MY THREE-MINUTE ENGAGEMENT

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[An earlier version of this post appeared here in two parts last December. I've now trimmed away the excess verbiage to make it one-post size for all the wonderful new readers who've been stopping by since then.]

It was October 1994; I was again between husbands. (Between second husband and Bill, to be precise.) In other words, I was at liberty.  And working at a very large law firm, second largest in Boston.

This law firm (I name no names) was so large, for Boston, that it occupied many floors of a building a whole square block around.  There were so many floors it took three or four minutes for the elevator to get from the top one to the lowest.  The firm employed upwards of 300 lawyers on those floors, plus 400 in support staff, not counting the mail room.  Also pertinent to this story is that many of those 700 people sort of knew who I was.  Not because I had done such extraordinary things in court (I hadn’t), but because I was the only woman in the firm with a New York accent. Unlike anyone else who worked there, I sounded as if I’d come right out of a Woody Allen movie.

Levity aside, you didn’t have much spare time for lolly-gagging around if you practiced law at this big firm.  But you had a little bit.  It was still before cell phones and working from home. When you finally did get to leave, you were relatively free of the office and law for a while.  Which is how I was able to take an advertised walk with a Boston Park Ranger through the Emerald Circle of Boston’s municipal parks on the first Saturday in October. I did it to knock myself out so I would be too tired in the evening to indulge in self-pity, all alone by the telephone.

While dutifully admiring nineteenth-century statues of important historical figures on the Boston Common, I fell in with another walker; she was about my age, also divorced with two grown sons, and also living in Cambridge.  (A social worker, but you can’t have everything.) We went home together on the Red Line. Just before I got out at the Harvard Square stop, she asked how I felt about Mort Sahl.  He was coming to Cambridge for a two week run at the Hasty Pudding Theater on Holyoke Street.  Would I like to go with her the following Saturday night?

In all candor, I felt nothing for Mort Sahl.   By then I had seen him in performance three times.  First with a blind date, when I was very young and he was still unknown; next with first husband, when I was not yet thirty and he was very famous;  last with second husband, when I was not quite middle-aged and his career was not quite gone. So I’d had plenty of opportunity to decide he wasn’t my type. In spite of that, I agreed to go. It wasn’t as if I had anything better to do next Saturday night.

Attention, those of you not yet adults in the early 1960s:  Run, don’t walk, to Wikipedia to look up Mort Sahl.  His photo there will show you a tall, dark-haired man with a devilish grin.  You’ll learn he was born in 1927, had been married twice by the time of this story, was the first ever American performer to make it in stand-up comedy discussing current events and politics.  He was especially popular with East and West Coast intelligentsia — who jammed themselves into smart clubs on both coasts whenever and wherever he appeared, if only to say they’d seen him in action.

You’ll also learn how he would stroll to the mike so casually, wearing his signature sweater, with signature rolled-up newspaper in hand — and then let fire into a hot packed room. He was swift, sharp, biting, bitter. And merciless.  In 1960 Time Magazine called him “Will Rogers with fangs.”

My new friend brought another friend to the performance; I never did catch this one’s name.  The nameless friend had long streaming grey hair, flowing garments and practiced some kind of spiritual balance therapy with pyramids, algae and crystals.  Definitely not my type, either.

We accordingly chose a seating arrangement that allowed new friend and nameless friend to coo at each other till showtime, leaving me to case the room. Judging by the scatterings of silver heads and wispy white beards, we were an aging group. No young folks at all.  And plenty of empty seats.

Then the theater dimmed, the stage lights went on, the feature attraction strolled out to the mike.  He was still wearing a sweater, still carrying a rolled-up newspaper, still tall.  But the dark hair was grey, the grin querulous, the quips tired and forced.

And soon a new disquiet emerged from his discourse:  the end of his twenty-four year marriage. How he’d tried, how much it hurt, why it shouldn’t have ended.  Mort Sahl without fangs. The audience stirred restlessly. Two or three got up to go.  Didn’t he realize?  Didn’t he care?  My type or no, I began to feel bad for him. How could he humiliate himself like that?  Shut up  about the lost wife already and start snarling.

