The topic is healing, but that also implies not healing, and all that it implies. When life's tragedies strike, all the experts tell us that, especially for children, the talking, clarifying and erasure of guilt must begin immediately. And it must go on for as long as the child needs it, not for the convenience of the adults.
But this didn't happen in Maria's case. It had repercussions for her all her life. Maria grew up in Los Angeles in a traditional loving Latino family Both parents worked various blue-collar shift jobs. They were seldom home at the same time of the day and night. Maria was the oldest daughter and so it fell to her to do the majority of the cooking, sewing and caring for her five younger brothers and sisters. Her only other support was her Abuelita, her beloved Granny. It was her Abuelita who her taught her the traditional crafts of embriodery and fine sewing she brought from Mexico.
Abuelita also brought her heartfelt conviction that all white people had no problems. Look at the way they walk around, she'd snort. Heads up, eyes straight ahead, always in a hurry; never a hello, "por favor," or "muchas gracias." Maria believed her. Why shouldn't she? She knew no white people. except her bosses who walked around just like Abuelita described.
No one ever threw anything away. Clothes were washed, mended and carefully stored for the next child when she needed it. The family never managed to buy an electric sewing machine. Maria used the treadle model Abuelita brought with her from Mexico. Maria patched, hemmed and embroidered over all the little playground rips and stains that we would throw away at a glance. The family went to swap meets. Maria found fabric patches with Batman and Ninja Turtles. She used them as patches for all those little stains and tears. Her little brother's and sister's clothes looked the best on the playground. The neighborhood kids were jealous. She turned her father's shirt cuffs and re-hemmed them to look like new. When she had the time, she also sewed her own clothes. Most were of designer quality.
Maria made average grades but, after tenth grade, the family needed her at home. The children were getting older and Granny's health was declining. She found employment at a dry cleaners who also specialized in alterations, and she was good at her job.
But soon the owner was groping to remember her name. The store manager prompted, "You know, it's Maria, the little brown one." Maria overheard and the words seared into her brain like a branding iron. Her hot tears of silent rage spilled onto the slip-stiches and blanket hem stiches as she kept on working. However, she didn't come back to work for two days. There was no adult, no caring person to heal the pain at that very moment. And so it kept on growing.
Maria might have lived in her misery the rest of her life. But the year was 2007 and Ralph Lauren was launching his exclusive new Black Label line of men's clothing. The industry showroom was in the Downtown Garment District seven blocks away. Call it fate or whatever, but Maria decided to try to sneak in. She'd certainly hemmed enough of her father's pants and her brother's frayed shirt collars to earn an invitation. Just the idea of going was the first small, low, silent door through the passage to healing. Maria put on one of her 'designer'-made dresses.
The showroom was a different world. It was all chrome and black with dramatic lighting and beautiful white people studying the beautiful male models. But all Maria could think was, 'I'm the only little brown one.' Indeed, she was the only person of color in the room. She might have been comforted (and her granny dumbfounded) to know that Abuelita was wrong in the case of Ralph Lauren: he didn't spring full-grown in his designer duds. He was a Jewish boy from the Bronx who started his career selling ties.
As her demons roared she ducked to make her exit and ran into Ralph Lauren himself. Her demon voices had drown out the applause that greeted his entrance. To Maria, he looked like Prince Charming, and for a second he was. He glanced at her dress, or more precisely the workmanship of it, smiled at her and said, "Beautifully made, we don't see garments like that much any more." He smiled again and was gone.
His smile and his kind professional obervation healed Maria of the rawness of the past hurt. No one can heal completely, and her demons stayed with her. But she balanced that with Raph Lauren's smile and the few seconds it took him to be kind.
She never had a chance to acquire a formal education, or further training. But Ralph Lauren believed in her, if only for a passing second. That was enough.
Maria eventually rose to become an assistant costume designer on a network television show. But she followed in the footsteps of her family in fearing and distrusting doctors. Her Abuelita died of cervical cancer in 2011, and Maria followed in 2013. It all could have been prevented so easily.
But while she was here she found some inspiration and resolution though a stranger's smile. Sometimes healing starts as simply as that.
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