Shopping at Von Beck’s

Deb Smith

Photo Credit: Classic Film/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Photo Credit: Classic Film/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

I want to tell you what I remember. It used to be very different, being taken shopping by your mother, going downtown to the big department stores. I’m not sure what age exactly, but at some age more than five and less than fifteen, my mother started taking me shopping with her. We would have to dress up, not going to church dressing up, but stylish. For my mother that meant a trim skirt and a twin set or, if we went with one of her friends, one of her nicer dresses with a matching short jacket. For me it meant a pleated skirt, a blouse with a Mary Jane collar, loafers, and clean white anklets. I didn’t know why she wanted to take me with her. At the time, I took it as some kind of instruction she felt she had to perform to make sure I grew up to be a proper young woman, but I was not an apt pupil. I hated shopping and thought it was stupid.

“Let me look at you. Stand up straight.” She would lift up my skirt and tug on the tail of my blouse until it was as tight as a straitjacket.

I clenched my teeth as she brushed the snarls out of my hair. When she nodded her acceptance of my appearance, I would sit on the end of the bed while she went into her bathroom to finish putting on lipstick. If she would ask me if I wanted to go shopping with her, I would always say no, but it wasn’t really an invitation. I didn’t whine or fuss or make a scene, but I began to resist in silent ways, wearing socks with holes in the toe, torn underwear, or cleaning the dirt from under my nails except for one.

I know this sounds like it’s going to be a long story, and I will try to get to the point, but I want you to understand how it was. The ritual of going shopping downtown and the relationship with my mother is important to understand why what happened on one particular trip was so startling to me and why I want to tell you about it. I have never talked to my mother about this and I don’t think I ever would.

When we first started going on these shopping trips she would wear gloves. Ladies still wore gloves as part of an outfit whether it was cold or hot. When we got in the car she would always check her purse to make sure she had her gloves. When the fashion changed and she decided that she would no longer wear gloves, she continued to check her purse for the gloves she no longer wore, but still carried. I would check the pocket of my skirt to make sure I had the dollar I had been given to buy candy at the counter. This was real candy in jars and bowls behind the glass of a display case. When you picked what you wanted, they would weigh it out on a candy scale, and pour it into a fancy white bag with the store name on it. It would make my brothers crazy jealous when I came home with a white bag of department store candy, but if I made too much of it my mother would make me share.

On shopping days we would drive the half hour to downtown and park in the ramp next to Von Beck’s. The entrance was on Lincoln Avenue and we had to climb up a spiral ramp, power steering of the wood-paneled station wagon crying at the tight circle, until we got to the public parking levels. The sides of the ramp were open with only a steel pipe between the car and the edge of the pavement. When I got older, I had recurrent dreams about riding in the car with my mother in parking ramps in which she would always drive through the barrier and off into space. These dreams frightened me at first, but after a while I just felt frustrated.

If we were shopping for school clothes or anything for my brothers we would usually go to Schuster’s Department Store. It was nice, but not the quality of Von Beck’s. Everything went on that metal charge plate with my father’s name on it. I had no sense of whether what we bought cost a little or a lot. We just came home with bags of whatever we needed, towels, socks, white shirts for my father, or a vase for Aunt Claire’s birthday.

The only thing good about being pressed into service as a shopping companion was that we always had lunch at the fancy restaurant on the fifth floor of Von Beck’s. This is probably something else you don’t know about. Back when there were big department stores like Von Beck’s downtown, they always had a nice restaurant on one of the upper floors so that ladies could have lunch. The restaurants were always quite large, not so much because they had scads of ladies lunching, but for the fashion shows which were a part of lunching at the department store. There would be a small stage at one end of the room. At regular intervals models wearing what was newly arrived at the store would appear on the stage and a description of the ensemble would be read as the model showed the garment to its best advantage, sometimes opening a coat or removing it, sometimes adding a scarf or taking one away. The tables with the diners were spaced widely enough so that once the demonstration on stage was finished, the model would walk around the room and visit the tables, emphasizing the important fashion trends that the outfit represented.

I don’t want you to think that I enjoyed going to lunch at Von Beck’s because I found the fashion shows fascinating. I did not. I paid very little attention as a general rule. I liked going to lunch at Von Beck’s because they had a great open-face roast beef sandwich with mashed potatoes. My mother and I had somehow worked out this arrangement, although I have no recollection of having a discussion with her about it. I would concede her right to require that I accompany her on these shopping trips as long as I was free to order the roast beef sandwich. Sometimes I would order the club sandwich because I liked the looks of the triple-decker cut on the diagonal with those long picks with the cellophane frills on top, but I almost always went for roast beef. It was such a thing of beauty, the corners of the white bread peeking out from under the slices of beef and the shiny thick gravy, a perfect ball of mashed potatoes on one end of the plate, and a few overcooked peas or carrots in between. I have no idea why having that plate of food set in front of me was such a big deal, but it felt like winning first prize.

