The summer before my fifth-grade year, wanting a sophisticated look my home-sewn wardrobe failed to deliver, I spent my cherry-picking money on store-bought, back-to-school clothes. In rural Utah in the 1950’s, store-bought meant catalog-ordered; so the Montgomery Wards catalog became my fashion consultant as I earmarked pages, pondered options and wallowed in excited indecision.
Eventually, I chose a set of seven panties — each embroidered with a day of the week so I would know when to wear them — a sack of red, white, and blue anklets because I liked their patriotic flair and a red dress with white polka dots on the skirt and a droopy white bow at the collar.
When I totaled the cost of my selections and double-checked my math, the order came to $15.34 including sales tax and postage, which left thirty-seven cents for Snickers bars and giant jawbreakers.
I next went to work on the order form, happily recording item numbers and descriptions until I encountered the problem of sizing. I assumed the clothing would come in 5th-grade-girl sizes. It didn’t. Stymied, I thought of asking my siblings for help, but they would criticize my choices and say my brain was smaller than my nose. Mom knew my size because the clothes she sewed for me fit, but she wasn’t home. Besides, the last time I asked which anklets she thought I should order, she looked wild-eyed and dodged into the bathroom.
When I decided to search the catalog for help, I discovered size charts on page 215. Studying the chart for young misses, I learned my size depended on my chest, hip and waist measurements. Good grief.
I secreted myself in the bathroom with Dad’s tape measure. I knew my chest measurement, being in the habit of checking, and I quickly measured my waist. But hips stumped me. The instructions said to measure nine inches from my waist and around the fullest part. Of what? Each leg? After a few contortions, I came up with a number. Alrighty. Then, going back to the charts, I realized my measurements didn’t fit one size. Different parts of me matched different sizes.
I was a freak.
Frustrated, I marked my selections with what seemed to be the size in the middle of the list, thinking things would average out.
During the following weeks, the mailman and I became best buddies as we waited for the package that would give me the air of a catalog model when I went back to school. The day he handed the bulky parcel to me, my new friend seemed as happy and relieved as I was. Beaming, I ran home to try on my new clothes — try being the right word.
My beautiful dress the color of strawberries wouldn’t go over my shoulders though I wriggled and strained until stitches popped. The socks didn’t stretch over my foot no matter how much I hopped and yanked; and the panties, rebelling mid-hip, labeled my thigh as Monday.
Overcome by my first case of catalog despair, I collapsed on the floor in sobs with my beautiful back-to-school clothes stuck on odd parts of my body. And stayed there, snuffling and snorting, until Mom rescued me.
To this day, I open packages of clothing I’ve ordered with trepidation; and I often use the return envelope — though I no longer collapse and cry.