Rite Of Passage – Donna K. Hollenberg

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On my thirteenth birthday I had a job promotion, not a Bat Mitzvah. Girls didn’t study Torah in the fifties on the Canadian prairie and, anyway, my parents were not religious. We usually spent the Sabbath in the family clothing store, Classic Fashion Fur, especially during the autumn, our busiest season. When I was younger my tasks there had been menial: first assembling boxes and refilling pin cushions in the back room, then straightening dresses and suits before returning them to their proper places along the side walls. Now I was ready to join the Saturday sales staff, announced my mother, Zoe Glauber, the saleslady-in-chief. My father, who manned the cash register when he wasn’t making fur coats in the basement, agreed. “Sales experience is a very important part of a person’s education,” he stressed. I must have looked doubtful because he continued, “You learn to meet the public, Hannah. You learn how to establish rapport.”

Okay, I thought. No sweat. I like people.

“Next Saturday, stand behind the sweater counter and watch me for awhile,” said my mother. “The main thing is to know your stock. It’s your job to find something suitable for your customer. That’s how you make a sale. I’ll let you know when it’s your turn. ”

 

Mrs. Edna Broadback, one of my mother’s regulars, arrived the next Saturday morning to buy a fall suit. The wife of a local surgeon, Mrs. Broadback felt she had to look good in church and at her Kinsman Club board meetings. She held a brown leather hand bag in one hand and, with the other, she carried a shopping bag full of packages. As soon as my mother saw her coming through the glass door at the front of the store, she came forward with a broad smile. “Well, Edna, I see you’re in a buying mood,” she said. “Good. We just got some new suits in.” It sounded like they had been purchased especially for Mrs. Broadback, I thought, somewhat uncomfortable.

I watched as my mother selected four wool suits from the rack and took them to Mrs. Broadback, who waited in a fitting room. After a short exchange–“Not brown, again,” and “This one will show off your trim figure”– my mother brought out two suits and put them back in stock. Mrs. Broadback tried on the two remaining.

“What do you think?” she asked as she stepped into the aisle in the fitted one–grey tweed, with a fox collar. She held her hand up to her long, blonde hair, which was wound up in a fashionable chignon to accent her graceful neck. “Is the collar too much for me?”

“It’s removable if you want a more low key look,” said my mother, “but I think it gives the suit oomph. How do you like the waistline?”

“It’s flattering alright,” said Mrs. Broadback, “a definite possibility. Now I’ll try the other one.” She went back into the fitting room and, in a few minutes, handed the grey tweed to my mother, who hung it on a hook, out of the way.

Out came Mrs. Broadback again, this time in a navy gabardine. The pleats in the skirt flared flirtatiously as she twirled in front of the three-way mirror beside my mother, who nodded approvingly. “Well, Edna, both of them suit you. The wool in this one is lighter in weight, if that’s what you’re looking for. It will take you nicely into spring.”

“You’re right, Zoe. I didn’t think of that, and I don’t have anything in this color. ” She paused briefly, her head to one side. “I’ll take it ,” she decided.

My mother had served her customer well, I thought, and she was certainly efficient. I could see why Mrs. Broadback kept returning to our store.

I didn’t recognize the next customer at first. She was a short, homely woman, with frizzy brown hair and a lopsided build, smaller on the top than on the bottom, her hips wider than her shoulders.   After my mother greeted her, I realized that she and her family, the Levines, were members of our synagogue, the only one in Saskatoon.

“Hello, Myrna,” said my mother, cordially. “How’s Max? What can I do for you today?”

“Max is fine now, Zoe, his blood pressure is under control. Of course, you’d know that if you came to shul more often,” replied Mrs. Levine, unable to resist a dig. “I’m looking for a dress for the Berman Bar Mitzvah coming up in two weeks. Nothing too fancy.” I could see that finding something for her would be more of a challenge.

“Alright, choose a fitting room and I’ll see what we have,” said my mother. She strode gamely toward the dress racks and asked, “Remind me, what size are you?”

“I used to be a 12, but I might have gone up a size. I’m not skinny, like you, and my neighbor, Bessie, who’d rather work in a store than look after her family. I do all my cooking myself.”

Oof! What was that about? I felt both protective of my mother, who didn’t deserve such nastiness, and sorry for this ugly duckling who so clearly hated shopping. But Mrs. Levine’s remarks did not faze my mother, who brought four dresses over to her. In fact, she ignored their tone and drew her customer out, as she placed the dresses inside the fitting room.

