My abuela – my grandmother – is a very special person to me. She was the one who I observed balancing her checkbook that led me to my debt free journey. Many of her struggles in life were constant reminders about the sacrifices that were made in order to live financially free in the golden years. But there is one story that was has not been told that showed her overwhelming love for her family and that she was willing to cut her career short for that love.
In January 1993, my brother Alex was born. We were so excited to have another brother join the brood as there were four girls and one boy ahead of him. This birth did not come without complications as my brother had to be delivered via C-Section. The cord was wrapped around his neck and his heart rate started plummeting. Grateful for modern medicine that they were able to get my brother delivered less than 10 minutes from the beginning of the issue.
With that complication came the need for additional recovery time and help for my mom. There were four of us in school and a toddler running around the house. We definitely needed someone to help out for a week with the new baby and to help my mom around the house since she needed additional recovery time. Without hesitation, my grandmother volunteered to help us out.
However, the decision was not taken well by my grandmother’s employer. Her new career, after moving to US from Cuba, had become sewing alterations at a high-end clothing store in Palm Beach. Anyone who knows Palm Beach knows that doing alterations at one of the stores on Worth Avenue (the Rodeo Drive of Palm Beach) means running into high-end clientele – like people who have hospital wings named after them. And because my grandmother was extremely talented, she was often asked to do special fittings – including a private fitting for Joan Rivers after the store had closed for the day (PS – my grandmother said Joan was one of the nicest people she had every met –“I don’t care what anyone says about her!”). Of course, the store did not want to lose out on her being available to its customers.
Instead of recognizing the long-term value my grandmother had provided over the years, the management took a short-sighted approach and told her that she could choose her job or her family (this was literally a month before the Family Medical Leave Act was signed into law). If she chose her family, she would be fired. In my grandmother’s eyes, there was no other choice to make than to be with her daughter in a time of need. Family always came first and was viewed as the most important thing in life. So, my grandmother packed her bags and flew to Minnesota to help out my mom.
But this is not where the story ends. This is where the story takes an amazing turn. When my grandmother got back to Florida, she started carrying on with her life. At age 67, she could have retired. But several weeks after she got back she got a phone call from her former employer. They were begging her to come back. There were many customers at the store that would specifically request my grandmother for alterations because of great work she did. When the store told these customers that my grandmother no longer worked there, they were furious.
My grandmother, however, was a smart cookie and didn’t want to go back to a place that didn’t appreciate her in the first place. So instead of going back to her old employer, she decided to set up shop in her own home. Word got out to her old clients and soon she was just as busy as she was when she was working full-time in the store. In fact, she was so busy that she was able to be selective about the work she took on. She continued working out of her home with some of the biggest movers and shakers of Palm Beach as her customers until her mid-70s. One of those working years, she and my grandfather were able to put $55,000 towards paying off their mortgage. And the best thing is that she was able to continue working on her own terms, not at the beck and call of her employer.
I love thinking about this family story because it clearly demonstrated to me that while we can plan and worry and try to strategize when it comes to money, at the end of the day, it truly comes down to what we value in life. My grandmother was willing to risk her stable, 9-5 job to take care of larger priorities in life. And in the end, the move was much better for her overall because it gave her the opportunity to freelance on her own terms. You can hem and haw over retirement savings plans and try to cover any risks through adequate insurance (including an emergency fund). But at the end of the day, life will still challenge to make tough choices, no matter how well prepared you think you may be.
My family is grateful for the sacrifice my grandmother made in that moment – what a true testament to the love and dedication she has for her family. And now it’s our turn to take care of her. Because that’s what family does. And we will never regret that decision.