Using Sewing to Bridge the Communication Gap

July 2, 2018

 Tina's mother is the second from left in the back row.


After spreading the fabric on the floor, my Lola grabbed her measuring tape, stood up and put it against my chest. Over and over again, she moved the measuring tape to different places on my body, and quickly jotted numbers down on a piece of paper.


I had just turned eighteen and my teenage self-centeredness and impatience robbed me from truly embracing what was happening. This visit was sacred and special. Prior to this, the only memories I had of my mom’s side of the family were brief phone calls on Christmas. Calling the Philippines was expensive and the language barrier made for fruitless conversations beyond simple questions and declarations of love. As a child, my Filipino family was a mystery to me. My mother painted this vague, hazy picture of her childhood and everyone she deeply missed. My youth was filled with memories of hearing my mother weep for her family and her home. With the years and miles between my mother and her parents  I thought they’d never be more than an occasional story for me and a distant memory for her.


Until, after 21 years of being away from her family and her homeland, my mom went back to the Philippines for the first time. My mother invited me to come with her, but I was a senior in high school,  and I refused, unable to  imagine that much time away from my friends. During those weeks while my mother was “home at last” I went about my life oblivious to the fact that the last time my mom saw her family, she was my age.


She came home with news of an impending visit from my Lola. While she was in the Philippines, my mom signed for her mother’s tourist visa. A flight was booked and at sixty-two years old, my Lola boarded a plane for the first time in her life.


I knew nothing about my maternal grandmother, except for what my mom, aunts, and cousins shared with me. She was a matriarch and a businesswoman. I imagined her to be something of a high-and-mighty Filipina queen minus the fancy clothing. I expected her to look at me with judgment and disdain. My sister and I were her only American granddaughters and our lives fell short of the typical hopes that most foreigners have for their first American generation. We were lazy students and we lacked lofty career goals. We chased boys and we slept in. We had no idea what we wanted out of life. All of our cousins boasted degrees in engineering, nursing, and other esteemed choices of study. Surely, she would make her disapproval obvious for the duration of her visit.


When my Lola walked off of that plane, rail thin but strong and held me in a tired embrace for a long time. Her cool hands cupped my face and she smiled. After we fetched her luggage and got into the car, I tuned out all of the conversation during the drive home from the airport. The two dozen Tagalog words I knew flew through the air between mostly indecipherable phrases. I could not be bothered to try and listen.


The weeks that she was with us, Lola made fish and rice for breakfast. She ate with her hands and always cleaned her plate of the tiny portion she would fix for herself. We didn’t speak very much- beyond simple questions, she didn’t speak any English. We sat in odd, awkward silence and exchanged kind smiles after meals.


One morning, my mother carried her sewing machine up from the basement. She boastfully reminded me about the nightgowns and dresses she made for me when I was little. Everything she knew about sewing she learned from Lola, and she decided that maybe I could learn from Lola as well. I had many half-finished projects and weak attempts at making beautiful things that I gave up on quickly. As my mother and Lola spoke Tagalog while motioning toward the sewing machine I imagined a harshly worded conversation about my laziness and lack of ability. I was mortified. Lola’s wide but soft eyes watched me as they spoke. Then she said “I teach you.” To me, this meant longer periods of awkward silence. I searched my mind for an excuse to decline her offer. My mother implored me to try and learn from her, reminding me that she had waited so long to finally spend time with me.


Lola told me “get your dress.”After she said it for a third time, I realized she was asking me to find a dress that I favored. I brought her a long rayon dress with cap sleeves. She held it up in front of her while examining the seams and the shape. She folded the dress in half and knelt down on the floor and placed it on top of the fabric. She showed me how to trace each piece of the existing dress onto the new fabric. Her hands guided mine while she gave gentle instructions that I didn’t understand. I shyly looked up at her before making any marks and she raised her eyebrows in approval.


My hands’ movements looked heavy and clumsy alongside her strong, swift dexterity. When I shrugged and hesitated, she locked eyes with me, handing me the marking tool, or the scissor or the pins saying, “come on, you do, you do” and I would follow wherever her fingers pointed. After we traced and cut everything, she sewed the new dress together within an hour. Sparing herself a search for the right English words to tell me to try it on, she motioned as though she was going to slip the dress over my head. When I put the dress on, she admired our handiwork and she admired me. Is this what I missed by being the American granddaughter? Could I have learned so much more from her if I’d lived near her my entire life?


The rest of her visit is a blur in my mind. I’ll carry regret for having taken those weeks for granted for the rest of my life. The only distinct memory I have of my Lola is one of her encouraging, insisting, and instructing with few words I understood. Her bony body springing up with ease after being crouched on the floor with me. Her dyed unkempt hair and mismatched clothing that adorned a woman who was confident and deliberate in her deeds and intentions. Is it possible to miss someone you barely know? Is it foolish to fantasize about a childhood that might have been now that so many years have gone by?


Tina and her mom on vacation. 


When I reminisce about our sewing lesson, I think of her careful instruction and her focus-- how her brow was wrinkled then raised and how her approving smile changed to a soft pucker when she pondered details and checked accuracy. I think of how she gently pressed her knowledge into me and how that single day instilled a trade and talent within me that has sustained me throughout my entire life. She died 3 years after that one and only visit. Perhaps I’ve missed her presence my whole life, but I might not have ever known just how much if not for my mother’s sewing machine. Making a dress with her is only a memory now, but every piece of fabric, every stitch and every cut and measurement, and the hundreds of finished projects that my hands have touched since the last time I saw her are a constant reminder that she has been with me ever since. As I pass this sacred trade on to my own children, it softens the pain of missing her and it keeps her alive within all of us. And whenever I catch a glimpse of my mother beaming with pride as she admires her grandchildren, I see my Lola in her eyes and realize that she’s been with me all along.


by Tina Plantamura 


Bio - Tina Plantamura is a seamstress by trade and a writer at heart. She lives on the NJ Shore with her family. Read more of her work at 

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