But he didn’t.  Or couldn’t.  On and on and on he went, laboring past the absence of response, the awful silences.  Until it was over. A few feeble claps. The doors opened. At last: a breath of fresh air.

I ruminated all weekend. About the fleetingness of fame, aging men and their lack of resilience. About what really matters, and what doesn’t.  By Monday morning, I had come to a decision.  I was going to write him a letter. Monday night I did.

What do you write an aging comedian whose sun seems to have set?

October 10, 1994

Dear Mort Sahl:

I was at the 7 p.m. show last Saturday, very pleased to be seeing you again in your red sweater still doing your thing to a gratified audience.  What was particularly pleasing for me has to do with an evening at the end of summer 1952, when I predicted your future to my date.

In August 1952, I was fresh out of college, an insecure little girl from the East whose parents had just moved to L.A. with daughter in tow. (No, I didn’t resist, which tells you something right there.) On that evening I was brought to a so-called party at someone’s apartment by a physically unprepossessing blind date (short! and with a big nose!) — the son of someone my mother had met at a beauty parlor.  He was in training to do psychotherapy.  Our disenchantment with each other was mutual; I never saw him again after that.

Among the other guests was you, sitting on the floor, looking unkempt, unshaved and somewhat ragged, and holding forth to the assembled with what I took for (and may well have been) venom and rancor about practically everything but especially the under-appreciation which you had been accorded in San Francisco, from whence you had just come in a state of apparent destitution.  During the interstices of your performance from the floor, my date whispered that you were the current boyfriend of still another guest, who was putting you up and feeding you while you purportedly tried to get on your professional feet in L.A.

It was very hot.  I was wearing — with maximum discomfort — that summer’s requisite outfit for the upwardly mobile: a waist cincher, a strapless bra that felt as if it were sliding down, two scratchy crinolines, a heavily quilted off-the-shoulder Anne Fogarty dress with a circle skirt and three-inch wide belt that dug into the ribs and also made gas, because it prevented the proper digestion of dinner.  In addition, I wore several pounds of makeup which were threatening to slide away in a flood of perspiration if we didn’t get out of there soon.  Not surprisingly, I did not feel benign.

“A loser,” I pronounced to the date with finality as we made our getaway.  “Now there’s someone who’ll never amount to anything.”

****************

Well.  I first went to see you perform (for money) in New York, in the company of husband number one — about four or five years later, I think.  It may have been at the Blue Angel. Husband number one dragged me. The sweater wasn’t red yet, the crowds were huge, you were too quick for most of the audience and at times, to my chagrin, too quick for me.  Husband number one, who was able to keep up, thought you were great.

The second time I saw you perform was again in New York, during one of your later renascences, but with husband number two.  I dragged husband number two.  The sweater was now red, you were much mellower, and mercifully slower on the draw.  No more semi-automatic attack weapons.  I could keep up.  Husband number two, the unwilling attendee, thought you were great.

This time, newly resident in Cambridge, I and a 1950′s-vintage lady neighbor I had recently met decided to go together. (No dragging.)  But she dragged still another lady I did not know.  Both ladies turned out to be into crystals, green algae, and the like.  I don’t know what the two ladies thought.  I thought you were great.

If it weren’t for the presence of the two ladies, who began clamoring to get to Chef Chow for Chinese food as soon as you walked off, I would have come back stage to tell you so. (I probably would also have talked about survivors, and change, and process, and heavy stuff like that, if you actually have real conversations when you’re off stage.)  But I couldn’t and therefore didn’t. Hence this letter.

I’ve never written a fan letter to anyone before, and probably never will again, but it seems unlikely that either of us will last another forty-two years, so here it is.

[I'm also sorry that you are lonely sometimes and that the end of your marriage hurts you so much -- inappropriate as such remarks may be in a letter of this kind.]

If you ever come back to these un-Hollywoodlike parts, and feel like getting in touch, please do.

Take care and be well.

