Tuesday, December 15, 2009


The holidays are upon us. Most of our neighbors have their Christmas lights up and have decorated trees you can see through their front windows. Some yards have inflatable Santas and elves that magically inflate at dusk. Some houses have strands of white lights climbing the heights of palm trees and saguaros. Every evening, one can see chimneys blowing smoke from warm fireplaces inside houses...

But if you live south of the equator, Christmas is anything but a winter wonderland. Growing up in Argentina, Christmas day was often one of the hottest, most humid days of the year. No child wore flannel pajamas, no fire crackled in the fireplace, and mommy never made hot chocolate for everyone. Instead we wore our swimsuits stained with suntan lotion and drank chilly lemonade that in glasses covered with sweat. It was HOT. Santa was often seen in bermuda shorts with sun glasses.

Our school system in Argentina operated on the 3 month summer vacation, just as schools in the USA did. But our summer vacation was mid December until mid March. Sunlight was abundant - often darkness didn't settle in until after 9 PM. At night my dad would light 'mosquito' coils in each room, hoping those little buzzers wouldn't 'bzzzzz' in our ears while we tossed and turned and sweated.

Many of my school chums would return to the US for the summer vacation. Usually I would see my best friend on the last day of school in December - and then re-unite with her in March. She'd have spent the 'summer' in snow in New York or Michigan or Pennsylvania... She'd have new knitted scarves and gloves with a matching stocking cap. I'd have a sunburn and chlorine green hair...

My mother would find activities to keep us kids busy. Besides the daily 'homework' our school would have us do (3 sheets of work per day - math, grammar, social studies), mom would signed us up for swimming class, for diving class, for horseback riding, for baseball and soccer - and 'sewing' lessons for me.

Sewing. Hmmmmm. I never saw a sewing machine at the lesson. This was hand sewing/ stitching/ embroidery class. Class was every Monday, Wednesday, Friday afternoon from 1 until 2. Eight of us girls met at Mrs. Caroline Wessex's house, 4 blocks from my home.

Mrs. Wessex was of British royalty, of the House of Wessex. She and her invalid husband shared a huge tudor house with rose gardens in our Argentina neighborhood. Her husband never met us - he was bed ridden and hidden in some remote room. Mrs. Wessex taught her 'sewing' class in her enormous dark dining room - a room enclosed by giant buffet cabinets and huge straight-back chairs and a 20 foot long dining table. We all sat around this table, me on a dictionary on the straight-back chair so that I could reach the table top.

I rode my bike to her house, always arriving on time but certainly not in the appropriate British manner of a Lady. I was Mrs. Wessex's youngest student. All the other girls had attended her summer sewing class for years. These girls were older, more dignified, and already 'young ladies'. I was a tomboy, blowing in to her house wearing pedal pushers (with a matching patched top all sewn by own mother), untied tennis shoes on my feet, my hair a mess, and my sweat obviously not a 'glow' of a young lady.

When Mrs. Wessex agreed to 'have me' in her class, she told my mother that I was 'on trial' for three weeks. If 'I came around', I could continue in her class. You see, in her class, you not only learned how to embrodier and cross-stitch, but you also learned how to drink tea with your pinky in the air, how to discuss polite events, and how to sit VERY erect with your tummy tucked in. You learned how to be a LADY, just like Mrs. Caroline Wessex.  You never slumped, even when stitching. You sat erect, erect, erect! If Mr. Wessex called for his wife to attend to him for even one minute, we were NOT to relax, not to slump, not to rest our hands on the table top. We were to continue our project with our needles flying in the air and our conversations prim and proper (if we were allowed to speak at all).

Each of Mrs. Wessex's girls started at the very beginning - with an Annie Oakley embroidery piece. At the time, the Annie Oakley cowgirl was the best part of class for me. Annie's image was printed on a piece of muslim - her with her cowgirl hat falling off her head, her gun waving in the air as she pointed to her next target, her profile excited with life. Each student had to practice the 'outline' stitch (outlining with stitches Ms. Oakley) and then practice the 'satin' stitch, filling in Ms. Oakley's hair in blonde thread, blouse in blue thread and gun in brown thread. The gun was the hardest to do, so it was saved for last. When a student 'finished' Ms. Oakley, Mrs. Wessex graded the work. How well you did determined the project you were to move on to. BUT, before you could proceed to the next project, you had to UNDO all your stitching from Ms. Oakley! You had to carefully unthread everything, leaving no holes or tears or knots!!! Ms. Oakley was then washed and packed away for the next beginner student.

After my trial three weeks, I still had not complete Annie Oakley. I spent each class day sewing and then 'unsewing', all in trying to match the 'advanced' students' stitch work. Their stitches all laid flat and perfect, without twists in the thread or knots on the wrong side. I tried and tried and tried, but three days a week for three weeks, I failed.

Mrs. Wessex kept me in her class, but demoted me to pre-beginner. This is how my first project ended:

A tea towel.

I continued in Mrs. Wessex's summer sewing class for 4 years. I think my mom just wanted me out of the house for that hour, three times a week. I never graduated to advanced work. One of my chums made her mom a huge christmas table cloth, the edges embroidered in red and green. It was beautiful. It had matching napkins.

I made more tea towels. I think I became one of Mrs. Wessex's favorite students, however. She even let me rest my hands on the table when I grew tired of sewing.


Cafe Observer said...

It's great to know you live down where most of your neighbors have their Christmas lights lit up.

Up here, the great majority of us, the enlightened , are still in the dark.

Christy Pinheiro, EA ABA said...

Great story Brenda. You've led an exciting life-- maybe that's why you decided to settle in calm Arizona, hmmm?

Brenda's Arizona said...

But Christy, we all have stories to tell! And your blog gives me ideas...

altadenahiker said...

I can't see how Christmas is possible in the Southern Hemisphere. Perhaps even more distressing would be snow in July. On the other hand, maybe that just opens your eyes to a universe where everything is possible.

If you send me an embroidered tea towel, I'll send you a crudely done ceramic tile.

Carol said...

Well. God bless Mrs. Wessex! I think she really cared. I spent one Christmas years ago in a warm climate with Santa in shorts and lights on palm trees. It was quite a change coming from New England where we got snow in feet not inches.

Brenda's Arizona said...

Karin, it is a trade! How many tea towels do you want???? A couple dozen?

Carol, you are right, Mrs. Wessex did care. And class was fun - if stressful. She was quite a teacher of life.

FA said...

A lovely memory. But, It makes me glad that I got to do nothing, but play, during my "summer" vacations. In any case, I think that oyur early handiwork is beautiful. I'm sure that your mom thought so, too.