Saturday, March 29, 2014
"You're in the nicest store in the whole city, Lisa..."
In the Kinks' song "Come Dancing," singer Ray Davies laments the demise during his childhood of a dance hall his then-teenage sister had frequented. "The day they knocked down the palais, part of my childhood died," Davies sings of watching the building fall.
As the downtown Younker's building blazed and tumbled into the street this morning, parts of the childhoods of Des Moines natives died as well. Maybe that's a little dramatic, but it's not at all dramatic to say that many of us were saddened by the knowledge that no more memories will be made in that grand building ... and that there's no longer a tangible location on which to hang those memories that helped shape many of us.
I was a little girl in the late '60s, a time before shopping malls dotted the landscape; if you really needed to shop, you went downtown. And the center of downtown was Younker's, the grande dame of all department stores; a place where a child could score not only a new dress and a toy, but also a peanut-butter sandwich and fries, a chocolate malt, a copy of Curious George, and, in a white box with a gold ribbon, a hunk of Roquefort cheese. (Smelly cheese in a box, as a treat? Oh, my God, yes -- how I loved that stuff.)
I had a beautiful grandmother whom I idolized, and it seemed one of her fervent missions in life was to teach me to be a lady. To that end, she took me monthly to Younker's Tea Room, and a shopping trip followed; those trips yielded not only the items I mentioned above, but also afforded me time to study this woman who fascinated me so. She was not biologically my grandma, which made her story all that much more amazing; my mother had died, and Grandma was the mother-in-law of my sister, who was 20 years my senior. The task of raising 4-year-old me had fallen to my sister, so Grandma inherited me by default. She often told me how fortunate she was that I was part of her family, but I was the lucky one.
Grandma was chiffon and decolletage, even in daytime; she dusted her cleavage with clouds of white powder, and her signature scent, Tabu, followed her wherever she walked. She was lipstick and stockings and heels; she was Scrabble and Reader's Digest Condensed Books and pastries and poetry.
I was a chubby girl with a pixie haircut that made my head resemble a nest on my shoulders; I had perpetually chapped lips, impetigo on my elbows, a stutter, and shoes that wouldn't stay tied. To be in Grandma's orbit, though, allowed me to dream that one day Cinderella's mice would come, drape me in velvet, touch me with stardust and turn me into a miniature version of this woman I so admired.
As we walked through Younker's -- or, as Grandma called it, Younker Brothers -- we would talk. Not about typical childhood things; she didn't care about the names of my friends or what I played on the playground. We would talk about my schoolwork ("Of course you're doing well; you're probably smarter than your teacher," she'd tell me), about what I was reading (chapter books at age 5, thanks to her influence), and what I wanted to be when I grew up. She had been a teacher until her marriage, and even when I was small, she would urge me to follow my dreams, not someone else's; "Someday you'll grow up and meet a boy," she'd tell me. "But by that time you'll have written a book and will be famous, so he'll just have to follow you around and do what you tell him."
The elevator operator knew her name. This fact never ceased to amaze me, and it diverted me from the fact that we usually were taking his elevator to the chubby-girl clothing section (I'm not being facetious; it was really called that, sadly). Grandma would pick out beautiful clothes for me, and it didn't matter one bit that I was allergic to the wool jumpers she preferred, or that the lace collars she loved would made my neck and chin break out. She thought I was beautiful in them, so maybe, just maybe, I would think, I really will be pretty one day.
Something else magical often happened on those shopping trips; Grandma would talk about my mom, of whom I had no memory. "Your mommy would bring Teresa here for dresses," she would say as we walked through the section filled with, as she called them, "formals." Or: "When you were a tiny baby, Nana and I came here for presents for your layette, and after you were born, we came to see you and you had such beautiful legs and feet, and you could even point your toes."
I can hear her voice as I write those words, and I can see and smell the parts of the store in which we were walking as she said them; the perfume counter to the right, and the purses (or "pocketbooks," in her vernacular) straight ahead, the book section in a little nook off the stairs, the toys right next to that, and the mysterious French Room, Grandma's favorite, just off the elevator on the fourth floor. I can hear the click of her heels and the beige of her stockings; I see her tweed suit and her hat, and the way she would purse her lips as she surveyed the quality of an item.
Younker's meant different things to me later; as a new reporter, I shopped there on my lunch break for the "power suits" and stockings we still wore in 1985; a few years later, giddily pregnant with my first child, I bought tent-type maternity dresses with giant collars, and pants with giant stretch panels in the front. I bought baby and toddler clothes there; I purchased my kids' First Communion apparel in the store's basement. And one of the last items I purchased there, just before the store closed, was a nightgown for Grandma, just before she went to the hospital for the last time.
I have friends who worked at Younkers; I know people who hosted bridal showers and wedding receptions in the Tea Room. In this city, if you're around my age or older, the store is part of your history. And if you've watched it burn today, you have your own empty place inside, and it will be yours alone, and up to you to define it.
For me, for just a little while, as the building was falling, my grandma came back. In my mind's eye today, she is walking in front of me, and the elevator is chiming, and we're making our way to Fine Furs. "You need to keep your voice down today and stay right here with me; you're in the nicest store in the whole city, Lisa, and you need to be on your best behavior," she says. I know I'll obey; I'm pretty sure a visit to the Tea Room is in my future, and I can already taste the rarebit sauce.