By Rosalie Tirella
When I was a little girl growing up in Green Island we were too poor to shop for kids clothing at Kiddy Castle/the Deb Shop, the upscale, beautiful kids/teens clothing shop right next door to the dry cleaners where my mom worked on Millbury Street. Though hidden in Green Island the store drew comfortably middle class families from Worcester’s West Side, not the immediate neighborhood. My mom – a single working mom – worked at the dry cleaners for minimum wage and didn’t have the money to buy the shop’s beautiful, well made children’s clothing and outerwear for her three little girls. The best we could do was enjoy the wonderful window displays that Sam, the owner of the Kiddy Castle (that’s what everyone called his shop), put up every winter, fall, spring and summer. For Christmas: Big, lifelike reindeers with sleigh bell-decorated belts on their backs and plastic flakes for snow sprinkled on their noses. And Santa’s elves (life-sized, too) standing next to them, about to load gaily wrapped Christmas gifts onto a wooden sleigh. Sometimes the elves twisted at the waist or raised an arm to say hello to you! In autumn: Big vinyl orange and red autumn leaves were pressed onto the big display windows. For spring: Pink and yellow plastic flowers bloomed among the pink and yellow Easter dresses the store maniquens wore – slim plexiglass girls painted a soothing beige and about the same height as me and my sisters. The store was a huge cottage with a sign that read DEB SHOP written in cursive on the top half (the Deb Shop was upstairs) and the KIDDY CASTLE sign, written in blocky, primary-colored letters, on the first level (the Castle was on the first floor). A sight to behold! A tease to the neighborhood’s poor kids and parents who walked, ran and trudged by it in all kinds of weather – but never entered, unless they were selling raffle tickets for a school field trip.
After a while the desire to enter this magical place faded for me and I was content to enjoy the creative window displays – just another cool facet of my densely packed, urban neighborhood that I treated like my own personal carnival ride because there were so many adults, kids, small businesses, institutions, dogs, cats, small biz owners, eateries, ideologies and feelings to experience!
Back to shopping! We Green Island families – the families who lived on Lafayette Street, Ellsworth Street, Sigel Street, Lodi Street, Grosvenor Street and Bigelow Street (we lived on Lafayette) – tuned out the Kiddy Castle and set our sights and change purses on the always bustling Mart, a kind of blue collar general store on Worcester’s Main Street, the gateway to the then-dicey Main South neighborhood. My mom shopped at the Mart for all our undies, play clothes and school clothes. For herself she bought: canvas tennis shoes, cotton aprons, bobby pins to curl her hair, cans of aerosol hair spray to hold her curled hair, pots, pans, cans of Ajax, dish towels and big white cotton panties that, when out of their package, looked as if they could hold two 5-pound bags of flour. My mother – about 43 at the time – wasn’t big – today I’d maybe even call her petite – but she wore big underwear. This puzzled me when I was a little girl: little lady, huge bloomers! Today I think Ma did this out of sadness and utilitarianism: Her husband, our father, was MIA AGAIN and we didn’t know when he’d come home again. Forget the sex – and a second paycheck! So Mom’s undies were the opposite of fun and seductive – they were no-nonsense, durable, easy to wear and care for – made of 100% cotton, a material which “breathes” as Ma reminded us, perfect for … working 60 hours a week at the dry cleaners (20 under the table), raising three little girls, cooking dinner, cleaning house and caring for her elderly, feisty, opinionated Polish immigrant mother – our grandmother, “Bapy,” who lived with us. You could’t live my mom’s life in thongs or even colorful bikini bottoms, the fashion back then.
Bapy alone would have sent most women to bloomersville: she lived with us and was another full-time job for Ma. Bapy had to be bathed, her long, gray hair combed out each morning and braided and wrapped in a bun at the back of her head, held in place with bobby pins. She needed her cups of Sanka decaf coffee warmed up in pans of hot water we boiled for her on the stove every few hours. She needed to sit at the head of the kitchen table – the hub of our big three decker tenenent – and pontificate in Polish, with a few choice Polish swear words to underscore a point – my father’s uselessness being the main one. She had opinions on everything and never kept them to herself. She expounded on God, grapes, our aunties, our plumbing, the kitchen table, the beef stew on the kitchen table, the downstairs neighbors, the Gomer Pyle USMC tv show, geraniums, birthday cake, gold fish and my dolls, which she’d dress in her old, smelly knee socks.
She’d take one of my dolls, often the one I was holding, take one of her socks, cut off the toe end with a pair of small old scissors and make a little crew hat, which she put on my doll’s head. Then she’d slip the doll’s plastic body into the rest of the old sock to make a long tube dress for the doll. Bapy made all my dolls look like mummies! I always watched her work, flattered she took an interest in me, annoyed that my dolls looked dead.
