By Rosalie Tirella
Yesterday I stopped into a jewelry store. I was looking for a necklace and knew what I wanted: something big and chunky, maybe with a cross dangling from the end. Definitely colorful. Maybe even clanky! Something FUN. I was at one of the stands sifting through just such an array of clunky, clanky, colorful junk encrusted with ersatz-stones, fake pearls the size of jaw breaker gum balls when it happened, as it always happens to me when I’m at a jewelry kiosk and faced with what feels like an infinite number of choices: a kind of mental inertia sets in as I look at, continue to look at, then gawk at, scores and scores of shiny, blinking, sparkly trinkets, doing nothing, WANTING THEM ALL, but doing absolutely nothing, not lifting a finger, to bring the baubles to Mama! It’s like I’m hypnotized – as if someone had placed a shiny, bright object in front of my eyes and twirled it! To make matters worse my tiny purse with its tightly drawn purse strings, precludes me from buying a bunch of baubles – I can only afford to buy one – maybe two, if I’m being extravagant – necklaces!
I’ve known this feeling (wanting but not getting) all my life – starting as a child growing up in Green Island and walking to White’s Five and Ten store on Millbury Street to “just look” at all the plastic dolls and plastic cookware and high tea sets that I would buy for my plastic dolls – if I could buy the plastic dolls. But we were poor. I knew my single mother, who worked 60 hours a week as a countergirl at the dry cleaners right down the street, couldn’t afford to buy me treats like these whenever I got the itch – they were meant for birthdays and Christmas. I, like my mom and two kid sisters, was used to living lean, but I still liked to pretend shop, look over the goods, enjoyed seeing their lively colors and interesting shapes. Pretty stuffed animals – big and small, bags of cats’ eyes marbles with their own vinyl pouches, Popeye and Mickey Mouse sticker games! Walking down the long toy aisle at White’s was like walking through the carnivals that would sometimes come to Kelley Square and set up for the weekend in St. Anthony’s church parking lot!
So I would “visit” with owners Mr. and Mrs. White, chatting politely with them about my school, Lamartine Street School, and my teachers there, and Yes!, my mom was fine, thank you! Mrs. White, all the while staring at, mesmerized by Mrs. White’s foot-high (no lie!) jet-black-dyed bouffant. Mrs. White was a tall women to begin with, but with her teased-out and poofed-up hairstyle and her no-nonsense high heel shoes that capped off her very business appropriate crepe dresses, she was a human sky scraper to me! No! A natural wonder! I spent these pretend shopping afternoons at Whites literally looking up at Mrs. White at all times, the Sequoia to my tit-mouse!
Now here it was, years later, and I was in the jewelry store feeling just like that little Green Island girl – wanting the goodies but not getting the goodies – with no pleasant sounding and spectacular looking Mrs. White to soften the blow!
Maybe because it’s Christmas time, but yesterday I was missing Mrs. White and all the 30 or so small biz owners and their shops that once lined Millbury Street from Kelley Square to Crompton Park. The folks who owned the fish market, the Polish grocery store where they made their own kielbasa that my sisters and I loved, the shoe store where the owner always had you stand on this giant metal footprint so he could measure your foot perfectly with a sliding ruler, the fruit store with the male manager whose butt was huge and SQUARE!, the dimly lit hardware store, the even more dimly lit (go figure!) tailor’s shop where the tailor kept 30 or so canaries in a huge bird cage by his sewing machine so he could enjoy their beauty while he worked, the diner, the hamburger joint where my sisters and I ate a snack after coming home from junior high, my sister slamming her skinny body onto the sides of the huge pinball machine there to make the balls roll the way she wanted them to – just like the boys did with whom she played…or my mom and her sweet, stalwart ways pulling out our sad little Christmas tree out of an old trunk, the one whose lights had stopped working years ago. It was with those feelings that I turned around in the jewelry store, looking for … I can’t exactly say what …
And there she was looking back at me: a saleswoman wearing a crisply ironed navy blue skirt and blazer, and white blouse – a saleswoman in her mid-70s. This saleslady was so nicely dressed that I immediately thought of the salesladies at the old Sylvia’s Dress Shop on Franklin Street or Barnard’s on Main Street – when downtown Worcester was in her heyday, throwing off her own flinty – never flirty! – white Christmas light.
The saleslady walked out from behind the jewelry counter and stood next to me as I rifled through the jewelry, this time giving the multitude of necklaces a careless swing or two because I was growing annoyed with my indecisiveness.
May I help you? she said.
YES! I said. Which one? (I had winnowed my treasures down to 10 big necklaces) This one? I asked her, showing her what looked to be a spray painted gold cross, with a kind of iridescent inlay. How about this one? I said, as I pulled off a black braided twine number with three plastic silver crosses at the end. Is this a key chain? I said. …then finally, exasperated and dizzy from the fluorescent lights overhead and the garish colors in some of the pieces, I said: I need some help!
The woman looked past my chosen chains and ran her fingers through the necklaces and pendants that hung from several pegs attached to the free-standing jewelry display case. In two seconds she had pulled out a necklace I had not even noticed as I rifled through the strands: a tiny, fine necklace with a little flat silver heart on which a sepia photo of the Eiffel Tower was pasted. It was sealed with lacquer and shone. The heart looked antique, but the chain, made of the flimsiest metal, and the several little white plastic pearls gave its cheapness away – it was almost appropriate for a First Communion gift you might give your seven-year neice, if you were poor. It was the kind of necklace my late mother would have picked out for me, if she had been standing by my side: dainty, delicate, very lady like.