That roast beef sandwich was a big reason why I didn’t pay much attention to the fashion shows. I was too busy composing the perfect forkful of bread, meat, gravy, and potatoes. By the time I finished my lunch, my mother was already checking her makeup and getting ready to leave. My mother was not a dawdler, lollygagger, or dillydallier. By the time I took the napkin from my lap and put it on the table, my mother would be halfway to the exit. Eventually, we would haul our bags to the car and make our way home.

This is probably not good storytelling and I hope you will bear with me. I just needed to explain how things were so that the rest of this would make sense to you. The story I really want to tell is about one of those shopping trips with my mother, one in particular. I hope you won’t be disappointed because it is such a little thing really, but for me it was a beginning.

I was eleven and I had been invited to a Christmas party by one of the girls in my class. It was important to my mother that I make a good impression. I knew it was important to my mother because she said it was important for me that I make a good impression. The good impression that was to be made required a new party dress. A trip to Von Beck’s was scheduled and even the promise of a roast beef sandwich did not lessen the degree to which I did not want to go. Being made to do something I did not want to do was not a new thing and it is certainly something that most children are familiar with. That is not the point of this story and I don’t want you to think that this was the epiphany that marked a change in my life.

We went on a Thursday. My mother wore her black dress with the white belt and full skirt. I wore a blue jumper. We breezed through the first floor, not stopping to browse purses or cosmetics. We started in shoes. It surprises me that dress-up shoes for girls of that age have not changed very much, black patent leather or plain white, and a strap. Some might have just a little heel or a bit of bow on the toe, but they are basically the same. My mother noticed that I had worn socks with a hole in the left one. I’m sure nobody else noticed her notice the hole, but I did and I knew that had probably set the day off in a bad direction. Sometimes I didn’t always think through the consequences of my silent resistance. Her revenge was immediate and shocking. She told me to remove my socks and use the footie things because I would be wearing these shoes with hose. I wanted to wail, but I knew I had earned this.

After selecting the black patent leather with a buckle bow, we went next to the third floor to look for a dress. I wish I could tell you what they called that department. I don’t even know what they call it now. For a while I think they called it “Juniors,” but it seems to me that at the time at this store it was “Young Miss” or something like that. We went straight to the racks with the dresses.

Usually, when my mother shopped she stopped at every rack and every display and did a thorough job of inspecting everything being offered. This time she walked right past the skirts, past the blouses, and past the crisp shirt dresses. She went to the rack with party dresses and found my size. She pushed the garments back along the rack so we could view them one at a time. The plastic hangers rattled and clacked against each other. She took the first dress by the shoulder and turned it to see its fabric and decorations: not acceptable. Zszszek, the dress was rejected with a quick slide back along the rack.

“This is cute. I like the little chains on the front. What do you think?” My mother kept her eyes on the dress. It was a deep green with an empire waist.

“It’s got those puffy sleeves,” I whined.

Zszszek. Next dress. Zszszek. Next dress. Zszszek.

“I like this. Pink is such a good color for you.” The dress had an oversized collar and large white buttons on the front.

And so it went. At least three racks of dresses. After the first two racks I stopped responding when she asked if I liked the dress she was holding. I knew that between the two of us this was an act of open hostility, but I just couldn’t help it. In the end, she pulled five dresses from the possibles and shoved me and them into a dressing room. I pulled the first one over my head and looked at myself in the mirror. My eyes were open and I knew that the image in the mirror was me wearing the dress, but no matter how hard I tried I could not see myself. All I saw was a hideous dress. I dutifully tried on one dress after another, walked out of the dressing room and paraded up and down for my mother to see. No matter how many times she told me to stand up straight and to pick up my feet when I walked, my shoulders slumped and I trudged as if I was slogging through mud.

I changed back into my clothes and came out of the dressing room holding the dresses.

“I think the pink,” she said and pulled that one from the pile in my arms.

“I won’t wear it.” I said this to the floor.

You can’t imagine how surprised I was that I had said it. My mind raced through a thousand permutations of how this situation might resolve. Would I end up with the pink dress or would she make a strategic retreat and come back to this later? I fumbled with the dresses and hangers.

“Give me the dresses. Go get the bag with your shoes from the dressing room.”

By the time I came back from retrieving the shoes she was halfway to the elevator. At least I wasn’t going home with the pink dress. I caught up with her as the elevator door opened. She pressed the button for the fifth floor and I felt relieved. Maybe by the time we finished lunch I would have worked out a plan.

I don’t want you to get the wrong impression. I loved my mother. I love my mother. I think she was disappointed that I was not more like her, or anyway I felt she was disappointed. People said we were too alike, and other people said we were too different. I always knew she loved me, but I didn’t think she liked me very much. I think I was too much like my father, which you would think would be a good thing, but it turned out not to be. I was in no hurry to be grown and off on my own, but I did know that at some point I would leave her and my days of shopping trips and threats of pink dresses would be behind me.