Nina Mishkin

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 I put my home address on the letter and mailed it.  I had done what I could. A summary judgment motion was waiting in my office. It was Tuesday morning, I was only half done, and the whole thing, with supporting documents, had to be filed by 4 p.m. Friday. Or the client would be in the soup, and I’d be out the door.[Those were the fun days of my life! The pay was pretty good, though, if you could stand the pain.]

I made it.  No soup, no door.   And not a peep out of Mort Sahl, either.  When I had time to think about him again, I wondered if my letter had ever reached him. I’d sent it to the theater, not knowing where else it should go. Was that like the Black Hole of Calcutta?

Oh well.  It was a pretty good weekend, all things considered: Hairdresser, shopping, pistachio ice cream in bed.  But not for the lawyer I shared a secretary with; he was slaving away his Saturday in the office.    [Yes, we did that sometimes.  Correction: more than sometimes.]

Let’s say this lawyer’s name was Jim.  It wasn’t, but let’s say anyway.  If my phone were to ring when I wasn’t there, the call would go to our secretary.  And if she wasn’t there but Jim was, he’d be the one who picked up. (Thinking, no doubt, it was for him.) That Saturday, my phone did ring. Jim answered, and put the message on our secretary’s desk.  Come Monday, she saw it before I did.

Did she ever get busy!  Soon every secretary on our floor knew what was in my message. Then the news flew, like wildfire, to other floors. Don’t legal secretaries have anything to do except gossip (as one of them put it) about “lawyers in love?”

By the time I showed up at 9:33 (after three minutes in the elevator) and saw the yellow sticky now squarely centered on my desk, I must have been the last to know what Jim had written on it:

Nina –

You got a call from Mort Sahl.  He’s at the Charles Hotel, 864-1200.  Call him Monday if you don’t see this before then.

Jim  (Saturday – 2:20 p.m.)

Oh, Mort.  Why the office?  I gave you my home address!  Couldn’t you have asked Information for that number instead?

I closed the door before I dialed.  (Yes, I was nervous.)  The hotel switchboard connected me.

The familiar voice was cautious:  “Hello?”

I explained who I was.

The voice warmed up.  “That was a great letter!”

Me: Glad you liked it. (This was true.)

He: You’re a lawyer?

Me (evasive):  Mmm.

He (skipping over the lawyer part): A really great letter. I’d like to see you.

Me: I’d like that, too.

(Awkward pause.)

Me again: Will you be here long?

He: Flying out this afternoon.

Me (disheartened): “Oh.”

He (encouraged by the disheartened “oh”): “But I’ll be back.  We’re doing another show in the East in December.  Maybe then?”

Me: Absolutely.

He: Okay.

Me: Okay.

He: Bye, then.

Me: Bye.

Well, what did you expect?  Romeo and Juliet?

Important Rule of Life:  It’s not enough for news to travel, it has to change and grow as well.  At one in the afternoon when I got back into the elevator for lunch, the head of my department was in the elevator, too. This dour lady lawyer had always disapproved of me. She didn’t like that I sometimes laughed. She considered my remarks about the environmental problems caused by underground storage tanks insufficiently serious. But today her thin face was wreathed in smiles.

“Nina!” she cried joyously as the elevator doors closed on us. I thought she might  be going to hug me.  “Congratulations! I hear you’re engaged to Mort Sahl!”

That’s probably the high point of this story.  It’s all downhill from here on.  Beginning with the three whole minutes in the elevator it took to get myself un-engaged. Dis-engaged?  You know what I mean.  So maybe I should stop while I’m ahead.  But I’d be lying if I let you think I didn’t watch The Boston Globe and The New York Times like a hawk for the next two months. However, if Mort ever came East again that year, it got by me.

Ah, don’t fret.  There is a happy ending. Three happy endings actually, if you take the long view.

  1.  The dour lady lawyer who headed up our department began to look on me more favorably.
  2.  Two years later, Mort Sahl found a new wife.
  3.  Seven years later, I met Bill, who’s more my type.

Also, Mort was right.  It was a great letter. And we both still have that.

