Jan 20 2014

How Fitting

The saleswoman directed us to the fitting room, a long row of closets where we could undress and try on our selections. Short-pants and I had toured the lingerie department thoroughly, in search of new bras. We used to find them easily in the girl’s section, the starter bras for budding young women. I’d noticed the week before that those easy-to-buy standards were not only a bit ragged, they were too tight. It was time to buy her a real bra.

I’d wager that most women remember the acquisition of their first bra, and not always happily. It’s a question – and I’ve asked different circles of girlfriends over the years – that’s always met with groans. How could such a simple step into womanhood have so many unpleasant stories? My experience is a classic example: My mother, noting that my nipples were popping through my favorite striped turtleneck sweater, drove me to McCurdy’s department store. It was “out of town,” meaning it was a 30-minute drive (that was a good distance in those days) so you didn’t go there for every-day things. It was a special trip. This was where we went to do Christmas shopping, or to buy back-to-school clothes. I remember coming home after those late August shopping trips and laying all the new outfits on my bed and feeling the discordant mix of excitement about going back to school along with a deep sadness about the waning of summer and its late sunsets long after dinner, stretching the hours of play to the maximum.

In the same shopping plaza as McCurdy’s, there was a lingerie store called The Ethel Abraham Shop. It was classy place. My underwear worldview, in house_of_underwearthose days, was fairly polarized. You bought underwear at a department store like McCurdy’s, or by mail-order from Frederick’s of Hollywood, which was reserved for people kinkier than my mother or her circle of friends. Lingerie was an evocative word. It spoke of the unspoken: sex. Or so I thought, until Ethel’s little boutique became part of my awareness. Its balance of quality silk and satin with just a very tiny hint of sensuality (at least what ended up in our home) opened my mind to the possibility that you could wear silky underthings without being one of the models in the Playboy magazines I’d found stacked in the bottom drawer of an old junky cupboard in the backroom of our house.

Sitting in the passenger seat of my mother’s turquoise Chevy Impala, I pictured us going to Ethel Abraham’s, imagining what it would be like to walk out of the store with one of her distinctive boxes. They were usually plain on the outside, but when opened a bright flowering print exploded from the interior of the box. A metaphor, I suppose, for the lingerie she sold: something beautiful but kept inside, hidden beneath a simple, unremarkable exterior. My father used to go to Ethel’s on the day before Christmas and pick up gifts for the women in his life: my mother, his sister and his mother. The shop carried a lovely array of nightgowns and robes, silky and lacy and soft to the touch. One year he gave my mother an elegant pink quilted robe that came in a long flat brown box. When she opened the lid, her face conveyed her delight. The robe was folded in the bottom of the box and I couldn’t see it until she held it up for us, but I knew right away it was from The Ethel Abraham Shop because of the flower print on the inside of the lid.

Forty years later, cleaning out my mother’s backroom, I found that box, or one just like it. My mother recycled boxes for years – she piled them on a table next to the cupboard with the hidden Playboys – and you could find any size you wanted for any occasion. This was especially handy for gift-wrapping at Christmas. The box from Ethel’s was used and re-used and re-used again, saved because of its beauty or perhaps because of its nostalgia. I had a hard time throwing it away and even included it in the shipment of things I sent to France. It was only there, out of the context of my family home and its thick web of childhood memories that I could see it for what it was: a dilapidated, overused 40-year old cardboard box. Even the pattern on the interior had faded. I finally put it in the recycling bin and watched the garbage truck pick it up and haul it away, but not without a deep sigh.

My mother parked the car in front of the entrance to McCurdy’s. I was mildly disappointed, and yet at the age of eleven or twelve or whatever, I was old enough to reason that I wouldn’t be fitted for my first bra at Ethel’s. I was excited enough about the acquisition I was about to make to erase any disappointment. I was also a bit nervous. Like any adolescent girl, I was self-conscious about my body. I knew I’d have to strip and let my mother examine me. I was embarrassed just thinking of it.
leopard
It played out pretty much like my worst nightmare: the racks of the bra department were thick with cupped, hanging devices that looked like a jungle to navigate. The saleswoman was right out of central casting: pointy-heeled shoes with skin-tight pants in a leopard print (when leopard was out of fashion), a thin sweater over her thick middle and cat-eye glasses hanging from a chain around her neck. When she asked if she could help us it was more of a screech than a request. Her voice was incapable of any volume but public broadcast.

My mother answered, matching her volume. “Yes, we’re here to buy a bra for my daughter. It’s her first one.”

