For my Callahan.
My mother had the kindest heart. Her name was Mary and she strived to see the best in everyone. As if it were mama’s number one job, she continually tried hard to find something good in even the ugliest of people. This definitely went for physical looks as well as personalities.
For decades, Mama had managed a small clothing store, the kind you may remember from the days of old. Not a very huge place, but Austin’s Dress Shop which was on Main Street in our home town of Charlestown, had just about everything you could hope to find to outfit yourself, your husband and all of your kids. Well, not shoes, you had to buy your shoes at another in-town store, but the socks to go in the shoes, she sold them in every color, size and brand.
Women from “The Town” watched fashion just like women from all over the world, and had at their disposal, some of the finest stores to shop in not a few miles away in downtown Boston. Because Jordan Marsh, Filenes, Gilgrists, Woolworths and a dozen or more other big name department stores at that time were close by, Austin’s did it its best to keep up with the trends and stock everything from babies layettes to real nylon support hose. And so, she did well. Business was good and mama was good at her business.
From the time I was a wee girl until the day my mother died when I could no longer bring myself to go back into the familiar store that I practically grew up in, almost all my clothes and everything that was beneath the clothes, came from Austin’s.
My mother took pride in keeping the store in tip top shape. The sales girls she worked with became not just her fellow employees but her friends as well. She wasn’t big on bossing people around as the manager, and instead took the “we are a team” approach and they negotiated their days off according to their families needs. In those days, Sundays wasn’t even a consideration to open the doors. It was a time in America when family and God wasn’t scoffed at and even those who weren’t church goers still had a day of rest.
In those wonderful, carefree days, women could park their baby carriages outside of stores and go in without much concern that anyone would do much more than admire the baby as they passed by. New mothers sometimes hesitated at leaving their newborn babies outside, so mama would appoint herself the watcher from the window as the mother would shop, and my mother would keep an eye on baby.
One day I was passing by on my way to wherever a young kid goes in the summer, maybe up to the town pool or off to a friend’s house, when Mama was standing outside next to a big carriage. Inside was a fairly new baby, and as I peered into the carriage, I was surprised at how ugly the poor baby was. She was dressed all in a pretty pink outfit and her white bonnet was soft and lovely, but her face was as homely as I ever saw on any baby.
About that time the mother came out of the store and thanked my mother for keeping an eye on the baby while she had shopped. My mother said she was only all too happy to do it and told the mother what a beautiful baby she had.
“Mama!” I said in a whisper, as the lady walked merrily down Main Street with her packages and her poor hideous baby in the carriage, “You lied! You told that lady her baby was beautiful! That is the ugliest baby I ever saw!” I said to her, totally surprised to catch my own saintly mother in such a bold faced lie!
“Oh honey,” Mama said, a soft look of compassion coming upon her face, “don’t you know that every mother thinks her baby is the most beautiful baby ever born? That poor dear don’t know her little daughter isn’t just as beautiful as she could be,” Mama said.
Our conversation was tucked away neatly in the memory box of “Things Mama Taught Me” until many years later when as a young single mother, all alone in the world due to a series of circumstances I never saw coming, my own first born was placed in my arms. “Here you go dear,” the older nurse said as she smiled and gave me my son. I peeked under the swaddling blanket and counted his toes, his fingers… he was just completely perfect and beautiful… or was he?
I suddenly remembered my beloved mama, now long gone, and the conversation we had had regarding whether or not all babies are as beautiful as the mother sees them to be. Staring down into my son’s brand new face, I felt the kind of love I had never felt before. It drew me into a place of deep delight and fierce protection for this tiny baby in my arms.
His little brow and shock of blond hair, his pink lips and chubby cheeks… as I studied every inch of him, and he in turn grasped my finger with such strength as if to never to let go, all I could hear was my mother’s words ringing in my ears; “Every mother thinks her baby is the most beautiful baby ever born.”
Turns out mama was right.