My mom’s job is to sit on a stool in our basement.
Thatʼs where her art studio is. She has a drawing table there that has a square leaned-up top and ink stains all around the edges. When she’s not making her own art, my mom draws fashion illustration ads for the San Francisco Chronicle Newspaper, and for the Joseph Magnin Department Store. She makes pictures of all the latest clothes and she uses a pen that has a pointy metal tip that she dips in a small glass jar of black ink over and over, and then she wipes ink on a napkin and draws.
Classical music is always stuck on the radio channel in her studio, and when she goes upstairs, I figure out how to change the music to rock-and-roll for her all by myself. She comes back, says “thank you,” and changes the music to where it was.
When she sits there drawing, she holds a “Salem” she calls it. She puts the Salem to her lips and breathes in. Then two long streams of white smoke come out her nose. Once, when I was little, I asked her, “Whatʼs that smoke coming out of your head?” She told me that I must never do that now or ever. Why does she?
I love the smell of my mom’s drink that looks like water in a glass. When she goes down to her studio to work she brings one drink with her that just sits there full all day while she is drawing ads. She calls it the “ginandtonic.” It is near her pen and paint brush jar. When my mom isnʼt looking, I find out the ginandtonic tastes like perfume. Maybe drinking perfume is what makes my mom smell so good like the Joseph Magnin Department Store. It’s all perfume-y inside. And maybe drinking a glass of perfume has to take all day.
My mother needs help to draw the Joseph Magnin fashion ads. That’s when she calls me. “Darling, I need you to come and pose.” I go to her studio in the basement to put on the fashion clothes she brings home. That’s why she can draw.
Without making any stains or wrinkles, I hold tight onto her arm and step into the plaid shirtwaist dress with the peter-pan collar, or the cute pegged capri pants and matching flats. A clothespin goes on my waist in the back. Underneath I always get to wear one of my momʼs brassieres stuffed full-up with toilet paper.
When I have to put on pointy high-heeled shoes, my mom pushes Kleenex into the toes. There is ALWAYS a purse that matches, and I am ALWAYS going to match shoes and purses when I grow up.
I hold very still with my chin held up by my hand wearing a white glove with loose finger-ends. I teeter-totter in the shoes. My mom has to draw really fast because pretty soon I fall over. Then she has to straighten me up, pose me just the same, and we start again.
Sometimes, right after modeling, I leave on the big stuffed bra. I put my T-shirt over it and then I run to the playground across the street.
I like to go in the sandbox and play a trick. I dig a big hole, then I cover it with a newspaper opened up. After that, I sprinkle sand on the newspaper so you can’t see it at all. All you see is the big sandbox. When kids fall in, the moms scold me. I run home.
My mom says, “Kids donʼt wear bosoms to the playground.”
I like to be part of fashion like my mom. I make Barbie outfits all by myself. My mom gave me a sewing box for making doll clothes and she showed me how to thread the needle and kind of make stitches.
In her studio, my mom slowly takes the lid off a large golden box that says “Joseph Magnin,” and she pulls back the pink tissue inside. Under it is a beautiful satin suit jacket made of the same material as on the inside of the sleeves of her best camel hair coat. She tells me the color of the suit is called “champagne”, and then she holds up the jacket very carefully with her pinched fingers on the shoulder-pad parts and her pinkies are sticking out. Every shiny golden button has two letter “C”s in a circle.
“This is a very special ‘Chanel’, and it’s a one-of-a-kind designer sample. The boss asked me to draw the ad out of all the illustrators at Magnin because I do really nice drawings…especially when you’re posing.” She smiles. “Hmmmm?” she says with thinking eyes. “I’d have considered a 3/4 raglan sleeve.”
Before my mom puts the ‘Chanel’ on me, she takes me to wash my hands with soap.
