Monday, October 19, 2009

Some Leopards Need to Change Their Spots

There are people out there who should not be allowed to open their mouths. Ever.
Like the hairdresser I once overheard say to an elderly woman who had arrived for her appointment pushing a walker: "I'm not running a hospital you know, this is a business."
Or the taxi driver who shouted "You shoulda calledl Medi-Transport!" before speeding off when a gentleman in a wheelchair had flagged him down.
There but for the grace of God, go anyone of us.
Recently, on a shopping expedition with a close friend, a woman who shows exemplary courage in her daily struggle to live a normal life, we encountered an insensitivity so acute it made our jaws drop.
It had been decided that we would give a particular store that we have been boycotting for years, one final chance to redeem itself. The reason for our long boycott was that we've both had bad experiences there. My friend was made to feel unwelcome years ago when she tried to exchange an item while my beef goes back to the time just after my son was born. Sleep deprived and with what felt like a very lumpy body, I had decided I needed a pick-me-up on that long ago January morning. I should have just gone to the corner and bought a coffee but instead, I had been drawn to that dress shop. 
The owner had wasted no time in showing me her newest arrivals. I had tried on a few but, although she had sworn that I looked wonderful in all of them, I had resisted. As a last resort, she had brought me a pink knit mini dress with long sleeves and a cowl neck. With a conspiratorial whisper about soon losing my post baby weight, at which time I would want something this sexy in my closet...she had left me to struggle into the tight, pink number.
I remember having looked into the mirror and thinking that I looked like a sausage without its casing. I had begun to chuckle. But as I had stepped out of the dressing room, ready to share the joke with anyone who might have wanted to laugh with me, I had been met by the store's owner plus her assistant, both of whom had seriously declared with a dramatic intake of breath that I looked like a million bucks. "Stunning," was the word I remember coming out of their lying mouths.
Incredulous, I had taken another look in the mirror, sucking in my gut in the process. Maybe they were right, I had thought. Maybe I'm too tired to see myself in a kindly light. "Are you sure?" I had asked. "Oh, absolutely!" had been the reply.
It is not the boutique owner's fault that my self-confidence was so low that day that I fell for her lies and paid good money for this ridiculous dress. But to this day I blame her for having taken advantage of my hormonally charged, sleep deprived vulnerable mind-set. It was my sister, bless her, who after taking one look at me in the new dress had quietly said: "You must never be seen in that."
These kind of experiences do not turn women into loyal customers. On the contrary. While we're at it, a store that declares it has a 'no refund' policy is also dimly viewed by those of us who do not have perfect size 4 bodies. But I digress.
When my friend declared last week, that she needed an outfit for an upcoming event,  I knew she would want  to avoid crowds and the hassle of going downtown. Scanning potential stores in my head that had parking and easy access, I realized with chagrin that the boutique in question would actually be a good option. My friend reluctantly agreed.
We went early Saturday morning and were greeted by a blonde with very red lips whose icy demeanour almost made us turn around and leave again. She looked down at my friend's cane and back up at her face. "What can I do for you?" she asked with a hint of a sneer. I was tempted to say that we were looking for organic carrots. Instead I informed her that we were looking for an outfit. Duh.
Blondie began to rummage systematically through her racks and pulled out jackets, skirts, pants; each time murmuring "this is lovely/beautiful/perfect." My friend who struggles with a weak left side but has a wicked sense of humour, said that she would like something that wouldn't make her look like a sausage.
The owner of the store arrived while we were making some choices. She was dressed from top to toe in leopard spots. Yes, even the shoes. She walked right up to my friend whom she clearly recognized and loudly said: "Oh my goodness, what happened to you??"
Without missing a beat my friend replied: "Oh, I have MS."
"Well, yeah, we're all a mess but what HAPPENED to you?"
Incredulous, I stepped forward and said: "Excuse me, my friend has multiple sclerosis" hoping this would shut her up. But no, she looked down at my friend's feet and declared: "Oh, I thought you had twisted your ankle or something."
As I said, my friend has a good sense of humour. Like the trooper that she is, she shrugged it off and went to the dressing room to start the process of removing her leg brace so she could try things on. The owner's old trick of standing outside the dressing rooms and exclaiming with rapture every time my friend stepped out to see herself in the large mirror, is obviously still being practiced. "Doesn't she look FABULOUS?" Leopard would say to Blondie whenver my friend pulled back the curtain. "Fabulous," would come the automatic reply.
We just rolled our eyes and smiled. After trying on many outfits I finally steered my friend towards a knit pair of pants that draped very nicely and a matching jacket that, unlike some of the other things she had tried on, actually flattered her body shape and would be relatively easy to get on and off. It is of good quality and will likely last her for many years. Blondie seemed miffed that we weren't taking the entire collection of items she had brought us. When I last looked she was putting things back on the rack with disdain on her face.
Clearly not happy to leave well enough alone, Leopard decided to go for one more round of foot in mouth as we were leaving the store. "My father's friend has MS too," she said. "She's 85 now and is in a wheelchair. But she still gets to the mall once a week with adapted transport." Perhaps she meant well but it was hardly an appropriate good-bye. "Thank you and please come again," would have been so much better.
We wondered, as we sipped our coffee afterwards, how this lady has managed to stay in business all these years. Having a good quality line of clothing obviously helps. But in the current economic climate I'm not sure that's enough. As we boomers start to adjust to our changing needs we will most certainly give our client loyalty to those who make us feel welcome, give us good service and fair value for our money. A little sensitivity that might allow for dignity in the face of adversity, for who among us will be spared, would certainly go a long way towards winning us over.
In the meantime, the boycott is back on.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Birthday Tribute