Every other shopper in the department turned to look at me, the newbie. I suppressed the instinct to turn and run out of the store – I really wanted a bra, all my friends were wearing one – and just dropped my head, cringing inside, praying that being “out of town” meant none of the people who could overhear this conversation might actually know me.

The saleswoman ran her eyes up and down my chest and torso, then reached out and put her hands on my shoulders, pushing them back and thrusting my very small breasts toward her.

“Stand up tall, sweety, let me have a look at you.”

A half-dozen white “trainer” bras were placed on the glass counter for my mother to inspect, which she did by holding them up so that everyone in the store could inspect them, too. When I could escape to the dressing room, I pulled the curtain closed, fussing with it to keep it fully shut in order to achieve the privacy I felt I deserved. My striped turtleneck came off and on the chair and before I had a chance to clasp one of the bras around my body, my mother had thrown the curtain open.

“Let me see, honey.”

She was helping me to adjust the straps when the bobcat-dressed lady barged in and asked for viewing rights. She pushed her way in, taking over for my mother, instructing me to bend over into the bra, and fill the cups – not that I had much to fill them – before standing upright. Her cold hands poked and prodded to make sure it fit correctly, adjusting the shoulder straps and then snapping the strap in the back – ouch! – to see how tight it was.

I was sure everyone in the lingerie department could not only see into my dressing room, but could hear my mother and this tacky woman discussing how to fit a bra to my barely-existent breasts. They kept handing me different models, and ripping the curtain open before I’d hooked them on. I felt like a mannequin being dressed and undressed in the window. I was cold, cranky and tortured. I just wanted to get a bra and get out of there.

Later, in the parking lot, a bag of new bras in my hand, I eyed the sign for The Ethel Abraham Shop. When I had real breasts, I told myself, I’d go there. It had to be more civilized.

~ ~ ~

While perusing the racks for the right style of bra for someone Short-pants’ age, I came upon several models that appealed to me as well. The straps on my best black bra were on the verge of disintegrating, I needed a new one to wear under my favorite black sleeveless sweater. So as we speak_the_truthwere bra hunting for her, I collected some for myself. We entered the dressing room – at the Corte Ingles, a much upscaled version of McCurdy’s – with our hands full. The saleswoman didn’t stay around to assist us, a slight disappointment as I’ve outgrown the need for privacy while bra shopping and it’s actually nice to have someone at your beck and call to fetch better sizes and make suggestions based on a full knowledge of the inventory. There were intercom phones in the dressing rooms, in case we needed to call for a size change, but our hands were full with multiple sizes of the same models.

“Do you mind if we use the same dressing room so I can help you?” I asked.

Short-pants wasn’t at all reluctant, she seemed delighted to be sharing the experience with me. We both stripped to the waist and took turns trying on what we’d brought in. I showed her how to bend over and fit herself into the bra, just as I’d been taught, but with a deliberately gentler explanation. She seemed genuinely eager to learn the nuances of putting on a bra. We hooked and unhooked each other, admiring the fabrics and the patterns – teenager’s bras are far more interesting today than in my day – laughing at the ones that were too tight, too big or just too quirky. We stood side-by-side under the fluorescent lighting, staring at each other in the mirror, mother by daughter, in different phases of our lives, but still two women standing together in their bras. Freeze this frame in your memory, I told myself. She won’t want to do this with you forever.

In the end, none of the bras I’d tried on fit. But Short-pants selected two pretty white ones and a deep burgundy satin number, something a little bit soft and ever-so-slightly sensual.

“The thing about nice lingerie,” I told her, while standing in line to pay, “is you wear it for yourself. It’s a gesture of self-respect, having something pretty on, but just for your eyes only.” I didn’t mention that sometimes I keep De-facto in mind when I select my bra and panties for the day. She’ll figure that out on her own.

“Like the purple one?” she asked.

I nodded. “Wear that one on the days when you feel a little down. It’ll give you something to smile about, every time you remember how you’re wearing something beautiful underneath, something just for you.”

