By Barbara Falconer Newhall
When I was a little kid, three or four years old, during World War II, my mother had a yellow babushka. That’s what we called headscarves in Michigan, back in the ’40s. Babushkas.
My mother wore that yellow scarf whenever she went out into the winter cold, but 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 because she wore it.
She was wearing that babushka the day she took me shopping in a big department store in downtown Detroit. Maybe it was Kern’s. Maybe it was Crowley’s. The ceilings were high in that store, and 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.
A Lost Child . . .
In time, my mother and I got separated and I found myself alone. Forlorn and small, I was jostled by the indifferent crowd. Did I cry? I don’t remember. What I do remember is the alert saleswoman who could recognize a lost child when she saw one.
“Are you lost?” she said.
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 crowded all around us. 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 dirty up the nice new things for sale – ladies’ gloves, perhaps, or nylon stockings in 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?”
Standing in the bin of ladies’ gloves, the nice clerk steadying me, I could see the point of my mother’s holey head scarf. 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 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. The head in the yellow babushka remained upright, moving purposefully along the dark, paneled wall.
What was my mother doing way over there? 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.
. . . Lost Child Found
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 wintry day in wartime Detroit, and 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 about my maternal ancestors at “My Long-Lost Dead Ancestors — I Found Them in a Parking Lot.” More about World War II at “A POW’s Story.”