The hostess directed us to a table by the window. My mother asked for coffee and I ordered iced tea. The dining room had tall windows on the east and south walls. The sunlight and the flowered wallpaper made it feel like a garden even though it was well into winter outside. The tables had white tablecloths and a small vase of white daisies and baby’s breath. Although it was barely noon, the room was already two-thirds full. The sound of spoons in coffee cups added a soft percussive background to the voices and restrained laughter from the other tables. We ordered lunch and my mother read over the program for the fashion show. I sat quietly and fondled the dollar bill in my pocket.

“Hello, ladies. I hope you are enjoying your lunch. We have a number of new winter ensembles to show to you today. The trend continues to be fine woolens and muted plaids are making an appearance in today’s outerwear. Let’s begin.”

The woman who ran the fashion show sat on a stool behind a podium with the Von Beck’s logo on the front. A young woman wearing a somewhat oversized coat walked onto the stage. She was tall and had shoulder length black hair that was brushed away from her face and curled under at the back. The woman at the podium started describing the coat. My mother picked at her chef’s salad. I was busy composing succulent forkfuls of roast beef.

I’m sorry to go on and on about the damned roast beef sandwich, but in a way it was my only respite on these excursions and it seemed almost a part of who I was. I was the girl who ate roast beef with her mother in the dining room at Von Beck’s. You see what I mean? I was and then all of a sudden I wasn’t.

About halfway through lunch the waitress came and topped off my iced tea. I put down my fork and put the napkin to my lips. At just that moment, the model in the oversized coat came to our table. She put her hand on the back of my chair and I turned to look at her.

“This Burberry coat and scarf are available in the women’s outerwear department on the second floor. The coat comes in grey, brown, and a muted blue plaid.”

I rarely looked at the models who came to the table, but she had drawn my attention with the pressure of her hand on the back of my chair. I turned in my seat as she stepped back from the table and unwound the scarf that cowled her neck. Then she unbuttoned the coat to display the quilted cream silk lining. My eyes followed the movement of her hands and when she held the coat open I saw that she was wearing a pink dress with large white buttons. For a moment I thought my mother had put in the fix with someone, but I knew that couldn’t be so. Then, I saw the woman’s face. Behind the makeup, the perfect hair, and the Von Beck’s fashion show smile, she was crying. Her eyes were glossy with tears and her lips could not hold the smile steady. She turned quickly and I saw my mother admire the detail on the back of the coat. I also saw the woman slip a handkerchief from the pocket and duck her head for just a moment. When she turned back to face us, she made eye contact with me and then hurried away.

I had never felt so sad, but I had no idea what I was sad about. I picked at my lunch until my mother scolded me to stop slouching in my chair. I asked to be excused to the toilet and my mother told me to go ahead, but not to wander off. The ladies room was empty and I flopped into one of the high backed chairs in the lounge where ladies fixed their makeup. I kept seeing the woman’s eyes. She had been struggling not to blink. I never knew a person’s eyes could hold so many tears without them spilling down her cheeks. She had been drowning in tears. I wanted to tell her not to be sad about having to wear the pink dress, but as soon as I said that to myself I knew that was not it at all. It was something more disappointing, perhaps even desperate.

My world up to that point had been my family, school, and my best friend, Sally. The rest of the world seemed too unrelated to me and somewhat abstract. Sally had cried when she fell and broke her wrist, but that was not the same as this at all. In so far as I had thought about becoming an adult, I thought about it as a time when my mother would no longer tell me what to wear and I could have roast beef sandwiches whenever I wanted them. Now that seemed so foolish and I was embarrassed at my own childishness.

When I came out of the ladies room, I saw some of the models through an open door at the far end of the hall. I walked towards them, keeping one hand on the wall. I wanted to know if my model was going to be all right. When I got far enough down the hall, I could see into the changing room. There were half a dozen women putting things on and taking things off. As they moved around and away, I saw my model sitting at a makeup table, looking out a window and smoking a cigarette. The pink dress was draped over a chair next to her. She crushed the cigarette into an ashtray and began touching up her lipstick. She brushed her hair back and gave the mirror the showroom smile. I felt tears building in my eyes.

Things felt quite unsettled over the next few weeks. I could tell my mother felt it as much as I did. I was being too quiet and spending too much time sitting in places which were invariably in her way. She ordered me outside, she ordered me to my room, and she ordered me to the corner store for milk. Coming home with the milk I wondered how she felt about how things seemed to be changing. It occurred to me that it might be hard for her.

She still made me go shopping with her, but I stopped wearing socks with holes in the toe. It was now her turn to resist silently.

pencilDeb Smith is a retired criminal trial lawyer. What she knows about fiction writing she learned from the Madison Writers’ Studio. She is grateful for their support and guidance. She was a 2014 finalist in the Lascaux Review 250 Flash Fiction contest and received honorable mention in the 2014 Lorian Hemingway Short Story Competition. She continues to write short stories, but has recently jumped into the deep end of the pool and started a novel. Email: deborah8smith[at]

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