Wednesday, December 29, 2004

My Mother, the Garfinckels Girl

As I passed by the elegant old Garfinckels building at 14th and F Streets today on my way to see Anne, my therapist, I suddenly thought of my mother, who had worked there during World War II. As a young war bride, she was all alone in Washington, while my father went off to the war in the Pacific. She worked in the “ladies better blouses” department of Garfinckels, one of the leading department stores in the city. She had more blouses than she would ever again have because she could purchase any blouse that was damaged for 50 cents, and did so at every opportunity! She waited on famous people, like Margaret Truman, who came with her secret service entourage and had to call home to find out if it was OK to purchase whatever she had chosen. My mother learned precision package wrapping because every purchase was carefully wrapped. She later taught me how to wrap, just as she taught me to make “hospital corners” on the bed sheets. She had a friend and coworker, Aileen Henry, who lived all the way out in Falls Church, whom she visited by train once. Her boss was Jewish and was actually quite kind to her (to my mother’s astonishment).

The job at Garfinckels was probably the last time my mother ever had an income. After that wife and mother were her roles. She never wanted anything more, or so she said.

Ironically when I first came to Washington in 1971, I went to Garfinckels to buy my winter coat. In my southern naivete, I thought I might have had a credit line because my mother had worked there (almost 30 years before). It was a great heavy coat with a hood and fleece lining that came down to my ankles, as I prepared for my first northern winter.

The old elegant Garfinckels building has been relegated to a Borders Bookstore and other miscellaneous trendy little stores. The glory days of beautiful display windows and carefully wrapped purchases are past. I wondered if just a little piece of my mother’s soul was still somewhere in that building. What floor did she work on? Do buildings retain something of all that pass through their portals?


Blogger Richard said...

I'm thinking if she sold better blouses, your mother probably worked somewhere between floors 4 and 7. I spent several very enjoyable years working at the establishment, and though the merchandising had undoubtedly changed since your mother's time, I was told that some floors had been the same for many years. First: cosmetics/fragrances/accessories/men's furnishings; Second: Men's suits and sportswear; Third: Women's designer/couture; Seventh (or Eighth): Gifts. Various women's categories migrated among the floors in the middle.

You wonder whether your mother's spirit animates the place... Probably. Anyone who worked there for more than a few weeks was guaranteed to become a firm believer in ghosts. The spirit of Julius Garfinckel himself was known to hijack the elevators up to old executive floors (to which the elevators were set to be unable to go!) and many was the morning when I was virtually alone in the immense building, when I would get on the elevator on, say, One, push the button for Seven, only to have it stop on two to admit a cool breeze, then stop somewhere between three and six so the breeze could get off. This stuff happened all the time to many people.

It was a splendid place full of memories, and even in the 80's, when I worked at F Street, there were several wonderful ladies who had been at the store since it opened. We were all sure that some of the spirits were former employees, and others were former customers who continued to come back to experience the elegant ambiance.

Garfinckels' flagship store really was steeped in the tradition of a time when some specialty retailers really were special, and it truly was an important part of Washington Society--known the world over as a destination for fine shopping, fine service, and refined atmosphere.

Richard Day Gore

3:57 PM  

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