The moment she steps in, I see the worry line that’s cut into the centre of her forehead. The weight lost. The slouch. She often has her spunky baby Aurora with her. Not today. After the hellos, I ask her what’s wrong.
“I didn’t get much sleep last night, Irene. That’s all.”
No way that’s all. But I won’t press. “Give me two minutes. I’ll make you a cup of tea.”
I go into the back room and put the kettle on. I keep boxes of herbal teabags for my regulars—I mean, the ones who like tea. Every customer has a favourite that I try to remember with word connections so they won’t have to tell me on their next visit to the store. Sometimes the connection will be a word that sounds a bit like the woman’s name, like peppermint for Minda. Or I could think of a connector to something they do, like green tea for Dory, who works for a landscaping company. I don’t always get it right on the first try, but for Avery, it’s blueberry; and no word game is needed for me to recall it. Her mother Jan is a long-time customer and she goes for the berry tea, too. Who knows, maybe when baby Aurora grows up, she’ll share her grandmother’s taste in tea, too.
When I get back to the floor, Avery is checking out the sports bras. With so many women doing fitness routines in the gym or at home, the lingerie manufacturers have to keep up. And do they ever. It’s a success story in design, the sports bra. Allows a woman free movement yet offers medium support, and without the tightness of a regular bra. No snaps to bother with and, with some models, no strap adjusters. I like how a sports bra gives a woman a natural look. A lot of my customers wear sports bras all day now, not just for their spin classes and their yoga. Even a high-end classic bra doesn’t match up to a sports bra for comfort.
The salesperson in me sometimes wants to take over control of the rest of my brain. Believe me, nothing brings me greater happiness than to make a sale, but I know that is not always what a customer wants or needs, and sometimes I just have to tell the inner seller in my brain she should sit down and relax with a cup of tea, you can brew it with brain liquid. Because I always need to remember that every woman comes into Marjorie’s Lingerie for her own reasons. Today’s reasons for her may be different than last month’s reasons or even yesterday’s reasons. This place is more than a store. Well over thirty years I’ve been here, manager in all but name—because I don’t care for titles—and, every day, women inspire me by being themselves.
Now Avery is using the merchandise as a distraction. She touches a mid-range racerback bra with her right hand while she twirls the index finger of her left hand around the crown of her head. That habit hits her when she’s tense. She’s explained the whole thing to me before. It is also a brain thing. The part of her brain that gives her urges takes over and tells her to tear out her hair. It’s a long word, the name of the habit—trick-a-something. That’s why she keeps her hair short. Less hair to twirl means it’s harder for her to pull it out. Also, she becomes more aware that she’s twirling if the hair is shorter, so she can stop herself. But so far, she hasn’t been able to shake the habit forever. I hope a real cure will come along. Here she is, in her thirties, and that habit has tormented her since she was a small girl.
I put the full mug on the cash counter. Avery and I are both standing. I don’t sit at work, except in the back room. On the sales floor, I’m always up and moving around. That’s a habit, too. I offer Avery a chair.
“Nah, I’m good,” she says. “I’m like you, I like to be on my feet.”
She picks up the mug, swallows, and sets it down. Covers her eyes with her left hand, the one usually in charge of the hair tugging.
“I’m a failure,” she says.
“What!? What’s making you feel so low?”
“I’ve failed Aurora,” she says.
“Oh my gosh, wrong question. Who’s making you feel so low?”
“My feelings are my own responsibility,” she says. “Nobody should be able to make me feel bad.”
“There’s what should be and there’s what is,” I say. “Sounds to me like someone’s on your case.”
“I don’t know. Maybe.” She takes a sip. “This tea is comforting. I didn’t even wait for it to steep and it’s already so good.”
“Probably you just needed the heat of it. Sometimes warmth is more important than flavour. But about the bullies, who are we talking about?”
“No, my neighbours love Aurora. It’s the moms online. My BLW chat group.” She reads the question in my eyes. “Baby-led weaning,” she says. “The baby chooses when she’ll start solids.”
“The baby tells you?”
“She just … shows you. The baby decides what to eat, how to eat, how much to eat. It’s all up to her.”
“So the baby is the boss?”
“But why is the baby in charge? It’s like someone with no retail experience managing a store.”
She laughs. It’s good to see her face open up.
“There’s a whole theory,” she says. “BLW is supposed to come naturally to babies. So I’ve been doing it with Aurora. I mean, she’ll be seven months old in a week, it’s time for solids. This chat group I’m in, we’re all moms doing BLW.”
“So what’s bugging you?”
“The other moms are doing great. They post that their babies are making their own food choices. They say their babies are self-regulating, which is a big thing in BLW. The baby is supposed to self-regulate. Their babies self-regulate. But not Aurora. I’ve failed her.”
She tugs at the hair and twirls, right at the crown.
