December was the most hectic month for my stay-at-home working Mom. As a sought-after dressmaker among middle-class women in the capital, Georgetown, Mom had little time for Christmas shopping, home decoration, and preparation of our traditional Christmas dinner specialties. Guyanese love to party. The Christmas and year-end festivities meant parties galore: office parties, nightclub parties, and house parties. The greatest fete of all was the Old Year’s Night Ball to welcome in the New Year with a bang.
As early as October, to ensure that their dresses were done on time, Mom’s clients who had several functions to attend would start bringing in their dress materials. For the Old Year’s Night Ball, no expense was spared when choosing the best imported fabrics. Clients could select designs from fashion magazines—JC Penney, McCall’s, Sears, and Vogue—Mom made available. A few clients brought clippings of photos from women’s magazines featuring the rich and famous. At the time, Audrey Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor, and Jacqueline Kennedy were the rave. I enjoyed a front seat view of the woman’s world of dolling up for parties and other social events to attract a mate or to hold onto your man or husband.
I was a thirteen-year-old teenager in high school when Mom began sewing for three attractive working-class women of Portuguese descent. All in their twenties, the three friends worked in the office wing of Bookers Guiana General Store. To protect their identity, I’ll call them Catherine, Marcella, and Yvette. Catherine was the most beautiful with hair and features to rival those of the French actress Catherine Deneuve. Yvette had muscular shoulders and arms from playing tennis at a competitive level. Marcella was a dark-haired beauty like the American actress Rita Morena in West Side Story (1961).
Marcella filled Mom’s sewing room with her vivacious personality. During her visits, she spilled the latest gossip of who was “sleeping with” whose wife or husband. She poured out her woes about dating and in dealing with the men in the office. Mom was an excellent listener. I soaked it all in while I assisted Mom with the handwork. Relations between men and women were complex affairs.
Of the three friends, Marcella was the most daring in her fashion choices. Her outfits had to cling to every curve and enhance her not-so-ample breasts. With aspirations of marrying into the white and Portuguese upper-class, she was intent on capturing the eyes of her “prince charming.”
I admired Marcella’s determination but did not share her dream. By fifteen years old, I had decided to entire the convent after graduating from high school. Mom was not at all pleased when I told her. She insisted that I continue to mix with boys, go partying, and to work for a year before making such a decision. Not wishing to create any more friction between us, I complied with her demands.
A month before my sixteenth birthday, Marcella married her prince charming. He was the youngest son of the owner of a soft drinks factory. Mom made the wedding gown and those of her bridesmaids, Catherine and Yvette. My younger sister and I had the task of sewing on the sequins and beads of the wedding gown.
I was eighteen when Mom dolled me up to attend my first office staff party during the year-end festivities. The young man who invited me as his guest was a friend of my cousins. Marcella, then a mother of an eighteen-month-old daughter, took me to her hairdresser to have my hair styled and later that evening, she dropped by to apply my facial makeup. My acne disappeared beneath the mask. Mom made a figure-flattering, emerald-green, empire line, sleeveless, Chiffon party dress. I felt pretty.
On Old Year’s Night, my best friend and her boyfriend had arranged a blind date for me so that we could party together at a night club. Getting dolled up for the last and biggest night of the year came with its own stress. For two hours at the hairdressing salon, I watched the steady flow of women get their hair styled before it was my turn. With Mom under pressure to finish her clients’ outfits on time, I had to contend with wearing the same emerald-green dress. Around eight o’clock in the evening, while she waited for Mom to do the final adjustments to her evening gown, Marcella worked her magic on my acne-pitted face. My blind date never showed up at ten o’clock, as planned. What a let down! My best friend’s boyfriend apologized for him: “He’s terrified he’s not a good dancer.” No blind dates ever again.
During the years following Guyana’s independence in 1966, Catherine and Yvette joined the exodus of the minority Portuguese-Guyanese population to Western Europe and North America. Settling in Canada, they both later married white Canadians.
I was in the convent when Marcella and her husband separated and filed for divorce. Her second marriage to an older man and successful businessman, also of Portuguese-descent, was happier and enduring. They migrated to Texas with their son and her daughter from her first marriage. Though I lost touch with her after they left Guyana, Marcella always held a special place in my heart. She was the inspiration for my character Gloria Cheong in my debut novel, Under the Tamarind Tree.
Marcella will no longer be dolling up for her husband this holiday season. In April, she died of pancreatic cancer. My heart aches. Yet, I’m joyful in remembering the time spent with her.