LET ME ENTERTAIN YOU, MAYBE

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The topic for today is “Jewish Haiku,” which I found nicely typed out in a folder of keepers stashed away in the front drawer of my father’s desk, where I’m not usually prone to go looking.  Until I did. And there they were.

Given that my shortish-term memory is going the way of my energy level and the perkiness of my behind, I cannot now recall when or from whom I originally received them, and certainly hope I don’t wake up tomorrow morning to an offended email from the donor reminding me.  (As happened with the flashmob performance of “Ode to Joy” a few weeks back.) Be that as it may, their presence in the keeper folder means at one time I found them irresistible. And what do you know? I still do.

However, to post, or not to post? That is the question.

If you’ve never had Jewish guilt or what is known stereotypically as “a Jewish mother” (not all Jewish mothers are), if you don’t know about mohels performing ritual circumcisions on the eighth day after birth or about bar mitzvah ceremonies for boys at thirteen (“Today I am a man”), or that observant male Jews cover their heads with a (usually black) Yarmulke, or that Yom Kippur is the annual Day of Atonement, or that lobster (or any other shellfish) isn’t kosher and therefore mustn’t be eaten, or that food is very important at all times, or that the worst is almost always certain to happen, or that after a death the family sits shiva at home for five days to receive friends and not be alone with their grief — then you probably won’t get what’s going on here.

On the other hand, I’ve already just explained most of the important stuff. So let’s give it a try.  Nothing ventured, nothing gained. Drop out whenever you’ve had it. Don’t be shy about asking questions. But please don’t ask for more.  By the time you get to the end, I’m sure you won’t want to. There comes a point when enough is enough.

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JEWISH HAIKU

***

After the warm rain

the sweet smell of camellias.

Did you wipe your feet?

***

Looking for pink buds

to prune, the old moyel

wanders among his flowers.

***

Today I am a man.

Tomorrow I will return

to the seventh grade.

***

Testing the warm milk

on her wrist, she sighs softly.

But her son is forty.

***

The sparkling blue sea

reminds me to wait an hour

after my sandwich.

***

Tea ceremony –

fragrant steam perfumes the air.

Try the cheese danish.

***

Lacking fins or tail

the gefilte fish swims with

great difficulty.

***

Yom Kippur — Forgive

me Lord for the Mercedes

and all that lobster.

***

My nature journal –

Today I saw some trees and birds.

I should know the names?

***

Like a bonsai tree,

your terrible posture

at my dinner table.

***

Beyond Valium is

the peace of knowing one’s child

is an internist.

***

Jews on safari –

map, compass, elephant gun,

hard sucking candies.

***

Coroner’s report –

“The deceased, wearing no hat,

caught his death of cold.”

***

The sparrow brings home

too many worms for her young.

“Force yourself,” she chirps.

***

Jewish triathlon:

gin rummy, then contract bridge,

followed by a nap.

***

The shiva visit:

So sorry about your loss.

Now back to my problems.

***

Our youngest daughter,

our most precious jewel, hence

the name, Tiffany.

***

Mom, please! There is no

need to put that dinner roll

in your pocketbook.

***

Seven-foot Jews in

the NBA slam-dunking!

My alarm clock rings.

***

Concert of car horns

as we debate the question

of when to change lanes.

***

Sorry I’m not home

to take your call. At the tone

please state your bad news.

***

Is one Nobel Prize

so much to ask from a child

after all I’ve done?

***

Today, mild shvitzing.

Tomorrow, so hot you’ll plotz.

Five-day forecast: feh

***

Passover — Left the door open

for the Prophet Elijah.

Now our cat is gone.

***

Quietly murmured

at Saturday services,

Yanks 5, Red Sox 3.

***

A lovely nose ring –

excuse me while I put my

head in the oven.

***

Hard to tell under 

the lights — white Yarmulke or

male-pattern baldness?

***

(Yes, enough.)

IN DEFENSE OF TALK THERAPY

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I save things that seem important: old photographs, records of the past I might want to revisit, writing that speaks to me.  Sometimes I forget about these saved things for years and then come upon them by happenstance while looking for something else.

