It was a Sunday morning in August and it was going to be hot. I was feeling good—wiping down the kitchen counters, looking out the window and wondering what to do with the day—when my daughter Emily came up behind me and asked if we could go shopping to get her some new bras. Her old bras were falling apart, and she didn’t want more of the boring ones I always bought her.
I don’t like going to the mall but I ﬁgured if we got there early we could be in and out in no time. So we headed up the hill in the old Toyota with all the windows open and Em’s long hair blowing across her face. When we got out of the car the heat hit us, bouncing off the blacktop and the beige walls of the mall so we hurried onto the rubber mat at the main entrance and whoosh, the doors opened and we stepped into the cool air.
In the mall, life was just beginning to stir: a clerk was pulling a rack of little girls’ dresses out in front of her store; the guy from the pet store was putting up a display of birdcages. We headed straight for Zellers, past Kidz Biz, MagiCuts, Simply Charming, Shoppers and the bank. A display of fake Birkenstocks outside Agnew’s distracted us for a minute (I was looking for green ones) and we stopped to ﬁnger the tee shirts at Bootlegger—two for one, and they were such lovely soft cotton. We picked up speed again and got into Zellers through jewellery, purses and umbrellas, stockings and underwear and into brassieres, where our momentum deserted us. Now we were both in unfamiliar territory. I hadn’t worn a bra for twenty years and so far Em had been satisﬁed with the simple pullover bras that hung around with the cotton underpants. As we stood there looking at the display racks, at row after row of women in their underwear, Em whispered in my ear: they all look so glamorous, but look what they’re actually wearing.
We considered the choices: underwired, sports, pushup, nursing; padded or unpadded; strapless, seamless. Plain, lacy or ﬂowered. Even shiny blue with built-in shoulder pads. Em seemed to expect me to know what to do, so we got started on the ﬁrst rack. Not a sports bra, too boring. Deﬁnitely not pushup. Lace was too itchy, beige was too ugly. This was going to take time, so I resigned myself to pulling out boxes and stufﬁng them back in again and trying not to think of where I’d rather be. Then I noticed a woman just down the row from us. When she pulled on the front of a shelf it slid out to become a drawer. So that was how this was done. The drawer came out and you could reach the boxes at the back and see the sizes on the top of each box. I felt like I’d been let in on a secret —something to pass down from mother to daughter. I began to feel that l knew what I was doing.
Now we started to move rapidly through the racks until we each had several boxes stuffed under our arms, Emily with an array of underwired models, and me with sports bras just in case. We squeezed into a tiny ﬁtting room and dropped our boxes on the ﬂoor. Em pulled off her tee shirt and her tattered bra and hung them on the hook on the door. I hesitated a minute, then pulled off my own tee shirt and hung it on the doorknob. Maybe it was time I bought a bra too.
Once Em’s body had been as familiar to me as my own, but these days we were not usually undressed, or even partly dressed, at the same time, and never in a tiny room in front of a full-length mirror. At thirteen, Em was already an inch taller than me and her long torso curved gently out over her slim hips.
Her breasts were small and pointed forward—optimistically, I thought. My body used to look like Emily’s, but now my torso and hips had thickened and my breasts were softer, sagging gently down to rest on my ribcage. So this was what happened between thirteen and forty-three. Time was no longer an abstract concept, for I could see it reﬂected before me. While my mind had been on other things, my body had been faithfully recording each of my years. None of this concerned Emily. She was leaning forward and looking at her face under the harsh light. Hey Mom, I’m green, she said—and my teeth look all yellow and disgusting. She drew her lips back in a ghoulish grin and I had to agree. Deﬁnitely yellow and disgusting.
Then I bent over and pulled out a friendly-looking ﬂowered bra, and as I pulled the straps onto my shoulders, I could feel a kind of collective memory taking over. My hands reached back automatically, my elbows stuck out, the two ends came together and the hooks caught in the eyes, automatically. Then my hands tugged gently on the bottom of each cup to settle my breasts into place. This was how women put their bras on every day. With these movements I had once entered the world of grownups, and now I was doing it again. I looked over to see if Emily had noticed my expertise but she was tangled up in the elasticized straps of a pullover bra and needed help. That’s when we started to laugh, crammed together, tinted green and bare-breasted, in this ridiculous cubicle. I pulled the whole mess back over Em’s head, dislodging her glasses and messing her hair. As I shook out the twisted bra straps I said, now aren’t you glad you brought me?
We both tried on all nine of the bras we had brought in, turning this way and that to see ourselves from all sides, and trying not to poke each other with our elbows or bump each other with our burns. I never realized that a bra could evoke its own personality. Something that looked quite innocent on the outside of a box became too saucy and impertinent when it was holding a familiar pair of breasts. Especially thirteen-year-old breasts. Em is adventurous, but not that adventurous. She ﬁnally settled on two underwired bras—one all white and another one with little blue and red Mickey Mouses all over it. I wasn’t feeling adventurous at all and I especially didn’t want to wear anything that would make my breasts look like they belonged to someone else. I reached up and grabbed Em’s tattered old bra off its hook and pulled it on, straightened out the straps, and settled my breasts into place. This one felt just right, and I could pick up a new one just like it on our way out.
We’d had enough. My eyes were hurting and I was thirsty. We got dressed, stuffed each bra back into its box and dumped the rejected ones on the counter outside the dressing rooms. We found a rack with Emily’s old-model bras on it and I grabbed a 32B. As we went up to the counter, Em leaned close to remind me that I should say they were all nontaxable. I had already thought of that and while the cashier was ringing up the sale, I put my address and signature on the long sheet of paper which declared that my purchases were for someone under fourteen years of age.
We hurried out into the mall where the Muzak was getting lively and the cash registers were whirring. By now neither of us cared any more about the Bootlegger tee shirts, or even the Purdy’s ice cream bars. It was a relief to walk through the automatic doors and out into the sunshine.
The car felt like an oven so we rolled down all the windows and I rested my elbow on the sill to let the breeze blow up my sleeve. As we headed down the hill Em told me a long story about something funny that happened at the bus stop on Friday. But I wasn’t really listening because I was picturing myself wearing my new bra to work on Monday.