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The Bon Marche
I spilt orangeade on my pretty dress. It's my earliest memory. I was three and we, my family and I, were at the World's Fair in Seattle. It was 1962. This is my memory in it's entirety. I have other memories from when I was three. My brother having his tonsils out, my parents rushing to my grandparents house where we were staying and taking him to the hospital. But the dress, that's the first. My mother had a fondness for pretty dresses for me. I understand, because I have a daughter, and I loved pretty dresses for her too. I still do. We were shopping not too long ago and I picked something out for her and told her she would look pretty in it. She looked at me with mingled love and condescension and said, “that's not my style, but I understand. You still see your little girl in pretty things.” And she's right. I do.
My childhood dresses were of the
Sunday school variety, albeit we never attended Sunday school, or
church, for that matter. In fact, the only time that I was ever
inside a church the whole time I was growing up was when my father's
youngest sister, got married. She was all of seventeen. I wore a
pale pink Organza dress that my mother bought on sale at the Bon
Marche. My cousin Diane was the flower girl and wore white gloves on
her small hands. Despite the fact that my dress was prettier, and by
far the best I had ever owned, I was smitten with her gloves and
wanted them desperately. Smooth white cotton with one small pearl to
clasp them at the wrist. I remember sitting in a pew while my
seventeen year old aunt, a child herselt, walked up the aisle. All I
could see were my cousin's gloves. was four. I saw Diane recently at
her mother's funeral. She is even prettier as a woman, though her
eyes were haunted that day. Not so much by her mother's death, but
by the responsibility that had been laid like a shawl over her
shoulders. Her father is grief stricken and she is to pick up the
pieces of the family and put them together. It's a lousy task, but
I've no doubt she will.
When I grew up in Eugene, you either
shopped at Sears or The Bon. Sears had a catalogue counter in the
basement with the hardware, and clothing on the main floor where it
could be exhibited through the windows. There was also the Bon
Marche, or “The Bon” as it was referred to. The Bon was
originally opened in Seattle in the 1890's and now is “Macys”.
But at that time, it was the place to go for middle class America,
back when middle class meant you owned a home, had a car, a savings
account, and enough to eat. When I was in high school, a mall was
built on the periphery of city limits, and like most malls, it
directed traffic away from the core and forever changed downtown
commerce. But while we were little, downtown was the place to go.
The Bon had end of the month sales and it was at these that my mother would buy clothing at deep discount. We were definitely at the lower end of middle class, and clothing was not so much in the budget. This is not a big deal at four. My mother however, was twenty-nine, slim, and I'm sure she longed for nice clothing. On the last Wednesday of the month, my mother, and sometimes her mother, would line up with a throng of other hopeful housewives and wait for the doors to open so that they could rush in. I still remember the crush of bodies taller than myself and the eager anticipation of bargains. Cosmetics, shoes, handbags and men's furnishings were on the main floor. Children's and lingerie on the second, and women's clothing on the third. In the basement there were household goods, a small cafe, and Santa Claus at Christmas time. We went to the cafe after the sale once in a great while for watered down coffee, donuts and orange juice. Starbucks and coffee houses in general were not part of the scene then. Nor would anyone have thought of spending that much of the grocery budget on a coffee drink. Women did not lounge with their strollers and girlfriends where it was obvious that they were not attending to their household chores. Women had other women into their homes for coffee and cigarettes.
My grandmother, Zenaide, accompanied
us to these “end of the month” sales. Zenaide had a limp from
polio she had as a child, but it didn't really slow her down much. A
feisty old bat, she was good at slinging her purse in front of
someone, and securing her place. Bellying up to the bar as it were.
Because the sale goods were primarily located in waist high bins that
you had to rummage through, all of the activity was at my eye level.
A sea of hands and price tags flashed in front of me as items were
chosen then quickly discarded. Sometimes an item was momentarily
coveted, reflected upon, then tossed back into the sale flotsam.
Unless we were in the children's section, and the bin might actually
relinquish something that would be held up to me and perhaps even
purchased, I was far more interested in the thighs, hips and tummies
that presented themselves to me. Some rounded, some firmly girdled,
some like my mother's, so slim they didn't need girdling. And there
was the perfume, each scent fighting for it's rightful place. It was
the abatoir where women stood their ground, staked their place on the
tile, and clawed for bargains.
When I was eleven, I finally shopped
at the Bon with my own money, earned from picking strawberries and
beans. We continued to pick crops every summer thereafter, but this
was the only time I spent all of my earnings on two dresses. One was
a navy herringbone that buttoned up the front. It had a wide navy
collar and was a-line in shape. The other was a dropped shirtwaist
with pleats below the hips. It was brown with a thin orange stripe
running through it. I loved these dresses and alternated them with
my cousins hand me downs every weeks. The following year, my mother
purchased my first bra at The Bon.
In 1969, the year I was ten, a huge shopping mall opened in Eugene with a Meier and Franks anchoring it at one end, and a J.C. Penneys anchoring it at the other. A K-Mart opened several miles away, and the landscape of discount shopping in my hometown was forever changed. When I started junior high we were allowed to wear pants to school for the first time. Girls no longer had to shiver in cotton dresses and anklets during the winter months. When I was in the eighth grade, my mother allowed me to buy a pair of levis and wear them to school. When you have a pair of jeans, you have an outfit for every day. The Bon is now history.