After my mother, Marilyn, passed away, I and my sisters took on the difficult but necessary task of rummaging through her closet filled with clothes, purses, and shoes. As one sister tried on some of the less worn garments to see if anything would fit, the other filling a box with those she would drop off in the donation box at the mission, and me stuffing a black garbage bag full of no-saves, I came across the robe. The gold ribbed terry cloth ankle-length robe with the pull-up collar and sturdy zipper in the front. As I lifted from the closet rod the aged distinctly feminine pale pink padded satin-covered hangar with the robe carefully hung and perfectly maintained, I was immediately reminded of the story of how this unassuming garment became a permanent part of our family.
Step back in time to November 1972. It was the year Richard Nixon as POTUS heads to China; the Miami Dolphins won the Super Bowl capping off an unheard of perfect season; Hank Aaron signed the biggest baseball contract in history at $200,000; Paul McCartney took his wife Linda on the road with his new band Wings in his come-back after the break-up of The Beatles (OMG THE BEATLES BROKE UP!!!!!!); Sanford and Sons premiered helping to add diversity to prime time television; French Connection was Best Picture at the Oscars; the Godfather did us a favor we couldn’t refuse; Danny Zucko and Sandy won our hearts when Grease opened on Broadway; All In The Family broke rules by taking on relevant social issues with humor; the Fonz made our days happy; the Egg McMuffin gets its morning start; lava lamps undulated in a hypnotic colorful motion; black lights turned us into Chesshire Cats with whiter than white teeth when we smiled; bell-bottomed hip-hugger jeans swept the floor and exposed our belly buttons; knee-high white plastic boots make our legs sweat; our hair was straight, layered, and shaggy; beaded curtains were colorful but served no other function than to get tangled in our hair or caught on our clothes; platform shoes made us tall and wobbly; white lipstick, blue eye shadow, and black owl eyes made us look freakishly fashionable; fringed leather was flirty swishing fun, peace signs reminded us to be mellow yellow; saying groovy and far out was peachy keen; and salaries for secretaries really sucked.
I signed up to go to Chicago on a Christmas bus shopping trip coordinated by my employer. I loved these trips because we didn’t have to worry about the long drive to and from the city, the crazy traffic, finding parking, or anything. We grabbed a coffee and donut, caught the bus early, read the Sun Times on the way, were dropped off in the center of downtown, and began our day of hoofing it up and down Michigan Avenue and State Street until we pulled our tired butts back on the bus late in the day with our prized purchases, chatting with the others about our respective days.
Having been a Chicago native, the city at Christmas was always a most precious sentimental and magical experience. Walking down the street in the cold crisp air, happily admiring the animatronic puppets of Santa and the elves in his toy making workshop, climbing up and down ladders to trim trees, or checking the naughty or nice list at a dimly lit antique wooden table gave everyone the warm and fuzzy. So darling. Marshall Fields was the absolute best. Heading to Fields was everything Christmas to me. The Frango mints, smell of cinnamon buns in the bakery, the Walnut Room on the 7th floor and their famous pot pie and Marshall Field’s Special opened face turkey sandwich, the multi-storied Christmas tree rising through the store, and a whole store full of stuff I couldn’t afford.
This brings me back to the robe. Ah yes, the robe…
I was riding the escalator from floor to fabulous floor when out of the corner of my eye, a gold bathrobe caught my attention . As the escalator continued on, I got off on the next floor and found my way back up to sleepwear. This robe would be perfect for Mom. She loved the color gold, always wore a robe around the house at bedtime and early in the morning, and it had a full zipper down the front which she always said would be nice to have instead of the usual tied cloth belting. This robe was a substantial weight which would be toasty on cold Midwestern nights, it was made of terry cloth which I liked not just because of the normal obvious after-bath properties of wearing a huge zip-up towel, but because it was soft and appeared to be very comfy. Mom would love this. With one eye closed as I reached for the pricetag, I cringed when $50 was staring back at me in bold black type. Well, too bad, so sad. The perfectly turned out clerk approached and asked if she could help. I tongue-in-cheek mentioned that would not be very likely unless she had $50 she could lend me. Her help came in the form of advising me that I could apply for store credit at the office on the 8th floor. Encouraged, I thanked her and headed back up to the ivory tower that was an office with a closed dark wooden door with a pebbled glass window and polished brass doorknob. Do I go in or knock? Carefully opening the door revealed a normal run of the mill office with a receptionist and desks manned by a clerical staff of phone answering typists. As I stated why I was there, I was met with some side glances, handed some paperwork, and given a dismissive please fill in the forms, have a seat, and someone will be with you shortly. I filled out the forms and pretty quickly realized I had no hope of getting credit. Several things were against me because I was female, not yet 21, unmarried trying to obtain credit under a name that did not start with Mrs., did not have at least $500 in a savings account, and lived more than 100 miles from the store. I filled out the forms and waited for the loan guy to see me. The interview was short and to the point. No, not in this lifetime. I’m paraphrasing. The experience was not inspiring to say the least.
Oddly enough, that empowered me to blindly go where no man has gone before or in this case woman. I rode that escalator back to sleepwear, removed the gold ribbed terry cloth robe from the display, made my way to the cashier table, broke out the money from my wallet for the robe and asked if they could allow me to keep the pale pink satin hangar. It cost me an additional $3.50. Oh, at this point who cares. What’s another $3.50 except 1 1/2 hours more of my salary. Yep, that’s right. At the time I was making about $80 for a 40-hour week at $2 per hour. Yikes!
I left Marshall Fields with a satisfied appetite after having waited in line two hours for lunch in the Walnut Room and going through a humiliating experience in the credit office because I was too poor to have credit with a gold terry cloth robe, pink hangar, gift box, Frango mints, and two pounds of pistachios for my Dad. Heading back to the bus for the long ride home I was feeling so excited for pulling that whole thing off.
The downside of the robe purchase was a diet of cans of condensed soup, crackers, and cereal to eat while bumming rides to work for two months because I didn’t have money for food or gas for my car, but it was a fun Christmas that year. Forty-four years later, the rrobe is still with me and hangs on the back of my bedroom door. Groovy… Sandy