DESPITE losing both her legs to diabetes, Vascena Griffith, 83, continues to sew scores of school uniforms, work clothes and even wedding gowns.
This Crab Hill, St Lucy resident, affectionately known as “Ma” – not only sews for her eight children, 24 grandchildren and 21 great-grandchildren, but also for many residents in the parish of St Lucy where she spent all her life. She started sewing at age 12, but it was two years later that she started using her skills to earn a living.
“My uncle had a girlfriend who used to do needle work and I would sit and watch her. And my mother was always going to town and buying cloth, so I would go home and make clothes for dollies; the same styles she made I did too. And I practiced with that and then at about 14 years I went out at a lady who used to live out by the St Lucy Primary School, her brother was the schoolmaster there and I used to go there and do little sweeping. I was going and studying needle work with her too. I picked up the needle work just so and I was working steady then from the time I was 14 years,” recalled Griffith, before beckoning to one of her daughters about where to locate a plastic bag containing some already cut school uniforms she wanted to sew.
In 2007 something tragic happened. Griffith, who was earlier diagnosed with diabetes, had no idea her condition was worsening. She said it was first the big toe on her left foot that “went bad” and she had to get rid of it.
“So then another little toe let go on me and I went to the hospital with it,” she said.
It was then she got the news that he left leg had to be amputated. As if it was yesterday, Griffith said: “The foot got cut off on the Easter bank holiday on a Monday. That was 2007, and by the Wednesday I was back here in my house.”
The God-fearing woman said one day while sitting close to the front door of her house, she was involved in an incident which caused her to be knocked out of her wheelchair and soon she found out that something was wrong with a toe on her right foot.
Junette John, one of Griffith’s daughters said her mother was once again admitted to the hospital. All her children were called in so they would collectively make the decision about severing the right leg since it was rapidly deteriorating.
“We went back to her after we made the decision she said ‘you see here, they say they want it and they going ‘long with it, I started to cry and she said ‘what you crying for’?” recalled John as she smiled.
“The right foot was cut off in December 2008,” she added.
Griffith, who attends the Crab Hill Wesleyan Holiness Church, said when she had to get the feet removed she “just keep trusting in God, keep praising God and ask God to give me health and strength and the grace to keep me going on. And God help me”.
Never once did she think about putting away her sewing machine and giving out her grandchildren and great-grandchildren’s clothes to be sewn by someone else.
“She would tell us ‘don’t carry my grandchildren school uniform nuh place, I will make them’. I have dresses she made for me for work. All of us get clothes made, even outsiders get clothes made. She made my wedding dress,” quipped John.
“I sew for people all over this Barbados when I was young and good on my two feet. I sent out a lot of brides, everybody. And now when it is back to school time I would work all through the night. I would work all the outsiders’ clothes first and then tend to me and my children afterwards,” added Griffith.
After breakfast each morning Griffith would start her sewing at about 10 a.m., pause for lunch at about midday, and according to her, “if I feel tired I get a little break and sometimes lay down for a little five or ten minutes then get back up and go on the machine again and work until about 6 p.m”.
A family member would put a flat piece of board on the centre table where she did her cutting. Afterwards they would take the sewing machine, which uses a presser foot, and place it on that same piece of board and she sews right there.
Griffith presses the presser foot using her right arm as she guides the fabric along the feeder with her left arm.
To take the measurement Griffith explained: “They would come to the bed and I sit on the bed and ease forward to them and do the measurement. When I can’t get down to do the skirt I call one of the others and tell them where to measure.”
But sewing was not the only skill Griffith used to touch the life of many in a positive way. She also ensured that anyone visiting her home was fed a hot meal.
“Every child in this neighbourhood used to come here. This is an open house. She has a big pot and anybody in the district could turn up and she takes out food and gives them. She always cooks 12 pints of rice. She uses a pint tot to measure it, up to now I still use one,” said another of her daughters, Carol Griffith, through giggles.
“Before she lost her legs she would care for everyone in the neighbourhood. Everybody children would come here and they enjoy themselves and play,” she said, to which her mother nodded in agreement.
The elderly woman said when she was attending school she had to walk for miles in order to get to and from school and in those days she “did not wear school shoes, it was pumps that I wore.
“If anybody was sick, my grandmother would get her husband or my father to saddle the donkey and put the body in the cart because we couldn’t get any cars at that time,” she recalled.
Griffith said every month her huge family would come together for a reunion, and most evenings all of her children who lived in Barbados came by and visited her after work to make sure she was doing well.
The elderly woman said she had no idea how long she would continue to sew but once the Lord gave her good health and strength she intends to continue.