Then I remembered! When I was seven my mom had indeed gone to one of the nicer shops in downtown Worcester and bought me the tiniest gold heart-shaped locket on a delicate gold chain for my First Holy Communion gift! So small! But real gold, she told me! I cut out her face from one of our family photographs and put it one side of the open locket and then I cut out my face from another photo – with my mom’s delicate manicure scissors that she let me, her favorite daughter, use for school projects that required intricate cutting – and placed it in the other side of the locket. If you closed the heart locket we were together in one heart! If you opened it, you saw our two smiling faces!
That gift, along with my childhood rosaries and fifth grade Lamartine Street School autograph book and my Polish grandfather’s harmonica that he used to play in our Lafayette Street apartment were confiscated 26 years ago by a Worcester landlord – he shall remain nameless because (poetic justice!) he went on to become a huge, nasty, all around low life cocaine addict and lost his big West Side house, wife and kids – because I owed him $100 back rent as I was moving out. I begged him for the cardboard box filled with my precious mementos, totally worthless to him. But he never relented, never gave me back objects – touchstones – from my childhood. The months flew by, work and distractions piled up and I forgot all about the box and its precious contents. Only to remember it all 15 or so years ago when I saw my ex-landlord on local tv news and thought: Asshole. And now, that missing, most likely dumped, box holding my little gold, heart-shaped locket and my painted ballerina shaped barret, also a gift from my late mom when I was 7, and all my Worcester Public School report cards gone … to resurface as memories, more concrete, more permanent than the objects themselves!
So the counter woman, standing next to me, looking only about 10 years younger than my late mom before she got sick with the Alzheimer’s – when Ma padded around her apartment cooking a huge pot of her homemade chicken soup for my bachelor Uncle Fred or writing out her grocery list in her sharp-edged, never round or girly cute cursive handwriting. Her golden years when she got me a subscription to The Boston Globe – 7 days a week! – because I had just started InCity Times and she wanted me to read a newspaper that mattered.
That is who the store lady reminded me of – my mom, in her prime senior years: sensitive, sharp, smart, funny, relaxed, at ease with herself. …If Ma were working the counter at the jewelry store she would be dressed just like this lady was dressed, and she would recommend that I buy just such a heart-shaped necklace!
Then, unusual for me because I don’t have much dough, I said: I’ll take it! And I’d like to buy a wristwatch, too!
I didn’t want to leave that jewelry store!
The saleswoman, I never asked her her name and don’t remember if she was wearing a name tag, stepped a few feet to the right and there she was at the wristwatch display case – men’s and women’s. I walked over, immediately attracted to the big pink Velcro girl watch – its big face would be easy to read when I walked my two frenetic dogs, Jett and Lilac, hanging on to their leads for dear life, or pushed it to my face to check – QUICK!- the time, as I’m always late and on the run. But the saleslady picked out something much more understated: a woman’s wristwatch with a small, dainty turquoise leather wrist band and a small round face almost elegant in its simplicity with its narrow minute and hour hands and a second hand as fine as the thread in my blouse. The turquoise wristband had tiny cross hatchings. If you had shown my late mom this wristwatch display case, this would have been the time piece she would have chosen for me! Smart! Feminine! Pretty!
I’ll take it! I said to the saleslady, and the woman, courteous and quiet, not at all gabby or pushy or, Heaven forbid, checking an ubiquitous smartphone – picked up the watch, still in its box, and lead me to the cash register. She mirrored my late mom’s decorum when SHE was a counter lady at the dry cleaners years ago – the transaction felt serious, special. I paid the bill, but instead of putting my watch in a bag for me, the saleslady took it out of its box so she could put it on me, so I got the feel and look if my new wristwatch, of which she seemed proud. I laid my hand out flat, palm up, on the counter. She put slipped the watch on my wrist and fastened it as my hand hovered over the counter top – I didn’t want to scratch its face on the counter while she put it on. It had one of those old fashioned bands – you could call it classic – with the five or six holes on one side of the band and, on the other side, a tiny needle to lock it into place. The saleslady did her job with such grace that I felt … serene.
You know, I told her, suddenly remembering the image, my late Mom used to do the exact same thing for me when I was a little girl and she was helping me put on my first wrist watch (it was a light pink Cinderella wrist watch). The saleslady smiled as she fastened the wristband. She worked carefully, gracefully. It had been years since I had been fussed over this way! The way your mom or your favorite sister or best gal pal carefully adjusts your prom gown strap on prom night, the way your aunt smooths out your Holy Communion dress your Mom just bought for you from Jack and Jill’s on Green Street and is having you model for your auntie.
Then I said: My mom passed away a few years ago, in a nursing home not far from here.
The saleslady had fastened my wristwatch. She looked up at me and smiled. I looked into her old eyes, noted all the lovely wrinkles in her face and said, Thank you! I walked out of the store.
I did not want to tell the jewelry store saleslady this at the counter when she was fastening my wristwatch: but she had put my wristwatch on too tight! Just like my mother used to do! And just like with my mom, so as not to hurt her feelings, I had waited until I was out of her sight to loosen the watchband – put the needle in the next hole in the leather band. I tried to do this once back in my car, seated behind the steering wheel, but I couldn’t see the holes in the watchband through my tears.