by Jan Zlotnik Schmidt
“Loehmann’s Closing Down After 94 Years”
—New York Times, January 24, 2014
I met my mother’s body for the first time at Loehmann’s. There she was in a girdle, with those tabs for beige stockings, a white bra and half slip, staring down at me, a child looking up into the expanse of her flesh, her curves, her midriff bulging over the top of the elastic band of the slip. I was a six or seven or eight years old, crouching down, peering up at a glade of women’s legs—some stalk thin, some stockinged, some pudgy at the calves. And gazing upward I saw their serviceable Playtex bras, a glimpse of them, as they tried on blouses, sweaters, and jackets. We were at the back of the store—there were no dressing rooms—and in front of me were the gilt circular staircase, the crystal chandelier, enormous diamonds of filigreed glass, refracting the little afternoon light in the room. At the entrance, the men sat and waited, hunched over their Times, or Herald Tribune, or New York Mirror, women’s pocketbooks dangling from their arms, eyes looking down, not daring that taboo glance to the back of the store.
The women became Circe, Dido, the Graces, preening in front of the mirror in cashmere or silk, or sleek black shirts, asking for approval first from the women and then from the men. They had beehive dyed blonde and brown hair, perfectly manicured white or pink nails, straight lines in their hose, and a hint of Arpege perfumed the air. After gazing with satisfaction at their profiles in the mirror, they praised each other for their keen eyes and instinct for the bargain, the cashmere coat originally 59.00 down to 29.00, the B. Altman’s blouse a steal for 6.95 down from 9.95. Their bodies, ready, girded for battle with a larger world, a world in which they wouldn’t be viewed as immigrants or imposters. They had the right clothes. And I, patient, sat cross-legged, staring into my future.
Loehmann’s remained a constant in my relationship with my mother—each time I returned home from college, from adult life teaching in Kentucky, from middle age boredom, my mother and I would go to the store, first on Flatbush Avenue and Duryea Place and then Sheepshead Bay. At that point we knew each other’s mode of being. I went for the turtlenecks and black pants, she for silk blouses and rayon stretch pants. And she always made me try on a bigger size. The tunic revealed too much of my breasts, or the shirt, she said, popped open at the buttons, or the blazer pulled across my back. My mother, jealous of my lithe body, hers so stocky and stout, unconsciously pulled me into her world by convincing me to go for the larger size—the sweaters wouldn’t fit under the coat, she would say, or you don’t want to reveal every bulge of flesh. But I wanted the knit tops that emphasized my figure or the blazer that created curves. Then we’d argue until I gave in, unsure of my desirability.
There also were the conversations that passed for intimacy in the dressing room or in the elevator between the racks of sportswear on the first floor and the second floor Back Room, Designer Showroom. “How are you doing?” she’d ask in a crowded elevator as the other women listened. And what could I say? “Oh fine.” She once questioned me during a particularly difficult period in my marriage, and I realized that the advice about clothing would have to pass for closeness. She really didn’t want to enter my inner world. The intimacy of the dressing room would have to be enough.
Later in her old age, I was the one pressing the creases of clothes in place, straightening out the crepe blouses, pulling up the rayon pants when she couldn’t bend down because of her arthritis. I was the one who helped her pull the cotton sweaters over her head, I was the one who heard her worries about dying as she tried on Kelly green silk blouses, and I was the one who saw the empty left sac of her cotton bra. We still had Loehmann’s—the ritual of dressing ourselves, the ritual of advice, the ritual of caring.
Five years after my mother’s death, I am in a Loehmann’s in Boca Raton, Florida. The communal dressing room is empty. I try on a salmon pink silk shirt with pearl buttons. A shade that says, “Look at me.” I slowly close the buttons, swallowing hard, remembering too much of my past, looking around the dressing room for someone to ask for advice. Now I have some of my mother’s body—a slight paunch of a belly, thick upper arms. But I still am tall and fairly thin. I sashay this way and that, gazing at myself in the full length mirror, not sure of the blaring color. A young Russian girl, a Lolita-lookalike, comes in; she tries on a yellow bikini and a black net beach cover-up. I gaze at myself in the mirror.
“That looks nice.” She comments.
“Yes. It’s a good color for you. With the hair.”
I smooth down my silver hair.
“Buy it. The color is just right for you.”
Suddenly I miss my mother.
Jan Zlotnik Schmidt is a SUNY Distinguished Professor of English at SUNY New Paltz where she teaches composition, creative writing, American and Women’s Literature, creative nonfiction, memoir, and Holocaust literature. Her work has been published in many journals including The Cream City Review, Kansas Quarterly, The Alaska Quarterly Review, Home Planet News, Phoebe, Black Buzzard Review, The Chiron Review, and Wind. Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Press Prize and she has had two volumes of poetry published, We Speak in Tongues and She had this memory in addition to two chapbooks, The Earth Was Still and Hieroglyphs of Father-Daughter Time. She has co-edited two anthologies of women’s memoirs Women/Writing/Teaching and Wise Women: Reflections of Teachers at Mid-Life, and a prose anthology, A Slant of Light: Contemporary Women Writers of the Hudson Valley. Her literature for composition anthology Legacies: Fiction Poetry Drama Nonfiction is now in its fifth edition.