By Marlene Samuels
Ruthie Whitefish and I were best friends from the time we walked and talked. As “besties” we naturally mimicked one another, dressed alike, wore our hair alike, even mirrored each other’s behavior. Unlike me, Ruthie was an Olympic-caliber temper-tantrumer. Remembering her tantrums reminds me of my terrifying, exciting adventure: being lost in a jam-packed department store during the Christmas season.
What did Ruthie’s tantrums have to do with my adventure? Simple: tantrums were the brilliant technique she employed with impressive effectiveness to control her mother. Mrs. Whitefish, a meek woman, confused good parenting with ensuring her children liked her. She realized that the most effective approach to stopping her daughter’s performances was to comply with Ruthie’s demands of the moment.
The Ruthie Method was straightforward. Whenever Ruthie failed to have her way, she’d launch a full-blown temper-tantrum, preferably in public spaces. These guaranteed Mrs. Whitefish’s instant compliance. Often, in multiple public venues, I’d witnessed Ruthie’s magical powers. So impressive and effective were they, I couldn’t wait to test them out. My opportunity arrived — Christmas season of my third grade.
Christmas shopping was in full bloom. Montreal, where we lived, was aglow with lights and decorations and I was mesmerized. Stores on St. Catherine’s Square and along downtown’s boulevards were dressed with massive wreaths and candy canes. For me, decorations also signaled Hanukkah. Saturday before Christmas, Mom and I boarded the streetcar downtown for a day of shopping. We’d buy gifts for teachers, presents for relatives in the USA plus “surprises” for my father, brother and me.
Downtown was teaming with women like my mother, with kids in tow, men agonizing about gifts for their wives and children, and roaming packs of teenagers. After lunch, we entered Eaton’s Department Store. Mom grasped my hand firmly and we snaked through mazes of congested aisles toward the toy department. As we passed under the glistening candy-cane arch, my senses were assaulted by wonders I had no clue existed. I was overwhelmed by dolls, incredible games, colorful books, and stuffed animals of an unimaginable variety.
Mom busied herself consulting her gift list and became distracted searching for her pen. I saw my opportunity and bolted toward a wall overflowing with stuffed bears. It was love at first sight! I knew precisely what I wanted but also believed my life might end without it. I yanked a fuzzy brown creature from his display pedestal then, clutching him to my chest, raced toward my mother, rehearsing my plea as I ran.
“Mom, look! Can we get him, please? He’s so soft and cute and I don’t have anything like him!”
“Put it back. And no, you don’t need it. Need isn’t want.” My mother explained, her voice firm. “You’re a big girl. This is for babies.”
“But Mommy, please? I need it. Ruthie’s mommy got her one so why can’t I get one, too?”
“You’re not because I said you’re not. It’s expensive, you don’t need it, I’m not buying it, so put it back.” Her voice sounded scary.
“I won’t!” I argued. “I want it!” Stomping my feet for emphasis. “Why can’t I have it? You’re so mean!” That was the moment for which I’d waited — the place and time for implementing The Ruthie Method. Her method always succeeded with her mother, I reasoned, not realizing that my mother and Ruthie’s occupied polar ends of the “mom-spectrum.”
“I want it!” I shrieked, bouncing up and down as I’d seen Ruthie do. “I want it, I want it!” I screamed at peak volume. My mother instantly turned her back and walked away. Emotion overwhelmed me. I hurled myself onto the slush-streaked floor crying and screaming as a crowd of mothers encircled me, tsk-tsking disapprovingly. Their children stared in horror.
I lost all sense of time writhing on the floor. A firm hand on my arm interrupted my performance and I was face-to-face with Eaton’s store manager. He crouched down armed with tissues and a rainbow lollipop.
“Now, now, what’s the problem?” His voice was soothing. He was no stranger to crying children, especially during holidays. “Are you hurt?” He asked, full of concern. I shook my head, no. “Are you lost?” I shook my head “yes.” Embarrassment and guilt over my performance washed over me. He blotted my tears then presented the lollipop.
“Here, this should help you feel better, then we’ll look for Mommy together.” He lifted me from the floor brushing slush from the back of my coat. We wove through mazes of displays, aisles upon endless aisles.
“What color is Mommy’s coat?” He asked. I went blank. Now all woman looked identical to me. We’d just completed our third go-around of Eaton’s first floor when movement made me glance toward a staircase between two escalators. There, against the handrail, stood my mother, gaze riveted upon us. Her crimson coat was unbuttoned, her hat perfectly positioned, a matching handbag draped over her arm. But her intense blue-eyed glare contradicted the nonchalant posture.
“There’s Mommy!” I pointed, relieved. I hadn’t a clue how long she’d been watching me yet took her time claiming me.
“Goodness, there you are!” She exclaimed mocking surprise. The relieved manager smiled warmly.
“You know Christmas is our busiest time of the year so you can imagine how many crying children and frantic mother’s I deal with. Your daughter was incredibly upset becoming separated from you but was remarkably brave.”
“I’m sure she was and thank you for finding me so quickly. I was terribly worried!” She proclaimed, poker-faced.
We finished shopping, slowed by her vice-like grip on my wrist. It was 4:30 p.m. when we headed toward the streetcar. Unexpectedly, she reversed her route leading me into Eaton’s Cafe where we shared chocolate cake plus hot chocolate for me, coffee for her. She never uttered a word about my performance. I never again implemented The Ruthie Method.
© 2022 Marlene Samuels
Marlene holds a Ph.D., from University of Chicago. A research sociologist by training, she writes creative non-fiction by preference. Currently, she is completing her book entitled, Ask Mr. Hitler: A Memoir Told In Short Story. She is coauthor of The Seamstress: A Memoir of Survival, and author of When Digital Isn’t Real: Fact-Finding Off-Line for Serious Writers. Her essays and stories have been published widely in anthologies, journals, and online. (www.marlenesamuels.com)