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Little Girl Lost — My Mother’s Magical Babushka

A street corner in downtown Detroit, 1942, showing Kern's department store. Public domain via Wikipedia Commons
A downtown Detroit street corner, 1942, showing Kern’s department store — in
summer. Public domain via Wikipedia Commons

 

By Barbara Falconer Newhall

When I was three or four years old, my mother took me shopping in a big department store in downtown Detroit.  Crowley’s, Kern’s, Hudson’s? I can’t remember.

I do remember that the  ceilings were high, and that the dark, worn wooden floors creaked under my feet. Shoppers crowded the aisles. Their coats smelled of wool dampened by melted snow. Brown and black boots and purses pressed at me from every direction. In time, my mother and I got separated and I found myself alone.

An alert saleswoman saw my plight. “Are you lost?” she said.

Tinka Falconer in a flowered dress arms akimbo, 1940's. Photo by DB Falconer

My mother in the 1940s. c Photo by DB Falconer

I nodded. “I can’t find my mommy.”

“Well, then. How about if I lift you up on a counter so you can see the whole store? Then you can look for your mommy.”

Holding my hand, the clerk pushed a path for us through the throng of shoppers. When we reached a sales table, she put her hands under my armpits and lifted me up until my feet rested on the edge of the merchandise bin.

“Don’t worry,” she said, her hands at my waist now. “I won’t let you fall.”

Shoppers bumped and jostled us from all around. I tried to balance my stiff, leather-soled shoes on the edge of the bin so that my feet wouldn’t slip into it and soil the nice new things for sale – ladies’ gloves, perhaps, or nylon stockings in pretty, slender boxes, or tissue-thin white handkerchiefs. But I couldn’t keep my feet steady, and they wobbled into the merchandise. The clerk didn’t seem to mind.

“What’s your mother wearing?” she asked.

“A yellow babushka.”

“Anything else? A coat? What color is her coat?”

“I don’t know. The babushka is yellow.”

“Look around for the babushka then,” said the clerk. “Can you see it from here?”

My mother had been wearing that yellow scarf all winter, and I couldn’t see the point of it. It was a triangular, crocheted thing that went over her head and tied in a half-knot under her chin. It had big gaps, holes, between its soft strands of crocheted yellow cotton. If I wanted, I could slip two or three fingers through the holes in that babushka without stretching or hurting the strands one bit. I wondered why my mother would wear something that was mostly holes and not very much babushka. It wouldn’t keep the cold off her ears. Yet I loved that babushka, because it was my mother’s and she wore it.

Now, standing in the bin of ladies’ gloves, the nice clerk steadying me, I could see the point of such a head covering. The store was large, dark and crowded with shoppers, but I could spot the babushka. There it was. Over there at the other end of the store, its soft, golden yellow light glinting at me from afar. Scores of shoppers were standing and milling about over there, their heads tilted down toward the bins of merchandise, while the yellow babushka moved purposefully along the dark, paneled wall.

I wondered what my mother was doing way over there when I was here. Here! But I wasn’t afraid. I had the yellow babushka firmly in view and the nice salesclerk at my back.

“There she is.” I pointed in my mother’s direction.

“Oh, yes. I see,” the salesclerk said. She lifted me down from the bin and led me off in the direction of my mother.

I don’t remember pushing through the crowd, and I don’t remember the reunion with my mother. But I do remember, and I like to recall from time to time, that spot of yellow bobbing against the store’s dark walls, surrounded by the heads of strangers, scores of them, and the knowledge that I was, and had been, and always would be, safe.

More stories about my mother at “My Mother’s Goneness”  and “A Manners-Challenged Kid Who Became the Apple of His Grandma’s Eye.”

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Comments

  1. I fondly remember my mother (and my grandmother) wearing babushkas; and yes, that is what we called them. It’s what I still call them if they are of a particular material and worn a particular way. For me, a babushka is a soft, thin material that is worn over the head and tied under the chin. If it’s tied behind the neck, it’s usually made of cotton with a western type print and thus becomes a bandanna. The word babushka brings to mind a specific time, a specific look, and (for me) my heritage.

  2. Sue Watson says:

    It is so cold here. I found my old silk scarves and am wearing them babushka style. It is a word from the past.

    • Barbara Falconer Newhall says:

      Did you use “babushka” as a kid? At some point in my life it became embarrassing to call it a babushka, and I started calling it a scarf. Then we stopped wearing babushakas/scarves altogether — too unsophisticated and peasanty-looking.

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