First she puts the long thin pencil skirt on me. She gently rolls it up on the waist, but that is OK because the jacket makes the rolling not show. Under, I have her brassiere stuffed full, like always. Next, she helps me on with the jacket. The champagne satin is so soft. There is a belt too with a tiny rhinestone buckle, and she winds the belt two times around me. Also, there is a matched hat with a short golden veil in front. The hat falls down a little over one eye. I wear golden gloves too.
I hold very still for a long time. She draws me. Then carefully she puts the suit back in the big gold box and folds over the pink tissue. She thanks me for helping.
“You know, Nanette, who in San Francisco dresses in a satin suit with a netted matching hat and gold gloves?” I ask, “Doesn’t Magnin know that the grown-ups we know mostly wear black turtlenecks to get dressed up?”
Mommy answers, “Imagine going to a poetry reading at City Lights Bookstore in a Chanel suit.” Mommy laughs. So I laugh too.
Soon, my mom has to run upstairs to answer the phone because the curly cord is not long enough to go down to her studio. Besides, the cord is all knotted up because I like to stretch it to see how long the cord really is. She talks on the phone a long time because she always talks on the phone a long time to her sister who is my auntie Nadja in New York.
Sometimes mommy hangs up and “cleans,” especially if we have company coming. How mommy does this is: she covers up end tables with flowery shawls from Mexico, but only if there is a pile of magazines and bills and old mail. The next time we have company, mommy just covers up the shawls from before and the new piles of magazines and old mail and bills with another shawl from Mexico. After three or even four shawls on top of shawls on top of shawls, the end-tables looks like gypsy dresses with lots of skirts in different flowery colors peeking out. I love mommy’s decorating, except company can’t put a drink on there.
By myself in mommy’s studio, I walk around. I look in the little bottle of black ink and I am careful lifting it up to the light to see if the bottle is full. I don’t want to spill on mommy’s drawing or I’ll have to pose all over again.
I take the lid off the golden box with the pink tissue and the champagne suit jacket inside with the gold “C” buttons. I reach into the box, fold back the pink tissue. I lift the jacket carefully by the shoulder-pad parts with just my pinched fingers and my pinkies sticking out.
Then I take scissors and cut off a whole sleeve. Now it’s a 3/4 length raglan sleeve.
After I cut the sleeve, I gently put the jacket back just the same in the pretty gold box and I fold over the pink tissue and put the lid on. I take the sleeve upstairs to my room. In my room, I make a Barbie dress to match the suit as a surprise for my mom. Maybe she can draw the Barbie too for the fashion ad.
My mom doesn’t really like Barbie. But I got one for my birthday so she lets me keep it. Before I could play with it, though, she said I needed to listen. “Women donʼt really look like that, Nanette” she said, pointing to Barbie’s head. “Look at how big her forehead is. It ‘s more like a ‘five’ head, and no real person has legs that long. Besides, all Barbie’s look like shicksas.”
I ask my mom if Iʼm a shicksa. “Nooo,” she says shaking her head, “youʼre Jewish!” I wonder whatʼs so bad about being a shicksa if my Barbie is so pretty and, anyhow, why isn’t there Jewish Barbie?
Every week, my mother gets me all dressed up, and she gets all dressed up too in her black turtleneck and poodle skirt, and then she takes me and her big black zipped-up portfolio to drop off the fashion illustrations at the Joseph Magnin Department Store.
Inside the store, everything has pink lights everywhere, like in a dream. I feel dizzy and hold on to my mom’s arm. Shopping ladies wear big sunglasses INSIDE. They have suits on and matching shoes and purses, the mannequins too. All the ladies have their hair done, not like my mom at home with brush-rollers, but stiff like a hat made of their hair. That’s what happens when ladies go to the beauty parlor.
All fingernails at Magnin are shiny red, all lips too. My mom bends over and whispers to me: “All the smart people shop here.” I think, “My mommy is magic because can she tell when people are smart.”
The salesgirls each wear white pearls with what my mom tells me is called “the perfect little black dress which I MUST make sure I have when I grow up.” The whole store smells just like mommy’s ginandtonic…perfume-y.