Sometimes Bapy would take one of her long socks and just make a cap for one of my dolls and put the rest of the sock – the tube end – on her arm, from her wrist to her elbow. That was to warm her arthritic bones. Often she layered the arm socks for extra relief. She’d walk around the tenement with both her arms covered in old socks of many hues – browns, navy blue, white, black. Bapy looked like a walking quilt with her decorated arms, flowered flannel night gown, flowered apron over the flowered night gown, three pairs of knit booties on her old feet … She smelled … fecund.
Bapy baby-sat us when our mother was working at the dry cleaners we’d tell everyone, but actually it was the other way around, with we kids heating her coffee on the stove and getting her the hardboiled egg sandwiches that she munched on from dawn to dusk.
In short, my mother’s life (and ours) was more Army Surplus than Victoria’s Secret, and Ma dressed appropriately for her tasks.
We never owned a car when I was growing up, so we walked pretty much everywhere – my mother, two kid sisters and I. We walked to the Mart often – a fun excursion for us that we’d cap off with a stop at Woolworth’s on Front Street – specifically the luncheonette section – hamburgers, french fries and Cokes for us kids, a cheese Western omelette and regular cup of coffee for Ma. While at the Mart, my mom would buy her wretched panties, my kids sisters and I would run off to the toy section where I always picked up the little package of REAL SEA MONKEYS to give to my mother so she could buy them for me. On the package there was an illustration of a happy cute Sea Monkey family sitting on their sofa watching TV. My mom would take one look at the package, frown and wave me off with: “They’re slimey!”
My favorite part of the walk to the Mart – just before you reached its front doors was the entrance to the Aurora Hotel, a flop house where various and sundry alcoholics and Worcester chatacters lived. The glossy granite entranceway always seemed so elegant to me! There, etched onto one of the smooth granite pillars that framed the entranceway to the flophouse, in exquisite deatail, floated “the mermaid lady” – a slender, lovely lady with long tresses and dressed in a long flowing toga. She was as tall as me and seemed to come straight out of my school book on Greek gods and goddesses. I never called her Aurora, after the hotel, or even tried to name her despite my family’s frequent walk-bys. The mermaid lady seemed too cold and distant for naming, her face turned to one side, in profile, as if always looking away from the gritty, gray, working class downtown she found herself floating in.
My mother bought our “slacks,” as she called them, socks, undies, shirts and short sets at the Mart. She never bought their kids shoes. She believed in good, quality sturdy leather kids shoes for her girls so we would not walk “pigeon toed” and our “arches didn’t drop.” This was all mysterious science to my kid sisters and me – ages 7 and 8 1/2 years old – but Ma must have done something right cuz I’ve logged thousands of miles on my footsies and to this day I have high arches that look ballerina-dancer cool when pointed!
So it was off to Lisbon’s Shoe Store on Millbury Street – just 10 or so stores down from the dry cleaners where my mom worked – to see Mr. Lisbon. Like many of the small business that lined Millbury Street years ago the owners usually “waited on” their customers. They were at their shops, very hands on. You got to know them and their families in a peripheral way. If you went to White’s Five and Ten down the street Mr. White was running the store and ringing out customers on their big beige cash register. Mrs. White, tall and elegant in her knock off Channel suits and high, sculpted jet-black bouffant and black high heels – her natural tallness and accessorizing made her about 6 feet tall! – neatened up the housecoat and cotton vests section. If you went to Commercial Fruit, a few stores down, the owners and later their kids, were the ones who bagged your produce and weighed it on their big porcelain scales. The tailor’s shop, also on Millbury Street, a few stores down from the drycleaners, was always home to the tailor and his 25 canaries who kept him company in a big cage that he kept on a stand by his sewing machine. They were in complete, stifling darkness except for the little goose neck lamp that shone on the clothes the little tailor was mending. When my mom and I visited I ran straight to his yellow and orange canaries, my heart swelling with love. I always hoped the little tailor would give me a bird to take home and keep near our sunny kitchen window. He never did.
Mr. Lisbon, the shoe store owner, was always so nice to my mom and my two kid sisters and me. He always made me and my sisters stand up and put our stockinged feet on his foot measuring machine and then he’d slide the measuring stick to get your exact perfect shoe size. He would put your shoes on, lace them up and have you walk around the store to get the feel of them, all the while explaining things to our mother, who listened carefully and nodded her head. She’d buy our no-nonsense shoes and make us put them on to walk home in.
We’d walk down Millbury Street, tired but content – we loved each other, we were together. At the corner of Millbury and Lafayette streets stood McGovern’s Package store. We kids knew before we took that right onto Lafayette Street Ma would go into McGoverns and buy each of us a little bag of salted cashews – a treat! I’d want to eat my little bag of cashews during the walk home but Ma always insisted that I wait until we got home. She was always right: It was more fun eating my cashews with my kid sisters and telling Bapy in broken Polish all about our shopping trip to Millbury Street!