“Well, for a month now I’ve been feeding her bananas in long strips. And steamed broccoli. I leave the stalk on the broccoli, so she can use it as a handle. I give her boiled carrots cut into big coins, poached salmon in chunks. Stuff like that. All foods that she can eat with her hands.”
“You’re making me hungry.”
“That’s what I try for. To make the food, you know, enticing. I use all the foods they recommend on the BLW site and I prepare the foods the way they say to. But somehow, I’m doing it wrong. All the food winds up on the floor. She’ll pick up a slice of baked apple and send it up in the air, so it makes an arc and splats down. And the broccoli—she grabs it by the stalk and throws it so hard, it’s like she’s invented a new Olympic event: the broccoli spear throw.”
Now we both laugh.
“It did seem funny, at first. But the doctor says that at this age, she’s not getting enough iron with just my milk. And how can I stop breastfeeding her when she won’t accept the solids? So never mind baby-led weaning, there’s no weaning happening. I’m so upset that I can’t eat properly either. Or sleep.”
“I’m so sorry,” I said. “I’d give you ideas if I could, but I don’t know a thing about feeding babies.”
“Well,” she says, “I do have an idea. When Aurora was born my mom gave me a tiny spoon that I had eaten out of when I was a baby. And sometimes I have the urge to feed Aurora out of that spoon, as an experiment. What do you think?”
“Would anybody get hurt if you did that?”
“I can’t see how.”
“Me neither. So why not try it? If it doesn’t work, you can stop. No harm done.”
“But spoon-feeding doesn’t really jibe with BLW.”
“I won’t tell the Internet mommies if you won’t.”
She returns to the sports bra racks, buys two Noli Yogas and one New Balance, and then heads out.
When she’s gone, I wonder who the heck I think I am. Am I trying to twist Avery’s mind, the way those Internet mothers do? I haven’t had a lot of education and I’m no expert on anything except how to help a woman decide if a certain bra is right for her.
So do I really have a right to an opinion on how a mother should feed her baby? I’ve never been in the place she finds herself now. Not even close. I’m not a godmother or an auntie, never mind a mother. I mean, I admired my best friend Doreen Lockhart’s daughter Toni when she was a baby, and I enjoyed watching Toni grow up, and I like it when she shows me pictures of her own two boys on her cell phone, but I had nothing to do with feeding any of those people when they were infants or toddlers or teens or any time in between. So when Avery and I talked, why did I compare something I know about – retail – with something I don’t have a clue about? Was I out of line? But the thing is, it sounds like those Internet supermoms have bullied and shamed Avery; so when she opened up to me, how could I turn her away? Can’t a person base an opinion on plain common sense when a mother brings you her problem, even if you have never mothered anyone?
“So,” Avery says, “I started to mash up Aurora’s food a bit, not too much, and I feed it to her with the little spoon I got from my mom.”
It’s been a month since she was last in and I have thought about her pretty much every day. It’s good to see her back—not just back at the store, but back in harmony with herself. I can see it in the energy of her movements, the natural straightness of her spine. Her brain seems peaceful. She’s been here for fifteen minutes already and hasn’t once done the trick-a-pull with her hair.
“And Aurora likes the new way?”
“She does. And I’m introducing new foods all the time. Yesterday, zucchini. Today, eggplant. It’s going so well.”
“Hurray,” I say. “Problem solved, right?”
“The only thing is, I got so excited, I told the chat room moms what happened.”
She twirls her hair, right at the crown. Pulls.
“Let me guess. The perfect mothers of the Internet found fault in you again.”
“I mean, I told them how happy Aurora is, how she’s finally gaining weight, how she’s loving the foods that are good for her. But all I get back is criticism, criticism, criticism. How I’m letting her down, how she’ll never learn to self-regulate, how I’ll always feed her an extra two or three spoonfuls, even if she doesn’t need it.”
“So … they figure they know Aurora better than you do. Plus they know you better than you do.”
“Aurora shuts her mouth tight when she’s done. And then I stop the feeding.”
“That sounds like she’s, what’s the word they use? Self-watching.”
“Self-regulating,” Avery says. “They can do what they want. I’ll go on using the spoon and try the BLW techniques, too. Mix it up. And um, I don’t plan to hang out much in the chat room.”
The next time Avery comes in, she’s got Aurora with her, in a carrier pouch that faces forward. That baby has a smile that puts the world at peace for a moment. She’s got teeth—four up and four down from what I can see—and chubby cheeks. Avery lifts her out of the pouch and puts her on the floor. Look at the powerful legs on that little one. Crawls like a pro. She could give a TED Talk on crawling.
About the author:
Rona Altrows is a multi-genre writer and editor in Canada, with a passion for the voices of people. The everyday lives of people fascinate her and their preoccupations are also hers. Indeed, her short stories, mostly first-person, are spaces where fictional people can tell their own stories. Irene, the narrator of “Broccoli Spear Throw” is also the star of two of Rona’s books, A Run on Hose and Key in Lock. To learn more about Rona and her publications, visit her website, https://www.ronaaltrows.com/