About Vanessa

Tinker, maker, writer: Discovering my life’s passion

As I stared down at the sewing machine pieces scattered around me, I listened to my father calling out to my mother, “Sweet Pea! She’s doing it again. If she doesn’t have her nose in a book, she has a hammer or screwdriver in her hand.”

“What is it this time?” My mom asked.

“She took apart your sewing machine” was the response.

I could hear footsteps moving quickly in my direction. Oh no. Well, it would be ok, I reasoned. She’d understand. Eventually.

“Vanessa, what’s going on?” she asked. I looked around me with one raised eyebrow. Surely what I was doing was obvious. Plus, my dad just tattled on me. But I played along.

“Well,” I said, “I was sewing that new dress pattern and the sewing machine stopped working. It wasn’t jammed. Everything seemed OK. It just wouldn’t run. So, I decided to see what was wrong with it.”

My mom looked helplessly around my lavender-colored room, taking in the white four-poster bed, the many bookshelves crammed with books of all shapes and sizes. She then looked at the slightly crooked shelves I’d made filled with electronics and mechanical gadgets, all in some form of disrepair.

“But, honey, you have so many other projects that you’re still working on. Why don’t you finish those up before you start a new one?”

I sighed. This was going to be one of those discussions. Responsibility. Finishing what you start. Blah, blah, blah.

“Mom, you know that I really just want to figure out what’s wrong with something. It’s not nearly as fun putting it back together. But I could if I wanted to. Put it back together, I mean”

“Well…” my mom started, doubt clearly clouding her face.

“I can put it back together.” I assured her. There was no response. “You know I can put it back together, right?” I prompted.

Looking back, if I’d been a bit wiser that day and a little less mouthy, I would have paid attention to the shrewd look that crossed my mother’s face.

“Well,” she said, “you start so many projects… that book you were so excited about… You’ve taken apart the mixer, your dad’s old radio, the toaster oven, the blender…”

I stopped her before she could list more. “But I fixed the lamp and the VCR! I put those back together.” I said, only mildly overheating.

“Well, yes,” she said, “but I think that was because you wanted to use them.”

“Besides, you know I just want to find out why things stop working.” I said.

“Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to use them again since you went to so much effort to troubleshoot the problem?” My mom countered.

“OK, I’ll make a deal with you,” my mom said. “In any normal situation like this, I’d either pay someone to fix whatever broke or I’d go out and buy a new one. I will gladly pay you to fix and put back together anything on those shelves that still works, including my sewing machine. Then, you could buy those new books you’ve wanted to get.”

I was stunned. I could get paid to dismantle stuff? Well, and put it back together again. But, still. Really? Why had it never occurred to me to charge her for repairs? Shock held my tongue. But, not for long.

“I can get paid to do that?” I said aloud.

“Oh, yes!” My mother said. “People who like to do what you do become engineers or mechanics, or they work as repairmen. But I know you really want to be a writer.”

“Maybe I can do both?” I ventured with a child’s view of the possibilities.

“Love, you can do anything you put your mind to. After you finish fixing my sewing machine” my mom said, hugging me.

The adventure of a lifetime

 I stretched as I drove down Hwy 80. “Almost there,” I thought, looking for the tell-tale landmarks that told me more than the odometer how much further I had to go. “Where is it…?”

After a few more miles, I began to smell it. “Ah, there it is,” I said to myself, unable to keep the smile from my face even as I reached to close the air vent against the sickening sweet smell that reminded me of a bad marriage between cabbage and sewage.

Finally, I saw it. A miniature city. The biggest industry in the area for well over 50 years. Bright lights hitting the metal exterior nearly blinded me. Steam rose like clouds.

Yet, even as I was nearly overcome with the sensory overload, my mind and body begging for reprieve from the 13-hour drive, I could feel my energy rebounding. I was close.

Twenty-minutes later, I turned left onto Cedar Ave. Home stretch. I passed the museum and the school. The Piggly Wiggly-turned-farmers market. The theater. The police station already closed for the night. I smiled remembering the Police Chief was always home in time for dinner.

At the corner of Cedar and Washington Street, I turned right. This was my ritual. I loved the feeling I got when I reached the corner and saw the house. I paused longer than necessary at the corner. There it was, sitting tall on its pier and beam foundation, surrounded by magnolia and persimmon trees. Though small in footprint, this pink house, a former bordello, had always looked so majestic to me. I marveled that it had been standing for nearly 100 years. The stories this house could tell.