Today would have been my aunt's 89th birthday. She passed away last spring after years of suffering from dementia. As sad as I was at her passing, I was relieved to know that her tremendous ordeal had come to and end and so I did not grieve, per se, I rejoiced instead in having had her in my life.
As a child I was full of admiration for my pretty and petite aunt.  I, too, wanted to grow up to become what I considered to be a glamorous, happily married, fun mother. Always perfectly coiffed and well dressed, my aunt exuded a joie de vivre other members of my immediate family seemed to lack. She would speak her mind, hold her ground in an argument and shrug her shoulders with good humour when she lost a round. That would change over time as depression, disappointments and regrets began to cloud her horizon. But as a young woman, my aunt was simply fabulous with a laugh that always made me feel good.
She had a very quick step that I would recognize instantly whenever she came down the walkway to our house. Usually in heels (for a little bit of height) and often in a suit or form-fitting slacks, my aunt was every bit as glamorous as the movie stars of her era that she so admired. Even when she was housecleaning or doing laundry, which in those days was an all-day affair of wringing and twisting, hanging and stretching, it was done with style, a turban on her head to keep the hairdo fresh and a huge apron to protect her clothes.
My aunt was quite adept in the kitchen, the one place where I think she felt she had supreme power. She and only she, could create those mouth-watering meals that my uncle, who bellowed for his food the moment he stepped through the door every evening, would eat with gusto while she watched and listened to how good or miserable his day had been. She would spend hours sifting through magazines to find new recipes, adding her own interpretations, making them uniquely hers, and, strangely enough, eating very little herself.
She was also an incredible seamstress, making many of her own clothes and turning old skirts or fabric remnants into little dresses for me.
As a young girl she had apparently wanted to become a window dresser, fashion  always having been a huge interest, but world events and subsequent immigration put a damper on her dreams. In order to help her family she had to settle for sewing for a living instead. She was good enough that she might have made a career out of her talent but women in those days, the early 1950's, married and then stayed home to raise their family. In my aunt's case, she was expected to stay home and raise my cousin as much as she was expected to serve a warm meal  when my uncle got home. She accepted those expectations and somehow, in carrying them out to the best of her ability  year in and year out, she stopped having any expectations of her own.
Around the time I was a teen she and my uncle moved to the country. Never having learned to drive, my aunt spent the next decade in a beautiful but very isolated spot where I think what was left of her self-confidence  eroded away completely. She was reduced to making marmelade and talking to her dogs during long days of waiting for my uncle to return from work and my cousin from school.Television and magazines, books and occasional visits filled the void but never completely. She and I once went to town to see a film sometime in the late 1960's and I remember that she was as giddy as a schoolgirl to be out and about. We went to see "Prudence and The Pill" with Deborah Kerr and David Niven, a film about confusion and mayhem in a British household that appealed greatly to her sense of humour. I can still see her little nose wrinkling whenever she laughed as she enthusiastically recounted the plot of the film to my uncle.
The last time I saw my aunt she still had splendidly coiffed hair and a brooch on her lapel. She seemed shorter and was walking with a cane. Her once-sprightly step was unsure and her eye make-up was smudged. She was pessimistic about everything, from the weather to her health, and she had no real understanding of the world beyond her immediate neighbourhood. We ate a terrible meal in an equally terrible restaurant but I knew I would likely not see her again and so I focused on her rather than on the food. My heart was full of love for this woman who had played such a pivotal role in my life; someone who had opened her home to me on countless occasions and offered me shelter when I needed it.
Now that she is gone, I can see, in hindsight, that my aunt inadvertantly taught me a valuable lesson. Which is that if you don't evolve with the times, if you don't expand your horizons, if you simply stay in your groove without questioning, you will have no inner resources to draw on when bad times come. Her subsequent illness and her descent into dementia were hellish for her and her depression, crippling. She was a victim of her time, my aunt, and her own worst enemy, for she never believed she mattered enough to initiate any kind of change. Taking a step into the unknown was just too scary for her.  I know that letting time slip by out of fear of change, should never have been her only option. For so many from that era, it was.
Luckily for me, we live in easier times. On what would have been her birthday, I declare that every time I reach for a higher goal, I do it for her as much as for myself.