Averyell A. Kessler
I was inching toward the sixth grade when Mama loaded me into the front seat of her Chevy and announced. “It’s time.”
“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.”
Instantly, 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 as soon as I walked in the front door of the First Presbyterian Church. Every single person, including the boys in my Sunday school class, would point and giggle. My face would flush red, my ears would tingle. It was the ultimate, stinging, sweat inducing embarrassment. I would be branded forever.
We rode downtown in stony silence. Mama found a parking place directly in front of the governor’s mansion, plunked a handful of nickels into the meter, and purchased a full hour for panic and distress. Plenty of time. I was certain that the Governor himself – or Mrs. Governor – would appear on the steps and focus binoculars on me. “Brassiere,” they’d shout. “She’s going to buy a brassiere.” I bit my tongue as we approached Jackson’s premier department store, stepped through its heavy glass doors, and entered its perfume scented lobby. The elevator doors in the distance were an open maw. Abandon hope all ye who enter here. *
When the elevator stopped on Kennington’s fourth floor, I was engulfed in the satiny world of ladies’ lingerie. (Once called foundations. A totally appropriate name for industrial strength girdles and heavily wired brassieres that could double as girders for the Golden Gate Bridge). 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, 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.
“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 rooms are this way.” I was a sheep being led to slaughter, an innocent child crossing the Rubicon, a wide-eyed rabbit wandering into a baited trap, but I followed. My captor, Mrs. Martin, swept aside the dressing room curtains and I stepped inside. Show time.
The entire event ended quickly. Apparently, Mrs. Martin had fitted every female in Jackson and was a master of her trade. I left with two diminutive brassieres – white cotton with a tiny bit of lace, and a minimum of suffering. My mother left with a shopping bag full of mysterious items she refused to show me. My ordeal had ended, but relief was temporary.
The next day, Sunday school and church loomed like a trip to the gallows. Mama had warned my father not to say anything, and he didn’t. But I was acutely aware that there’d been a distinct rearrangement of my figure. I was no longer a pancake little girl. I had a shape, minimal but winking in the bathroom mirror like a grinning Kewpie doll. The Presbyterians would never approve, and I’d be outed the minute I entered the church. I sucked in breath and sat on the last row of my Sunday School room, trying hard to shrink my tall skinny frame. When Mr. Ware stood and led us in a rousing version of “When the Roll is Called Up Yonder,” I looked around. No one was staring at me. They were staring at Miss Thompson’s ample backside as she pounded out the tune on a battered upright and blessed us with a warbling descant. It’s a wonder the plaster didn’t crack.
My profile was fading. I began to relax. The spotlight dimmed, and the siren did not wail. Boys did not point and giggle. No one did. Other than a customary “way-to long” sermon from Dr. M, nothing unusual occurred. My father whistled on the way home, as he shouted his customary after church remark, “If you don’t strike oil in 20 minutes, quit drilling!” We laughed as usual and hoped the roast hadn’t burned. When school started in the fall, I discovered I was not the only maturing female in my class, just one among many. I was growing up; I would survive. Maybe grown-up life wouldn’t be so bad after all.
*Dante’s Divine Comedy