As was the case yesterday when I was rummaging around in the front drawer of my father’s French Provincial desk (a North Carolina copy, not an 18th century original), which is practically useless for real work but decorative enough to keep in the living room to put a lamp and framed family photographs on.  (Also one of the cats likes napping on it in the evening.)  Its thin middle drawer contains, among a few other folders and envelopes, a binder of articles that at one time or another I thought keepers – including a review by Joan Acocella of several books about psychiatry that appeared fourteen years ago in The New Yorker. (May 8, 2000 issue.)  It was called “The Empty Couch: What is lost when psychiatry turns to drugs?” I had to drop everything I was doing and re-read it at once because, like Acocella, I am a member of the talk therapy generation.

I have at times made fun of my years on the couch, or on an expensive chair — expensive in terms of hours sat on, not initial cost. Called myself the Queen of Therapy.  (Woody Allen is King.) Have even dropped at least one light-hearted reference in this very blog to “the Hungarian,” the first of the two shrinks who you could say — not quite literally but not exactly metaphorically either — saved my life. He was the one who called me “honeybunch,” which may not have been quite in keeping with the ethics of the profession, but was what I then certainly needed to hear from somebody.

In fact, I probably owe the existence of my two children to this ebullient representative of the “paprikash of Europe” (his own term for Hungarian men). It’s also an accurate summary of my emotional life to say I haven’t been able leave a husband until I had a shrink, and haven’t been able to leave a shrink until I had a husband.  (You figure that one out: Bill is both.)

Like many things in my life, and in the lives of others who have lived as long as I have, talk therapy seems to be on the way out. It is time-consuming, expensive, participatory — and to those who haven’t experienced it (or haven’t paid for it out of pocket, as most of us in the old days did, going without other things to afford it), it may seem self-indulgent and too self-referential.  Medication, by contrast, is a quick fix for symptoms, once the doc figures out the formula that works.  Moreover, insurance companies love the biomedical approach: one, two, three and skidoo – out into the world again, seemingly good as new.  And what insurance companies love (and pay for) is what insureds get.

Acocella’s review considers how we reached this point, and the merits for certain kinds of patients of each approach.  But she, like me, clearly tips in favor of talking oneself back into balance, unless one is seriously ill. And because I feel I should atone somewhat for my occasional levity about what has helped me get through some very rough times, and also because she is eloquent, I am now going to turn the lectern over to her. She states the case for an approach to life’s problems that I hope will not entirely disappear:

For many people of my generation, especially women, psychotherapy is not so much an issue as a history, a language in which they learned to speak of themselves, and of life. This fact has been widely deplored. Psychotherapy, people say, has taught women to think of themselves as victims. It has made them narcissistic, turned them in on their own minds rather than out into the world, where the men seem to be living. True enough, of some therapies. In others women — and men — have learned to stop being victims and to act in the world…..

What do we think about psychotherapy? I don’t mean for inpatients. (They clearly need it; their lives are wrecked.) I mean for outpatients, the walking wounded — us. For some, it’s damaging. Even when it’s good, it’s very expensive, but compared with the church and family of yesteryear, whose loss it is trying to make up for, it’s a bargain. (In the church, you tithed, gave ten percent of your income. As for the family, it kept women at home. What was the cost of that?)

And when it is good, it is something hard to find in life, a moral dialogue.  [One of the writers reviewed says of one of her therapists that with him talk] “was not only the means to a therapeutic end, but … the central source of moral meaning itself.” …. [T]he truth is that a talk about moral meaning cannot not be therapeutic, if by therapy we mean not just symptom relief but a chance for a serious life.

The matters that people discuss in psychotherapy — whether they are really answerable for their lives, whether they should place their own welfare over another’s — are the things that people in the Bible were trying to decide.  They are the big questions, right? For patients in serious distress, pills are useful, but they cannot provide, don’t aim to provide, what psychodynamic therapy has at its core:…“a sense of human complexity, of depth, an exigent demand to struggle against one’s own refusals, and a respect for the difficulty of human life.”

