Averyell A. Kessler
I was inching toward the seventh grade when Mama loaded me into the front seat of her Chevy and announced. “It’s time.” It was a hot Saturday in August. Belhaven was simmering.
“Time for what?” I asked.
“A brassiere,” she said simply. I blanched.
“Oh no,” I said. “I can’t……
“Honey, you’re growing up. Remember, we talked about it.”
“Not yet,” I said. “I’m only twelve.”
“There’s nothing to worry about. We’re going to Kennington’s and you’ll be fitted by a nice lady. You can wear it to church tomorrow.”
Suddenly, I was pinned in a blazing spotlight. The word Bra would be tattooed across my forehead in giant red letters. A shrieking siren would wail and whoop as soon as I entered the First Presbyterian Church. Every single person, including the boys in my Sunday school class, would point and giggle. Dr. Miller would lean over his pulpit, focus his beady eyes on me, and shake his head as if I was posing for Photoplay. It was the ultimate, stinging, sweat inducing embarrassment. We rode downtown in stony silence.
Mama found a parking spot on Capital Street, directly in front of the Governor’s Mansion. Ordinarily, I enjoyed looking at this lovely building, but not today. On this day, the mansion was a harbinger of doom. I was confident that spirits of long-ago women, gasping for breath in tightly bound corsets, were staring at me from the upstairs windows as they opened their ghostly mouths and whispered, “Run, darling, run. It’s now or never. There’s no turning back.” I wondered if they’d been buried in full regalia. But Kenningtons was just ahead and mama walked with confidence. For her, this was an ordinary errand on an ordinary day; for me, a groundbreaking event as startling as the appearance of Haley’s Comet. My fingernails dug into Mama’s arm as we crossed the street and pushed opened Kenningtons’ glamorous glass doors. “Don’t worry honey, this will be fun.” She streamed past the cosmetics counter, turned her eyes away from a display of paten leather shoes, and stopped in front of the elevators. There would be no retreat.
When the elevator opened on Kenningtons’ fourth floor, I was engulfed in the satiny world of ladies’ lingerie. (Back in the day, the term was foundations! Lingerie, a word of French origin, was considered totally unsuitable for honest Christian women). I had no idea that such lacey garments existed, but here they were in full glory, a display of slips and petticoats in every imaginable color, reed thin mannequins in gossamer nightgowns and robes to match, boxes of stockings and fluffy slippers with high heels and feathered toes. What fun! A veritable battleship of a woman in swishing black silk, greeted us.
“Hello, Mrs. Althaus,” she said. “This is the young lady?” A cotton tape measure hung around her neck, as well as a strand of opera length pearls. Obviously, Mama had called ahead. A warning flag rose in my brain.
“Yes, Marie,” my mother answered. “This is my daughter. Averyell, this is Mrs. Martin.” I tried to smile, but my feet were bolted to the floor. My fingers were ice.
“Come with me, my dear,” she said, wrapping a beefy arm around my shoulder. “The dressing room is this way.” I was a sheep being led to slaughter, an innocent child crossing the Rubicon, a wide-eyed rabbit entering a baited trap, but I followed. My captor, Mrs. Martin, swept aside the dressing room curtains then I stepped inside and stood statue still in front of a full-length mirror. In my mind, I was under a super trooper spotlight in Barnum and Bailey’s center ring.
Apparently, Mrs. Martin had fitted every female in Jackson and was a master of her trade. My embarrassment faded as she smiled, talked about her pet poodle, and measured me with indifference. Maybe, just maybe, I’d stepped away from childhood and was edging into the grown-up world. The entire event was over quickly, and I left with two diminutive brassieres – white cotton with a tiny bit of lace- and a minimum of suffering. Mama left with a mysterious bag of purchases she did not share with me. I was rewarded with a Seale Lily chocolate milk shake for good behavior. On the way home, Mama promised I’d appear in high heel glory in no less than a year, and lipstick was in the near future. She was right; this was fun.
The next day, I walked into church with a knot in my stomach and swallowing hard. Mama squeezed my hand and gave me a “its’ going to be alright” smile. Daddy said nothing – smart guy – but he realized his little girl was taking her first steps into adulthood and comments were not welcome. Didn’t matter, I knew he loved me no matter what.
Sunday school and church passed without incident, even though the opening hymn was “How Firm a Foundation.” The spotlight dimmed, and the siren did not wail. Dr. Miller focused on Calvin’s first point (always a cheery subject) and didn’t notice me. Boys did not point and giggle. When school started in the fall, I discovered I was one among many. The Power School gang was growing up. I would survive.