What do you buy for the woman who wears harlequin pants? Other mothers were easy. A bouquet of flowers. A Whitman’s Sampler. Done.

But my mother was something else. My mother was a fashion plate. My mother was a flapper. My mother wore white fox stoles. And so, second only to the first day of school and the last day of baseball season, I dreaded Mother’s Day.

My mother had certain rules about her appearance. She never wore pants in public. Sure, there were pedal pushers for working in the garden or hanging out the wash. But a trip to the beauty parlor? That required a shirtwaist dress, perfectly ironed and laying just right.

She was a complex woman, my mother. Nothing black and white about her. I have a picture of my mother in a flowered dress. Sitting on a flowered chair. In front of flowered drapes. Next to a flowered lamp. My mother liked flowers.

To the best of my recollection, she never wore a house dress in her life. House dresses were cheap cotton frocks, generally worn for house cleaning or lounging. They were the great aunts of sweatpants.

She was a small woman, my mother. On a good day, she was 5΄2˝. But she looked a lot bigger. Maybe it was the 6 inches of teased hair that crowned her head and never moved.

Wanamaker’s was my mother’s favorite store. She would wear white gloves to go there. But she never bought anything. Too expensive for a woman from a house that shared walls with other houses.

The one place she could afford was Famous Maid, a small store in the local strip center. And so, having saved my allowance all year, like any good 10-year-old son, I headed straight to Famous Maid to buy her that special Mother’s Day present.

I was greeted by a woman who had a 3-inch hair dangling from her chin. “What did you have in mind, little boy?” she said.

“Um, maybe a sweater.”

“Oh, that would be lovely. Now what size is she?”

“I don’t know,” I said, already certain this wasn’t a good idea.

“Well, is she tall?”

“About this tall,” I said, and I raised my right arm slightly over my head.

“OK, and is she a busty woman?”

And that did it. “God,” I thought, “please kill me right now.”

“Flowers,” I said. “She likes flowers.”

“That’s nice, sonny, but we need to know her size.” She then calls over the other five saleswomen and makes them line up facing me. “Now, which one looks most like your mother?”

The pressure was mounting. My head was hurting. I had to make a decision.

“Now, don’t be shy, sonny, you just give all the women a good look and tell me who it is.”

I had seen this on Perry Mason. “It was her, your honor. She’s the one who kissed me.”

It went on. “Is your mother a busty woman?”

I answered as best I could. “Huh?”

“You know, does she have an ample bosom?”

I wanted to dig a hole in the middle of the lingerie department and be buried under a pile of push-up bras.

“Oh, look, Shirley,” she says to one of the saleswomen. “I think I’ve made the little fellow blush.”

Made me blush? You made me lose the will to live.

With sweat rolling off my forehead, my eyes dart around the store for a way out. And then I saw them. Perfectly ironed white cotton handkerchiefs. My mother uses handkerchiefs. She blows her nose a lot.

“I’ll take that one,” I said, pointing to the pink embroidered “R.”

“Good choice, sonny. And don’t worry. We have a very liberal return policy.”

“That’s OK,” I said. “I won’t be returning.”

May 2016
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