The italics at the end are mine.  I like to laugh as much as the next person, but I have never wanted to be numbed into accepting what was, when what was was of my own making. You can choose to swallow something someone gives you, not feel the pain, and giggle. Or you can demand the right to struggle against your own refusals. Life is difficult, but if you choose not to experience it, not to work your way through the difficulties – can you say you’ve really lived?

MORE FROM MORGENBESSER

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Sidney Morgenbesser’s paradoxical words as he was dying of ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease) are not the only ones he’s known for.  Here, from Wikiquote, are some of his less bitter remarks. (Remember, he was a professor of philosophy.)

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During a lecture, the Oxford linguistic philosopher J.L. Austin made the claim that although a double negative in English implies a positive meaning, there is no language in which a double positive implies a negative.  To which Morgenbesser derisively called out from the audience, “Yeah, yeah.”

Asked by a student whether he agreed with Chairman Mao’s view that a statement can be both true and false at the same time, Morgenbesser replied, “Well, I do and I don’t.”

During campus protests of the 1960s, Morgenbesser was hit on the head by police. When asked whether he had been treated unfairly or unjustly, he responded that it was “unfair, but not unjust. It was unfair because they hit me over the head, but not unjust because they hit everyone else over the head.”

When challenged why he had written so little, Morgenbesser fired back: “Moses wrote one book. Then what did he do?”

Morgenbesser described Gentile ethics as entailing “ought implies can,” while in Jewish ethics, “can implies don’t.”

When asked his opinion of pragmatism, Morgenbesser replied, “It’s all very well in theory but it doesn’t work in practice.”

Asked to prove a questioner’s existence, Morgenbesser shot back, “Who’s asking?”

A student once interrupted him to complain, “I just don’t understand!” He responded, “Why should you have the advantage over me?”

****************

What I take away from all this is that I think I wish I’d known Morgenbesser, but maybe it’s better that I didn’t.  I’d be afraid of what he’d say to me. I’m no philosopher, and I already don’t understand anything.

Is there anything more than anything for me not to understand? If there is, I’m sure Morgenbesser would have found it.  And then where would I be?

MY MOST-READ POST IN CERTAIN COUNTRIES!

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It was called “My First Bra(s).” I put it up because it had been cut, for reasons of length, from an essay of mine about the summer I turned thirteen which was published in The Iowa Review last spring, and I didn’t want it to sink without having had its chance to be read.

Sixteen of its first readers clicked “like.” I recognized all sixteen:  fifteen faithful followers of my then four-month-old blog and one woman who identified herself as a friend of a follower.  Thirteen women, three men. Mostly they lived in the U.S., UK, and Canada. All but one were native English speakers, and the one was perfectly bilingual. The women who left comments thought it was sweet, tender. One spoke of it as commemorating a lovely bonding experience between mother and daughter.

I expected that after a few days it would gently fade away.  Boy, did it not!  Except — curiouser and curiouser (as Alice in Wonderland might have said) — whenever it subsequently showed up in the stats, one or at most two views at a time, a Moslem country would also show up on my viewer map. A different country each time, but almost always one where women are generally hidden away in the home and well wrapped up when emerging on the arm of a husband,  father or brother for necessary purposes.

What was it about my sweet little piece that had such appeal to (presumably male) readers in burqa-wearing countries?  I read it again.  Had I used a “dirty” word? I found nipples, young girl, budding breast, delicate tissues, baby breast, fragile tissues, precious daughter.  Is that so exciting?  So productive of tumescence?

In certain parts of the world, apparently yes.  “My First Bra(s)” is now my fourth most popular ever piece of TGOB writing, if we don’t count “Home Pages/Archives.” [The first three are "Roger Angell on Life in His Nineties," "About," and "Why Blog About Getting Old?"] Those parts of the world where it has won such favor are probably the places where every martyr gets twelve virgins and eighty orange trees in heaven, but not much here on earth until marriage or martyrdom – except for what may be found on blogs emanating from the corrupt and shameful West, to be relished privately in the dark of night.

