Pink Pearls of Wisdom
© Copyright 2023 by Sara Etgen-Baker
Photo of Sara'sGranny--Myrtl Etgen-Houchin.
The luxurious, time-worn building located at Sixteen Eighteen Main Street was like a majestic Paramount Movies studio set. Mesmerized, I lingered at Neiman Marcus’ front doors and pretended that perhaps Gina Lollabrigida, Ann Margaret, or even Rock Hudson would emerge from the set onto the street where I stood.\
“Are you coming?” My grandmother tugged on my shirt sleeve. “We musn’t be late!”
“Welcome to Neiman Marcus.” A white-gloved man opened the door. “Neiman’s is the perfect store for women.”
As we walked through the picturesque lobby, I gasped for breath and gawked like a tourist at the exquisite crystal chandelier above me. I closed my eyes and imagined Grace Kelly wearing a glamorous floor-length gown, mink stole, and elbow-length gloves slowly descending the signature double staircase.
When I opened my eyes, a woman carrying a perfume tray was standing right in front of me. “Little Lady, would you like to sample some perfume?”
“Yes ma’am.” My eyes skimmed over the tray.
“Neimans offers some of the most popular fragrances—Shalimar, Chanel No. 5, and Evening in Paris. Let me see. You look like a Shalimar gal to me.” She removed the dark blue cap and sprayed both of my wrists. “Take a whiff. Isn’t it just delicious?”
I sniffed my wrists. They smelled kind of like a fruit salad. “Yes ma’am.” I nodded politely then rushed toward the elevator.
“Where have you been?” My grandmother let out a heavy sigh. “I’ve been looking everywhere for you! Stop your dawdling!” She grabbed my hand. “Come! I simply must stop at the jewelry department before we go upstairs for lunch.”
We scurried toward the jewelry department. Like Holly Golightly browsing through Tiffany’s, my grandmother loved peering through Neiman’s glass jewelry cases. She eyed several necklaces, but eventually settled on a 12-inch string of delicate pink pearls with matching earrings.
“May I take a look at that set of pink pearls?”
“Yes certainly Madam.” The sales clerk unlocked the display case and draped the pink pearls over a piece of dark blue velvet and handed them to my grandmother.
My grandmother’s fingers stroked the pearls. “Oh, those are impeccable!”
“Here, let me help you try them on.” The sales clerk came from behind the display case; hung the pearls around my grandmother’s slender neck; and handed her a mirror. “Those pearls are as cultivated and classy as you are. They simply define you!”
My grandmother held up the mirror and carefully examined the pearls. “Indeed! They do.”
Then without even looking at the price tag, she blurted, “I’ll take them! No need to box them up. I’ll wear them now.”
While the clerk rang up the sale, my grandmother turned to me. “I’m just so embarrassed. I left the house this morning without putting on my jewelry. You understand, don’t you? I had to buy them before we have lunch.”
My eyes widened and I stuttered. “I…I…I don’t uh…understand.”
“Let me tell you something. Remember! A lady never leaves the house without putting on her jewelry! Never!” She wrinkled her nose and raised one dainty eyebrow. “It’s uncouth!”
My grandmother placed the matching earrings on her ears, adjusted her Chantilly lace shawl, took one last glance in the mirror, and smiled. She tilted her head back then eased my hand in hers. “Come. I must make one more stop before we have lunch.”
I walked with her as she wove her way back to the perfume and cosmetic counter where she pulled out a counter-height chair. “Have a seat.” I plopped myself down on the satiny pink cushion and noticed that the air around me smelled velvety soft and feminine like a bar of luxurious white soap.
“Good afternoon!” A cheerful voice startled me. “My name’s Rose.” A slender, brunette woman stepped from behind the cosmetic counter. “How may I help you ladies today?”
“I was wondering if you could suggest some make up that would be age appropriate for my granddaughter.”
“Neimans offers the latest mod trends in makeup for young teens.” Rose reached over and touched my face. “She has beautiful skin—a little oily. But that’s normal at her age. I’d suggest Revlon’s Natural Wonders foundation.” She pulled a sample bottle from a drawer behind the counter and dabbed a little on my neckline. “Ah! That’s the perfect color.” Rose turned toward my grandmother. “If you like, I’d be happy to make up her face and give her some pointers.”
“Well, what do you think?” My grandmother looked straight at me. “Are you ready to be a lady?”
“Yes ma’am.” I blushed ever so slightly and hugged her.
“Alright, Rose. Go ahead.” My grandmother winked at Rose then disappeared.
Rose dabbed some foundation on my face. “Always use a sponge and gently smooth the foundation over your face—like this.” She handed me a makeup mirror. “See. Your skin looks flawless but natural.”