As we walk to the elevators, salesgirls offer us sprays. My mommy wears just one perfume. It is called “Intimate” which mommy pronounces “Ant-ee-may” because she is from Vienna. She also pronounces “bon appetite” “bon appeteet”, “dunk” like dunk your cookie in coffee is “doonk”, and the salesgirls all want to “schpritz” us. Then she says “ach” not wanting to have a “schpritz”, looks at her watch, and says “mein gottness” because we are a little late.
Also, mommy thinks beauty parlor hair is passe, pronounced “paw-say.”
At the “up” elevator, I can see us in the door because it is polished almost like a mirror. A green light above the doors goes on. They open. Fancy people come out.
I get squished in with my mom and too many other people. At least I’m near all the buttons. My mommy lets me push the button for the business office on the very top floor. I like to push ALL TWELVE of the buttons so we get to stop at every floor. The people in the elevator, except my mom, look at me with angry eyes.
I watch out in there so metal points of umbrellas donʼt stab my feet. A wet wool hem smells like an old dog. A lady’s clear rain hat that is all pleated drips water down my neck. A little white poodle with a blue hair bow is next to me. He is showing me his teeth, which doesn’t look nice wearing a cute bow.
Also next to me, are two fat flesh-colored legs. The stockings on them are stretched really tight and rolled up at the knees so they are bulging over at the top of the stockings. My grandma does that with hers.
I tell my mom while we are in the elevator “Mommy, I donʼt want you to roll up your stockings and have fat knees over the top.”
Mommy says “shush” to me, and there is small laughing from the other people in the elevator with us. The lady with the rolled up stockings tells my mother: “you should wallop that child one.” My mother tells her that we donʼt spank in our family. “We allow children to express themselves freely.” The woman with the fat legs gets out of the elevator, and before the door closes, she says, “Well, if she were mine, I’d give her a good ‘what for’.”
We still have more floors to stop at. Every one has different things to see when the doors open, clothing for dads, fancy long party dresses, girdles and brassieres, coats, shoes and purses.
All around me in the elevator are golden shopping bags with pink tissue sticking out. Big purses take up more room than I do, and they always hang near a matching pair of shoes. I know about matching already from modeling.
A big red patent leather handbag with a giant shiny round clasp hangs on an arm right in front of my face. When I look at myself in the round clasp, my eye looks all stretched out.
Finally, on the top floor of Magnin is the advertising office where my mother brings back the boxed clothes she draws and her sketches of them.
I play right outside the office door of my momʼs boss. It has a window in it, and my mom waves to me from inside. Iʼm near undressed mannequins. Some have a leg or arm missing. Others havenʼt gotten their heads yet. I like to practice rolling the heads under racks of clothes.
My mom’s boss usually looks at my mom’s drawings and the boss nods and smiles and points.
And, every time, my mom comes out of the office putting a white envelope into her purse. She is also always carrying a box with next weekʼs fashions to draw. Then we go to Blum’s for coffee-crunch ice cream.
This time, I hear my momʼs boss yelling as she unpacks the Chanel one-of-a-kind champagne designer suit my mom is returning, and they see the “3/4 length raglan sleeve.” The boss is waving the jacket around like a flag.
I donʼt like her. I am glad I didn’t bring my Barbie if there is going to be such a big fuss. “Helen, if you weren’t such a top-notch illustrator Iʼd”…her voice trails off. The boss looks out at me through the window and she has a mean face on. I’m glad she doesn’t express herself to me freely.
My mom comes out of the office all red-faced and crying carrying the next weekʼs fashions in a box and putting the white envelope in her purse. She grabs my arm all the way into the “down” elevator. She doesn’t say a word even after the door closes.
We donʼt go to Blum’s for ice cream.
After a couple of days, my mom needs me again to pose for her, and I do.
The fashion ads come out a few days later in the Sunday newspaper, and I run to look at the full page drawings in the fashion section. I find mommyʼs big tall fancy thin-waist Barbies wearing the clothes I modeled.
And I call out: “Mom, they’re ALL me, and I’m looking very smart.”