Your Lips to God's Ears
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:
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Mother commands, bringing my attention to the kitchen table tailoring.
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.
Take it off," she says.
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.
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.
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:
think we should take her to see someone." It is my mother talking.
nuts," Dad says.
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.
nothing wrong with her. She's perfect the way she is," Dad
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