“Remember the 60’s is about keeping your look simple. So, you’ll want a neutral blush.” Rose riffled through another drawer. “Ah, here’s a soft pink. You’ll gently brush it onto the apples of your cheeks—like so.”
Rose then opened an oblong pink tin that contained lip and eye shadow palettes. “Brush the iridescent white over your entire eyelid; then add one of the other pastel colors on the lower portion of your eyelid. Then follow with two applications of mascara.” Rose pointed to the silken pink lip palette. “Lastly, remember to apply a subtle pink lipstick like this one.”
After Rose completed my makeover, she spun me around in the chair then handed me a pink and white striped bag bearing the Neiman Marcus logo. “This bag contains all the products I showed you today. Your grandmother wanted you to have them.”
“But…but….” I stammered.
“Ah. Here’s your grandmother now. Enjoy the makeup!”
I hugged my grandmother and struggled with what to say. “Are you sure?” were the only words that popped out of my mouth.
“Yes, I’m sure. But always remember—a lady never leaves her house without putting on her face. Now let’s go to lunch.”
We strutted toward the elevator; and when the golden doors opened, another white-gloved man greeted us. “Which floor madam?”
“The Sixth Floor—the Zodiac Room, please,” she said with a gleam in her eyes.
When the elevator doors re-opened, my grandmother straightened her back; adjusted her pearls; and pranced toward a gray-haired man wearing a black tuxedo. The maître d' greeted us and said, “Hi Myrtle! Your usual table?”
“Yes, my usual, Adam.” She stroked her pearls and blushed. “Thank you.”
“Right this way then.” He bowed ever so slightly and whisked us to our table. Adam pulled out my grandmother’s chair; removed the white brocade napkin from the drinking glass; snapped it open; then placed it on her lap. “You’re looking elegant today.” He then pulled out my chair; snapped open my napkin; and placed it on my lap. “Who is this pretty young lady with you?”
“She’s my granddaughter. Today is her 13th birthday.”
“Congratulations, pretty lady.” Adam handed us menus. “Glad you could join us for your birthday lunch. Your server will be here shortly with your popovers, strawberry butter, and cup of soup. In the meantime, enjoy today’s fashion show.”
I placed my hands in my lap and noticed the room was teeming with fashionable women wearing pill box hats, white gloves, tight-waisted dresses, and high heels. I watched models sashay from table to table presenting the latest Vogue-like fashions. I closed my eyes and inhaled the restaurant’s hypnotizing aroma. It smelled like delicately scented lace and expensive French sachets. I opened my eyes and glanced across the room. And in that instant, I thought I saw Audrey Hepburn and Sophia Loren sipping tea at a table adjacent to ours.
“You haven’t touched your soup yet.” My grandmother tapped my hand. “Don’t let it get cold!”
I turned my head just as a pencil-thin model strolled by our table wearing a pair of tightly-fitted Capri pants and a sleeveless, polka-dotted blouse.
“What a delightful spring outfit!” My grandmother sighed. “I’m too old to wear something that flashy. Besides at my age, my arms are flabby.” She removed her shawl and jiggled the loose skin on her arm. “See. An old lady’s arm jiggles. So always remember! A lady over 50 never wears anything sleeveless. It’s simply inelegant!” She draped her shawl back over her shoulder, slowly sipped her tea, and nibbled on her popover. “Besides, my stomach pooches out.”
“Just remember! A lady never wears pants if her stomach pooches out. Never!” She grimaced. “It’s graceless!”
The years since that birthday—like my youth—have disappeared from my immediate view and left me wondering whatever happened to my grandmother’s precious pink pearls. But shortly after my grandmother’s passing, my aunt delivered a mysterious package. On the outside, my name appeared—written in my grandmother’s penmanship—the same penmanship I’d seen so many times on the letters, cards, and notes she’d sent me.
I opened the box and noticed the contents were wrapped in my grandmother’s vintage Chantilly lace shawl. When I sniffed the lace, the lilt of my grandmother’s perfume filled my nostrils. It smelled a bit like an expensive French sachet with hint of lavender, lemongrass, and rosemary. I gingerly unfolded the shawl, and there to my surprise were my grandmother’s pink pearls and matching earrings. Taped to the lid of the box was her handwritten note. “I hope you enjoy wearing these as much as I did. Remember, always be a lady!”
I choked back the
tears as I realized her words—those pink pearls of wisdom—were
still with me. Even now at 60+ years of age, I’m uneasy
wearing sleeveless dresses; I never leave the house without wearing
jewelry; I all but cringe when I leave the house without makeup; and
without thinking, I always double-check when I wear pants making sure
that my stomach doesn’t pooch out.