“Yes, you’re an excellent cook, Myrna. Your apple strudl is to die for. Where is Bessie working? She’s a seamstress, isn’t she? Why don’t you try the blue dress first. It picks up the color of your eyes.”

Not surprisingly, the blue dress didn’t fit. It was much too small through the hips, as was the green print that followed and the black sheath after that. Mrs. Levine was getting impatient and, in her desperation, she began swearing under her breath.

“Damn it, Zoe, there’s only one dress left,” she muttered.

“I know,” replied my mother. “It’s a two-piece, Myrna. Try on the blouse first and tell me if it fits.”

“It does,” said Mrs. Levine, somewhat relieved, “and I like the red and black print.”

“Good, now try on the black skirt and let me have a look.” It was tight in the hips, like all the others, but my mother had an idea. “Just a minute, Myrna,” she said, “I’ll be right back.”

When she returned, she handed Mrs. Levine the same dress in a size larger and told her to try on just the skirt from that one. Thankfully, the larger size skirt fit perfectly through the hips. It was too long, but the length could be altered. “That’s much better, Zoe,” Mrs. Levine sighed, gratefully. Can I buy the Size 12 top and the Size 14 bottom?”

“I’m sorry, Myrna, I’d like to do that for you, but then we won’t be able to sell the pieces you leave behind. You’ll have to buy both dresses.”

Mrs. Levine scowled and said nothing.

In the pause, I saw my mother’s eyes flash with what wildlife experts call a killer instinct. She smiled and said, “If you buy both, you could give the extra pieces to Bessie. I’m sure she’d appreciate your gift and would shorten your skirt for you. What do you think?”

It was the perfect solution.

By the time my father rang up the sale, a few minutes later, Mrs. Levine was my mother’s accomplice. She said to my father, winking at my mother, “She could sell ice in winter.”

 

In the early afternoon, a young Chinese woman walked in and began to look through the clearance rack. There were very few Asians in Saskatoon at that time, so she immediately caught my attention. Maybe she works in the Chinese restaurant on the West Side, I thought, but I didn’t recognize her. Unlike the women waitresses there, whose black hair was discretely pinned up or back, she wore hers in a stylish, angular bob that fell flush with her cheekbone. When she moved to the skirt rack in the center of the store, my mother nodded at me, so I went over to her and asked, “Can I help you?”

“I’m looking for a skirt that’s not too expensive,” she said, with no trace of a Chinese accent. She must have grown up here, I thought.

“We have three main styles,” I pointed out, trying to sound knowledgeable. “Pencil skirts in black, grey and brown; pleated skirts in the same colors and, of course, our tartans. We have a good selection, the most popular Scottish plaids–Black Watch, Aberdeen– and also some of the lesser known ones–Sinclair, Wilson.” I was proud that I knew their names. “Most of them are pleated all the way around and a few are kilts. The tartans aren’t our cheapest skirts but they’re supposed to be very good value for the money and they don’t go out of style.”

“Yes, I’ve noticed that all the other teachers at my high school have one. Do you have an Aberdeen in Size 4? Red is my favorite color; I have a red sweater set. And I’ll try a pencil skirt in grey and also one of the pleated skirts. Black goes with everything.” I took her to a fitting room, wondering what subject she taught, and then returned to the skirt rack to gather the items she mentioned.

She reminded me of Lisa Chang, a Chinese classmate of mine at Victoria School, who had won the seventh grade prize in Scottish sword dancing for her performance of the Highland Fling. Scots were a prominent ethnic group on the prairie and sword dancing was one way we could complete our gym requirement. It was very popular among my friends, especially those of us who didn’t like team sports. The two swords crossed on the ground weren’t really dangerous–no one I knew had ever stepped on a blade–and we liked hopping to the screaks of the bag pipe music in our plaid kilts, argyle socks, and trim black vests. Of course, as the tempo increased, jumping vertically from toe to heel across the blades was hard to do without huffing and puffing. A slender girl, Lisa danced the Fling with relative ease. She seemed more suited to it than the girls in the class of Scottish descent, or the rest of us, but I always wondered if she felt uncomfortable, as I did, passing for Scottish.