So I am running “My First Bra(s)” again — at what I assume is the unspoken request of its surreptitious fans.  I have even provided a photo:

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Unfortunately, the photo is of a garment three cup sizes bigger than the “first” bra referenced in the piece. That one has gone the way of all delicious reveries.  Sorry, fellas.  Best I could do.  If the photographed garment is too “mature” for you, just close your eyes and don’t look until you’ve scrolled down to where the magic begins!

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MY FIRST BRA(S)

My mother had promised: When we got back to New York from the beach resort where we were spending the summer, I could have a bra. I was just thirteen and still only a little beyond flat-chested. But there had been bouncing. And teasing. And embarrassment. It was the summer of 1944.

My mother didn’t make promises easily, but those she made, she kept. In September, we went to Best & Company, a department store she felt she could trust for what she called “such an important purchase.” The saleswoman in Misses’ Lingerie looked me over doubtfully, shook her head and gave my mother a little card from the drawer under the cash register. “Come back in a year or so,” she said to me.

The address on the card was that of a small shop on Madison Avenue in the Seventies. We waited on little gilt chairs until someone could be with us. There was a pale pink brochure on the round glass-topped table next to my chair, which I read. Brassieres could apparently be fitted to the requirements of, or could be custom-made for, the client with extremely large breasts, or pendulous breasts, or just one breast, or no breasts. The brochure was silent as to the needs of the very young client.

However, the white-haired corseted lady who finally emerged from behind the floor-length pink curtains that divided the anteroom from the rest of the shop seemed absolutely delighted to see me. “Exactly the sort of client we love,” she cooed. “A young girl with happy problems, easily solved.” She ushered us past the pink curtains into a large mirrored alcove shielded by more pink curtains. There I was instructed to take off my blouse, drop the wide straps of my slip, and remove my undershirt. My mother sat on yet another gilt chair, holding the blouse and undershirt and looking anxious. She did not know what all this was going to cost.

I felt shy about exposing my budding breasts. Even my mother hadn’t seen them recently. But the white-haired lady didn’t seem to find them peculiar. “Lovely,” she murmured, running the tips of her fingers softly around the sides. “These are very delicate tissues,” she explained to my mother. “One must be so careful to protect them from bruising and strain. Lack of proper care at this age can result in irreparable damage and a lifetime of regret.” I wondered if lack of care in Russia was the reason my mother was so floppy without her brassiere. Was she now enduring a lifetime of regret?

The white-haired lady measured me with a pink silk tape measure and jotted notes on a small pink pad with a small silvery pencil. She felt each baby breast gently to gauge its circumference, and jotted more notes on the pad. Then she slipped away for a few minutes. Before I knew it, she was instructing me how to center each breast in the AA-cup of a beautiful pink silk satin brassiere. “There is a right way, and a wrong way,” she said. “Now you are one of the lucky young girls who knows the right way.”

When I was hooked in, she had me turn around, inspecting me as if I were a work of art. “We’ll need to take a teensy tuck in the left cup,” she told my mother. “Nothing to worry about. Many young girls need it, on one side or the other.”

My mother nodded, inquired the price, bit her lip, and said we would take two. The white-haired lady looked pained. “But my dear!” she exclaimed. “She needs at least two more for night wear. Are you really going to permit your precious daughter to damage those delicate young tissues while she sleeps?”

So it was that I became the owner of four AA-cup pink silk satin brassieres at the beginning of my second term of high school. My mother worried aloud all the way home on the subway about what my father would say when he heard what she had paid. But they couldn’t be returned. The left cup of each of them had been custom fitted especially for me.

I never wore the extra two to bed. For at least a year I had been playing with my nipples under my pajama top every night before I fell asleep, and it didn’t feel as good through the silk satin. Besides, I didn’t care if my fragile tissues got bruised; I was sure I was destined to be a dud in the looks department anyway. I just wanted not to bounce when I walked. To generate enough laundry to allay maternal suspicions, I changed brassieres every day instead of every other.