~ ~ ~

I learned about the pleasure of lingerie when I moved to France. It’s said that French women spend 20% of their income on their undergarments. It’s certainly a habit I picked up while living there. But recently, in New York on a very quick transit stopover, I spent a Sunday afternoon with two college friends and the subject of lingerie came up. After a long lunch, including a bottle of wine, we walked back out on to the street debating what to do. pink_negligeTwenty years ago this same trio would have gone to a movie or hit a favorite jewelry shop. Last Sunday we went to Sugar Cookies, an exclusive lingerie shop. It was about to close, but stayed open for the three of us. We opened the curtain between the side-by-side fitting rooms and tried on nearly every bra in the store. I wished Short-pants could have been there to see us, each with dozens of silk and lace contraptions going on and coming off, modeling for each other, frank feedback flying back and forth, giggling, oohing and aahhing, viewing ourselves in the beautifully made undergarments. Unlike my experience at Corte Ingles, where nothing came close to fitting me, nearly everything I tried on seemed to work. An hour later, I laid a pile of lacy things on the counter. The saleswoman rang them up and wrapped them, and my friends and I walked out of the door swinging our bags, exhilarated by the items that only we – or perhaps a special somebody – would get to see.

I’ve overcome any collateral damage from my early bra-buying trauma, though it’s never been a task I’ve relished. At least that awkward first occasion produced the awareness to construct a different experience for my daughters. It occurred to me, giggling with my girlfriends in the dressing room, and reflecting on my shopping trip with Short-pants, too, that trying on bras can actually be something fun to do. How fitting to discover this hidden pleasure, just in time to pass it along.


May 18 2012

In Between

This, my in-between week, between tours on the Camino, I found myself immersed in the world of errands. While I was away walking, the constant churn of the rest of my life continued, and I was met, upon my return, with a few loose ends to tie up. Like taking Short-pants to the podiatrist to replace the shoe inserts that she left at the country house last month (she’s probably outgrown by now anyway) or passing by the Conservatory, in person, to make sure that the form for her re-inscription was correctly filled out, so that she won’t be refused readmission next year based on a technicality. A trip to the pharmacy to pick up a few goodies for my backpack, like an extra pack of second-skin bandages, miniature packets of moist towelettes, toothpaste in a teeny tube, and other tiny toiletry items compressed and compact, to lessen the space they take and the weight I’ll carry. At home, the paying of bills, the folding of money into envelopes designated for various helpers or babysitters, the catching-up of laundry, the arrangements that must be made so that our household will continue in my absence, without taxing De-facto, who does me the largest birthday favor ever by going solo for the time I need to walk the Camino.

Yet I felt I was moving at a slightly different pace. Gentler, more rhythmic, with a confidence that it will all get done, and that when I return to the Camino I will feel good, having taken care of the responsibilities I’ve tabled temporarily but never fully relinquish.

In this vein I remained buoyant, even stretching my erranding to such previously procrastinated tasks as addressing household appliances that have suffered our negligence too long. The supply of vacuum bags ran out weeks ago, requiring a repeated manual emptying of the last remaining bag in order to properly clean the carpets, and the bulb in the overhead light in the bathroom has been dark for even longer. This took me the dreaded BHV, the department store you love to hate and hate to love; you can buy just about anything you want there, from designer clothing to hammers and nails, but there are consequences. It’s an enormous store that seems to always be crowded and yet within the throngs of shoppers, you feel absolutely destitute in the search for that one item you’ve come to buy, lost in a sea of commercial choices without single guide to assist you.

This is where the team of green-vested salespeople should come in handy. They are numerous and poised around the store, usually in clumps talking to each other, though you’d wish they were seeking out lost and confused customers – plentiful at BHV – but usually it’s necessary to hunt them down. Salesperson is actually misnomer, as is customer service agent, a more accurate title might be proctor or hall monitor.

Remarkably, I found exactly the vacuum bags I was looking for, almost immediately, but it occurred to me to confirm this with the proctor on duty in the department. A few meters away, a green vested man stood behind an official looking computer terminal. As I approached him, so did an older gentleman, holding in his hands a package containing a set of attachments to a vacuum cleaner.

“Do I have to buy all of these?” he asked, “because I only want this one element.” He pointed to the largest attachment, the one that really matters.

The green-vested man shrugged.

“But I don’t need all the other pieces,” the old man said.

Non,” the green-vest pouted, “it’s only sold like this.”

The old man persisted. “Isn’t it at all possible to buy just the one part I want?”

Beh, oui, if you go to the service commandé, but then you’ll pay a 20 euro fee for a special order.”

The old man walked away, muttering about the waste inherent in this entire transaction. I expected the green-vest to turn to me, and braced myself for his gruff greeting. To my surprise, he took off after the old man, yelling at him for being rude, for his unnecessary words.