My customer was slender, too. She tried on the pencil skirt first, but it was much too big around her hips, which were boyishly narrow, so she hung it outside the door without comment. Then she tried on the black pleated one and stepped into the aisle to show me. “What is your name and what grade are you in?” she asked with a smile. “Hannah Glauber. Grade Eight,” I replied, looking at her inquisitively. She read my face and said, “My name is Qiao Pei and I teach algebra at City Park High. Maybe you’ll be a student there next year.” She continued, “What do you think of this one? It fits better.”

“Do you like it, Miss Pei?” I asked, as if I were my mother. “It’s okay, but a bit boring,” she replied. “Now I’ll try the Aberdeen. It’s in a kilt style, I see,” she said, patting the front panel, “very Scottish.” I winced at the incongruity but said nothing, waiting to see how it fit her. Her first name is very Chinese, I thought. I’ll bet she was teased in school when she was a kid.

When Miss Pei came out of the fitting room, she was grinning broadly and holding the skirt around her waistline to make it cling. “I’ve always liked red,” she said. ” In my culture it means good fortune and joy, but this skirt is much too big, as you can see.”

Her grin made me pause. Maybe if you’re Chinese and have slanted eyes, you can’t pass, I thought, so then you can wear anything. “You could have it altered,” I suggested. “Would you like me to get the dressmaker?”

“I guess it can’t hurt to find out how much that would cost,” Miss Pei replied. So I went to the door behind the cash register and called down the stairs, “Alteration, please.”

As the dressmaker made her way to the three-way mirror, tape measure and pincushion in hand, my mother came over and stood nearby. Why was she hovering?

Now the dressmaker, Helena Lushenko, had reached us and was slowly circling Miss Pei, a smirk on her face. She was a short, stocky Ukrainian woman, older than my mother, who wore a stiff, blond wig and walked slowly, with a limp. My parents respected her sewing skills and her comments to customers had expedited many sales. This time she seemed hesitant, however. “Well, we could take in each of the side seams like this,” she said, pinning them accordingly, and then she added, muttering under her breath, “If this is the skirt you really want, little bahnahn (banana).” She kept her head down when she said these last words, so that her sneer was not broadly visible. Then she looked sheepishly towards my mother, who had put her hands on her hips.

“How much will the alteration cost?” Miss Pei asked. I wondered if she’d registered Helena’s contempt and, if she had, what she made of it.

“You’re a new customer, so there’s no charge,” replied my mother.

“That’s very generous of you,” said the teacher. Then she paused and looked away.

I jumped in, breaking the silence before it became tense: “Maybe Miss Pei would like some time to think about it.”

At that, my customer ducked back into the fitting room and I thought I saw relief in her shoulders when she emerged and handed the skirt back to me. Helena headed slowly back down the aisle, her face impassive. My mother frowned but said nothing. A prickle of color spread on her face.

As I watched Miss Pei leave and my mother’s disappointment grow, I couldn’t help but wonder about the ethics of the situation. My mother had said it was our job to find something suitable for each customer. Isn’t that what I was trying to do? It’s not my fault she didn’t bite. Maybe Miss Pei was not sure she’d be comfortable in an Aberdeen kilt, even though red was associated with joy in her culture. Maybe she was reacting to Miss Lushenko’s sneer. Maybe it was my mother who had finally spoiled the sale. Sure, it was nice she offered free alterations, but there was obviously the hidden subtext of sale there. I know I hate being pressured into things, like the time at the shoe store when that pushy salesman offered us half price if we’d buy a second pair of shoes. My mother didn’t fall for that, but on the other hand, she didn’t react negatively either. But I did, rejecting any shoes from the man. Maybe Miss Pei was just turned off by the offer, like me. “What was the difference between incentive and pressure?” I wondered, looking, away from my mother. I didn’t want to think of her as unethical. I began to walk towards the back of the store. My mother stepped up beside me. She put her hand on my arm; her body stiffened.

“Why did you spoil the sale, Hannah?,” she asked, a question that was obviously rhetorical. “You realize, don’t you, that we have to keep the store open,” she continued, inviting me into the realm of adult compromise.

“I know,” I said, shifting from one foot to the other. The space between us flickered briefly, but I hesitated. Part of me didn’t want to cross the bridge and enter my mother’s domain; I wanted to find out what I believed without her help. The other part relished in the possibility of joining my mother and passing into womanhood.

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