By the following year, I had developed sufficiently to go back to Best & Co. The four now outgrown pink silk satin bras went to the Salvation Army, where perhaps they found a second young wearer with delicate tissues. Or perhaps not. You never know with those custom-fitted items.

I suppose you could say all that about “happy problems” and “precious daughters” were the good old days. I’m not sure what was so good about them. Except that they’re fun to post about. And hopefully to read about too.

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SKARA BRAE: MY KIND OF PLACE

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Bet you’ve never heard of Skara Brae.  Don’t pretend. You haven’t, have you?  I hadn’t heard of it either, until I found it in this book with a really dumb title.

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I mean, come on.  1001 historic sites you must see? Before you die?  Like The Smolny Institute? (p. 669)  Or The Bank of England? (p. 290) Or Old Melbourne Jail? (p. 926) And if you don’t manage to get to them all by deadline, then what?

But after a day of windy rain and robo-calls and waiting in doctors’ offices for probably unnecessary checkups and/or “procedures” (the bane of an older person’s existence — if the older person has health insurance, that is), and after the cleaning ladies have canceled at the last minute and you discover the car has about a quarter of a cup of gas left on which you may just possibly manage to coast into the nearest gas station on a wheel and a prayer — after all that, stress builds to a point where Skara Brae, the one thousand and first site in the book with the dumb title, begins to seem like heaven on earth.

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This is what 1001 Historic Sites says about it (after telling you it’s in Orkney, Scotland):
Five-thousand-year-old homes with evidence of orderliness and comfort

This Stone Age village was buried beneath sand dunes for centuries until a huge storm blew the sand away, around 1850. What was revealed gives a vivid impression of ordinary life more than 5,000 years ago. Despite their great antiquity the houses are remarkably uniform, so much so that they have been likened to a ‘group of prehistoric council houses’ ….

Built of stone, the houses would have been roofed with turf or thatch. Their wooden doors opened off an underground maze of narrow passages …. Each house, however, had one spacious main room, measuring about 20 square feet (6 sq. m.). The fitted stone furniture inside included two box beds, possibly one for the man and the other for the woman and their children. The family would have slept on heather or bracken, under blankets of animal skin, and the stone floor would have been made more comfortable with strewn furs and skins.

The Skara Brae families had ornaments and used cosmetics, and each house had the same regulation two-shelf stone dresser, apparently placed to display precious objects to visitors. Stone shelves and cupboards were built into the walls. In the middle of the room was a hearth for burning peat. There are small cells that seem to have been lavatories, with drains, and one of the huts was apparently a workshop….The people of the village kept cows, sheep, and pigs, grew cereal crops in their fields, went hunting, and gathered shellfish. The occasional stranded whale would have been a blessing.  At about 2,500 B.C.E. sand dunes began to encroach on Skara Brae and the settlement was abandoned.

Orderliness, comfort, ornaments, cosmetics, toilets. Fragrant heather mattresses, leather blankets, fur rugs, heat.  Steaks, lamb chops, bacon, oatmeal, oysters. A workshop for weaving things from sheep’s wool or practicing a prehistoric reed instrument.  What more could you want, after you’d grown your crops, hunted, gathered your shellfish and displayed precious objects to visitors?  There was probably also plenty of sex.  I don’t know why the editor of 1001 Historic Sites thinks the man slept in one bed, the woman with the children in the other.  I would have put the man and woman together in one of the two beds, and all the children in the other, where they could giggle and play games in the dark under their leather blankets while their parents disported themselves, quietly, across the spacious main room.

The occasional stranded whale I would pass on. It would also be nice to have a few books to put on those fitted stone shelves.  But I won’t carp.  Even without the books, Skara Brae sounds like a welcome change from electronic devices pinging, telephones ringing and the washing-machine breaking down just when there’s no more clean underwear.  (I bet they didn’t even wear underwear in Orkney five thousand years ago, clean or otherwise.)

All right, so maybe Skara Brae isn’t for permanent relocation.  But a nice vacation?

And then those sand dunes came along 4.500 years ago and ruined everything!  Why do these things always happen to me?