Granted, the old man hadn’t been particularly polite. But the green-vest had been equally uncivilized. Having been exposed to the Stew Leonard school of customer service (Rule #1, the customer is always right. Rule #2, if the customer is wrong, refer to rule #1) I was shocked to witness a store employee actually chasing after customer in order to scold him.

I followed them. By the time I caught up, the green-vest was ripping into the old man. They both turned, looking just as surprised as I felt to be standing there with them.

“How can you speak to a customer like that?” I said to the green-vest. “It’s the purchases he makes in this store that pay your salary. He may have been impolite to you, but he doesn’t merit a response like this.” (And I can’t be sure, but I think in the storm of my indignation I still managed to use the correct conditionel form.)

Both men stared at me as if I was insane. Which I am, because it is insanity to expect kind customer service in France. Not that you can’t find it, not that there aren’t plenty of thoughtful, helpful French salespeople. It’s just that you can’t expect it.

When the green-vested man started to shout at me, I turned and walked toward the escalator, confident that the vacuum bags I’d selected would fit my machine, certain that I could buy them at a cash register on another quieter floor, perhaps closer to the light-bulb department. On the escalator, I said, out loud to myself, “he could use some customer service training.” The man beside me chuckled. “It’s probably because he didn’t like the outcome of the election.”

Later, I wondered if all those errands had dampened my take-it-as-it-comes pilgrim spirit, that I’d piled on too much, entered too far into the realm of my regular life to maintain my cooler, collected pace. It’s true that by the week’s end, the symptoms of my usual departure stress started to surface. I’m squeezing things in to clear the decks to be away again – this time for a much longer stretch – and I’m feeling the pinch. I’ve heard people say that once you’ve done the Camino, there’s a before and an after. I guess for me, it seems, I’m still in between.


Dec 24 2009

Mère Noël

Why is it a man who gets all the credit for Christmas?

Santa Claus, Père Noël, Father Christmas; they’re all guys. I don’t see this as a holiday powered by men. Sure, there must be exceptions – wonderful, thoughtful, fatherly anomalies – but I would wager that in most households, it’s the mother who’s driving the Christmas train.

This is not meant to dis De-facto. He even agreed to come with me, this year, to do the Christmas shopping for Short-pants and Buddy-roo. But on the designated day, our downstairs neighbor knocked on the door complaining about a leak (endemic to this ancient part of Paris) and De-facto felt obliged to take on the task of plumbers and insurance forms. As much as I dislike shopping with throngs of people in an overheated department store, it beats waiting for a plumber and filling out French paperwork. So I plunged into the store myself, and came out, two-plus-hours later, exhausted and thirsty.

Christmas is not a holiday for mothers. We’re working. Up to the event, and all through the day. There’s a lot to do: the wrapping – and hiding – of all the presents, the baking of cut-out cookies in all the Christmas shapes, frosting them when they’ve cooled and decorating them with colored sugar. The tree has to be trimmed. Okay, maybe we find some strapping guy to carry it in and string up a few lights, but it’s usually the chicks who are hanging ornaments and recounting childhood Christmas memories. Meals to be planned, food to be ordered, good wine and champagne to be selected – the day has to be at least a little bit choreographed if it’s going to come off.

I have it easy compared to my mother. She managed a much more complicated production than the modest holiday traditions we have. She pulled out the good china, silver and crystal for every meal, preparing gourmet menus for Christmas day brunch and dinner, all this while making beds for out of town guests and shuttling people to and from the airport.

With all due respect to my father – a fine man and a great dad – his contribution to the preparation of Christmas was, as most men of that generation, minimal. My mother was the engine behind the holiday. Most of the gift tags “from mom and dad” were written in her elegant handwriting. There’d be at least one present that you knew my father had selected himself, labeled with his distinctive signature, but it was always one of the last gifts to be placed under the tree. He was the king of Christmas Eve shopping and its end result, what he proudly called the hot wrap; gifts wrapped so close to the moment they’re opened that the paper hasn’t had time to cool.

That’s one tradition that my li’l nuclear family here has taken on with aplomb. This year is no exception. Another tradition that’s made the cut: the Christmas morning Bloody Mary break. With a fresh stick of celery, it’s a festive red and green holiday cocktail that quenches your thirst throughout a long morning of gift opening. This was also my father’s idea. So I guess he did contribute to Christmas, in his own way.

I remember my mother getting stressed out about Christmas, and I’d think to myself, “what’s the big deal? We’re all together aren’t we? We could eat peanut butter and be happy!” But when it was my turn to host a few elaborate holidays with out of town visitors, festive menus and thoughtful gifts for everyone, I finally got it. If you want the holidays to be special – the kind that makes memories your family will cherish – it takes work. And maybe a little vodka.

