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From Your Lips to God's Ears
By Elaine Soloway

If Mother were alive today, she'd put TV makeover shows to shame, for she excelled in transformation. I was her favorite subject, and scenes from my childhood prove her zeal:

See me standing atop our Formica kitchen table, modeling a new woolen skirt that Mother is shortening. She hands me a piece of green cotton thread and says, "Chew this."

I stoop down to accept the two inches of wispy fiber, thus obeying a familiar bobemayse (old wives tale). This one, brought with from the Russian schtetl of her past, warns that evil spirits lurk near the pincushion, measuring tape, and scissors. If I do not chew the thread, I will be unprotected, and the demons could use the silver straight pins to stab my tender skin.

The year is 1947; I am nine years old. I understand that this ritual, which accompanies the shortening of all of my clothing, is just peasant folklore. But I play along because it is a chance to be close to my mother. Although I often feel wounded by her constant scrutiny of my appearance -- trying to get me to comb my hair, stand up straight, eat less -- I still adore her. So I take every chance offered -- even if it means chewing thread and swallowing superstition -- to prove my love.

As I chew, I think about Mother's Saturday shopping trip that produced this skirt. Temporarily freed of the apron she wears in our mom-and-pop grocery store, my mother had dressed up for her downtown jaunt. With her black hair in an upsweep, her Valentine-face in full makeup, her wide-shouldered rayon dress, and her high-heeled shoes, my mother looked as glamorous as the women in the ads of the department stores she'd be visiting. As she walked out the door, the scent of My Sin perfume trailing behind her, I wondered if I'd ever be as beautiful as she when I grew up.

Based on her daily demands of me, I think my mother fears I will favor my dad, and be short, round, with my head in the clouds; instead of growing up like her: slim, ambitious, and fashionable. But what my 34-year-old mother deems fashionable, I find ugly, like this green woolen skirt.

In fact, in this old movie of my childhood, I loathe all of the clothing she buys for me. I want to tell her that pleated skirts make me look fat, that none of my pals wear black pullovers with red satin roses stitched above the heart, and that the one-inch platform on my slip-on leather shoes won't stop me from being the shortest child in the fourth grade. But I fear honesty might hurt her feelings or turn her against me, so I feign delight.

"Turn," Mother commands, bringing my attention to the kitchen table tailoring.

I comply, raising my arms to my sides, imagining myself a long-legged model, not a shrimp who needs every article of clothing shortened. I circle the tabletop in my bobby socks, one foot in front of the other and feel the straight pins taunting my skin. But the masticated thread has done its job -- there is no blood.

"Perfect. Take it off," she says.

Mother moves to the Singer Blackside sewing machine that stands in the corner of our kitchen. Although she is dressed in a simple Swirl housecoat, my mother wears lipstick, rouge, and mascara, as if her cherished Singer deserves the courtesy. I often have the same thought: that the regal machine merits more than the humble kitchen in our three-room flat above our store.

Nestled on the couch, I study my mother. Once seated at her Singer, she rests her wedge-heeled house slippers on the black-grated treadle. As she flattens her shoes on the grill, she uses the fingers of both hands to steer the skirt's folded hem forward, sealing its fate forever. Daydreaming, I see the Singer appalled at its place among white-enameled appliances, like our chipped stove and icebox. I smile as I imagine it distastefully sniffing cooking odors that waft to its corner and stain the kitchen walls yellow and gray. Poor Singer. On Friday nights, you must endure chicken soup simmering on the stove. On Monday nights, when Mother fries chicken skin in schmaltz to make gribbeners - my favorite snack, I envision the Singer wincing at the scent of sizzling grease. Secretly, I enjoy the machine's distress, because I am jealous of its bond with my mother. I often watch the two of them -- coupled with their love of sewing -- and wish there was a place there for me.

I also resent the machine because it is a haughty reminder of my height handicap. I know my stunted growth distresses Mother, too, for one week after the skirt shortening, when my parents think I am asleep in my bedroom, I overhear this kitchen conversation:

"I think we should take her to see someone." It is my mother talking.

"You're nuts," Dad says.

"She's the smallest girl in her class," Mother says. "Maybe there's something wrong that a doctor can fix." From your lips to God's ears, I think, repeating a Yiddish expression I have often heard my mother say.

"There's nothing wrong with her. She's perfect the way she is," Dad says.

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