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Local woman's heart is in Chile

The jacket needed to be repaired and the man, a new customer, asked when it would be ready.

Tamara Johnston was as nice as she could be under the circumstances. It might be three weeks, the owner of Frank The Tailor shop said.

“I have to go to Chile,” Johnston explained. “My mother is there and ... ”

The man understood immediately, wished her well and left.

The scene repeated itself a number of times Thursday morning.

Some regular patrons like Maggie Gibbs already knew what Johnston had been going through since her native country was hit by a 8.8-magnitude earthquake last Saturday, killing hundreds.

“I’ll pray for you,” Gibbs said, embracing the diminutive 61-year-old seamstress before leaving with her garments.

Johnston wiped her eyes.

“My customers are so sweet,” she said. “Everybody’s been so kind. I’m speechless.”

Johnston was beyond that a week ago.

She had arrived at her shop before 6 a.m. when the phone rang not long after.

It was her son, Sam.

“Mom, do you know what happened in Chile?” said Johnston, recalling his words.

He told her and she returned home immediately.

Johnston saw the TV reports and began calling family in Chile.

Her mother in Parral. Siblings in Chillan, Concepcion, Santiago and Talca.

“No answer. Nothing,” she said.

Johnston finally reached her sister, Lucy, who works for the Red Cross.

Their mother Javiera’s house had collapsed, but she had survived and was staying in temporary quarters. Yet the earthquake’s aftermath had exacerbated the woman’s fragile health. She is 85, diabetic, has high blood pressure and suffers from an inoperable brain tumor.

So this past week Johnston has been working longer hours to be able to take off and be at her mother’s side.

“I want to go there, see what the situation is,” she said. “I want to give her kisses and say, ‘I’m here.’ I can’t leave Mom where she is now. Winter is coming to Chile and it will be too cold for her.”

There is another reason for Johnston’s urgency.

She remembers well Chile’s 1960 earthquake, the most powerful ever recorded at 9.5.

Johnston was a child living in Villa Rica.

“It was horrendous, the ground opening and closing,” she said. “You think you may not be alive anymore. You think it’s the end of everything.

“I was only 11, but I will never forget.”

Johnston will be in Chile with her family for about 10 days, taking the emotional and financial support of customers and neighboring businesses with her.

“I’m heartsick,” patron Sally Hughes said at the shop. “I’d do anything for her.”

Next door, Hair Works Plus salon owner Jennifer Hughes — no relation to Sally Hughes — and her staff gave Johnston a donation.

“Tamara is a kind, wonderful person. She’s got a big heart,” Jennifer Hughes said. “As soon as I heard about Chile, I thought if I’m going to help anybody, I’m going to help somebody who can take my help right there to people who need it.”

Johnston was moved by the generosity.

“They are amazing,” she said. “I am from another country where we always help each other. So this means so much to me.”

Vin Mannix, local columnist, can be reached at 745-7055, or write him at Bradenton Herald, P.O. Box 921, Bradenton, FL 34206 or e-mail him vmannix@bradenton.com. Please include a phone number for verification.

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