There’s an old Irish custom – I don’t know how much it’s practiced any longer – to celebrate Women’s Christmas on January 6th, the day of the Epiphany. Legend tells that on this day, the men take on the household tasks and give the women a day off. Now that’s a Christmas present.

So guys, give the moms in your life a break. And please don’t wait until January 6th to do it. Christmas is a beautiful day, but it’s hard work being Mère Noël. Lend a hand, and let her put her feet up.


Nov 4 2009

Are We There Yet?

Whoever said “it’s the journey and not the destination” wasn’t in the car with me yesterday.
well
We were slow out of the gate. The ritualized closing of the country house takes more time in the fall (heading into winter) than in the warmer months of summer. The refrigerator, as usual, is emptied, defrosted, wiped and left unplugged, open to the air. The floor is swept. The dishes and glassware are washed, stowed and covered. The water is not only turned off, but in anticipation of the cold it is siphoned from the toilets and the hot water tank, to avoid the catastrophe of frozen, bursting pipes. Electricity shut off. Doors and shudders latched. It’s a frenzy of cleansing and storing activity. Then finally, en route.

The back roads from our little village to the highway are bucolic and picturesque, but their meandering makes for uncomfortable stomachs. Buddy-roo lost her breakfast about fifteen minutes into the ride. I am smart enough to bring a few plastic bags – her car sickness is also a ritual event – but not smart enough to check those bags for holes before tucking them into the pocket of the car door. The little pink plastic sac I shoved under her precious, ashen face just before she puked had a teeny tiny hole in the bottom, which became big very quickly, dumping most of the contents of the bag into her lap. Who knew how fast I am out of the seat-belt? Or that I could be a contortionist, reaching around the front seat, wiping up the mess with the four paper towels left on the roll? Oh, happy drive.

De-facto had the idea to stop at a giant Decathalon store just before the on-ramp to the highway, for what was promoted as a quick errand. When I finally found him, he had set up house in roller blade aisle. Short-pants and Buddy-roo had each been fitted with a pair, and they were shuffling around, finding their legs like baby foals, while he examined roller-blades in his own size. Of course, each pair that he tried on required a test drive. He’d skate circles around the girls, their giggling filled the store despite the height of its hyper-sized ceiling. (He didn’t intend to buy them for the girls, by the way, he was just giving them a quick lesson, gearing up for the winter skating season, and keeping them occupied while he contemplated his selection.)

How hard is it to select a pair of roller-blades? Apparently not so easy when you’re deciding whether or not to splurge for the super-geared-up sexy pair or just go for the solid they’ll-work-anywhere ones. While he weighed his options, I explored the store and got sucked into the vortex of early Christmas shopping. Which meant the additional game of get-through-the-checkout-without-anyone-seeing-what’s-in-your-cart, which I managed to win, but without any help whatsoever from the very un-elf like cashier.

I should have known we were in trouble when De-facto whispered the forbidden word: “McDonalds.” It’s not at all in his nature, stopping to eat at a rest stop. He’s more of what-can-we-scrap-together-from-the-fridge-and-eat-in-the-car kind of road tripper. So while the peanut-butter-and-Nutella sandwiches and hard-boiled eggs and sliced cucumbers aged in another bag (no holes in this one) at the foot of the passenger’s seat of the car, he ordered up a few super-size-me meals and we even sat in the restaurant to eat our fries. (It is absolutely in my nature, to eat fries.)

Our little pause would have been an exotic change of pace if the rest of the drive had been business-as-usual. But it wasn’t. On three different stretches of the A20, we inched along in the cruelest of single-lane traffic, passing through miles of orange-coned construction zones without the sight of even a single hammer. That meant three distinct opportunities to spend 45 minutes traveling the distance that normally takes about five minutes. And
bouchonthen, when we were so close to home, with what should have been less than ½-hour to go, we found ourselves nose to tail-light with thousands of other idiots like us, stuck in rush-hour traffic during a (seasonal) train strike. The journey from our country house to Paris should have taken just over four hours. We were in the car for nearly eight hours.

The girls, it must be said, were marvelous. Napping. Reading. Coloring. Singing. The computer came out and movies were cued up. They are professional travelers. No whining, “Are we there yet?” Not a single complaint from the peanut gallery in the back of the car.

Just a few grumbles from yours truly in the front seat. Regretting that McChicken sandwich, or something like that.