I pulled into the gravel driveway at the side of the house and turned off the car. The energy I’d felt just a short time ago now turning to nerves. I knew that once I walked into that house, my life would change forever.

I sat there, knowing I should go in, but giving myself a few minutes.

So many people had encouraged me not to do this. I was 28, single, my career was taking off. I had just accepted a management position and was growing a brand-new team from scratch. “Why would you shackle yourself like this?” they asked.

Why didn’t they believe that I didn’t feel shackled? My gut told me this was the right thing to do. Just as my aunt and uncle couldn’t turn their backs on the 18-month old girl whose parents were losing the battle with drug and alcohol addiction. How could I turn my back on the same child, now 3 years old, who, for half of her life, had been the subject of heated and heartbreaking court hearings?

I was here now, sitting in the driveway of my family’s ancestral home, because the birth mother, after a nearly 2-year battle with her demons, decided her daughter deserved a better home. She gave up parental rights, officially placing this beautiful toddler up for adoption.

My aunt and uncle, her legal guardians, were approaching their 70s and, though they wanted to keep her, they knew they were in no position to raise a young child.

Although I had always planned to adopt, I had a different timeline and life plan mapped out. But once I heard of this child’s situation, my heartstring felt as if Paul Bunyan was on the other end, pulling with all his might. How could I turn my back on her? It took a lot of deliberation, but I kept coming back to the same answer. Perhaps single-parent adoption in my 20s wasn’t in my plans, but I felt confident it was in a bigger plan for my life.

Now I sat, readying myself to go inside. I looked behind me at the packages I brought with me. I hoped she liked them. As I stepped out of the car, I felt the nerves dissipate. Anticipation quickly took its place. I was so close.

I picked up the packages and made my way up the stairs to the porch. I knocked and waited eagerly for my first glimpse. I heard feet moving quickly to the front door. The door swung open.

Expecting an adult, I found my eyes moving from my eye level down to where a little person stood.

“Hi!” she said. “Are you my new mom? Did you bring my pink ‘puter?!”

“Yes,” I said aloud with a smile spreading across my face. Yes, I said to myself. This is right.

That day, I started on the biggest adventure of my life.

Opening India

I stepped off the plane and slowly made my way through the throngs towards baggage claim soaking up the sight of women and young girls in a rainbow of saris and the sounds of the many languages being spoken around me.

I stretched, the tension in my neck lingering over the past few months as I’d been in a global hiring frenzy. Four countries in all. India was my last destination. The cause of that tension infiltrated my thoughts once again, “Are there going to be layoffs in the U.S. once the new team is hired?” one of my team members had asked.

“I can’t make any guarantees,” I’d said, my heart sinking. “Management is doing the best they can to support our request for more people, so we can handle the growing regional demands. Adding new people is never easy, but it’s even more challenging when they are so far away. But we each play a role in keeping our team as strong as we are now. My task is to find the best qualified people I can to fill a very challenging role. Your responsibility,” I said, looking them each in the eye, “will be to help me train them so they are successful. No matter what could happen, we need to operate as a team.”

As I grabbed my bags and went in search of the company driver, I hoped now that my words were enough and that I could deliver on my commitment to hire the best.

The following day, as I headed to our newly opened office, I again reflected on the work ahead of me. I could feel the weight of responsibility settle heavily on my shoulders.

Finding highly qualified candidates wasn’t the issue. This was India, after all, with a highly-educated workforce who had solid command of the English language. More challenging, however, was finding candidates with electrical, electronics, or computer engineering degrees, perhaps even people currently working as applications or design engineers, to entertain a career in technical writing. But I knew expectations were high as India would house my 2nd largest team, outside the U.S. Many eyes were on me to make this successful. India was going to be my proving ground as a young manager. No pressure.

I had several interviews already scheduled for this first week with more CVs coming in daily. Of the current batch, only 3 met the criteria, at least on paper. The first hire would be critical. Once I had that person identified, their skills would help the recruiters filter stronger applicants and help sway more engineers towards a technical writing career.

At the beginning of the 2nd week, I found her. Dimple. One of the best candidates I could have asked for, in any country. As I suspected, once she had accepted a position, finding more qualified candidates was a domino effect. Though I didn’t hire anyone else while I was in India those two weeks, I was able to grow the team quickly after I returned home.

I will be forever grateful for that business trip to “open up” the technical writing department in India. I grew as a leader, met amazing people (many of whom I’m still friends with), helped guide highly skilled engineers into a career path they hadn’t considered, and I fell in love with an amazing country which I’ve visited many times since.

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