams were woven.
The year was 1986, I used to sit behind the counter of the The Ladies Shop, pinning together a few scraps of fabric and trying to stay out of the way. One by one, women would come into the shop to talk to her. They would all ask for something they didn't quite have words for:
"I want something modern."
"I want something that fits well."
"I want something that no one else has."
I want something that makes me feel beautiful.
That last one was unsaid, but she knew. My grandmother always knew. Without another word, she would roll out yards and yards of silks, chiffons, cottons and voiles across the counter-tops. The ladies' anticipation would build with each layer of fabric until at last, a gasp of joy.
The choice was always different depending on the woman. Was it the teenager who had finally earned her freedom to make her own decision without her mother's interfering? Was it the young woman who was to be married the following week and needed an extra dosage of courage to face her in-laws? Or was it the harried mother who wanted something to cover up the scars life had ravaged upon her?
Often, it was all of these women during various phases of their life. The Ladies Shop wasn't just a place to get a new dress made. Instead it was a therapy session, a reading of a diary, a meeting with an old friend, a safe space. Each woman's story was woven into their new dress.
"Yes, that's the one." the woman in question would reach out and caress the fabric between her fingers. "This one." The fabric was then swept away to the master tailor to create a new coat of armor to protect the woman from the modern battle she was about to fight.
At the age of six, I didn't realize what an extraordinary thing my grandmother had accomplished. She was the first woman entrepreneur I'd ever known but more than that, she was both role model and fairy godmother to women when they needed someone to look them in the eye and really understand the secret dreams they had. And doing this in the 1960s wasn't just unusual, it was unimaginable.
Now 30 years later, I have finally stopped wondering why I have this voice in my head that tells me that it's my mission to empower the underserved and help them achieve those secret dreams, the ones they never tell anyone. The voice in my head is my grandmother’s voice. It's always been her voice commanding me to complete the mission she'd started over 50 years ago. I used to be afraid to embarking on this journey alone, but today I realize that I'm not alone. I have never been alone. She has been with me all along and she will be with me always: my muse, my role model and my fairy godmother.
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