Aunt Evelyn and Uncle Maurice owned a top notch clothing store in Lexington, Kentucky, my hometown. I bought all my clothes there, I worked there when I was old enough, I even got to go on a NY buying trip once, and I was always treated like royalty by the Tots 'n Teens salesmen and women. My aunt Evelyn was a force with which to reckon - a self assured and successful businesswoman who took no crap from anyone. When it was time for my first bra, she was the one who noticed the tiny breast buds, she was the one who put me in a dressing room at the store and called out to the sales ladies "get some training bras for my niece to try on!" and she was the one who pronounced my first flowered cheesecloth bra a perfect fit (much to my sheer terror and embarrassment).
Every woman I know has a "first bra" story etched into her mental scrapbook.
Early one morning while in Uganda a couple weeks ago, I was riding a boda (motorcycle taxi) along the dirt path leading to the orphanage. I spotted two women sitting by the side of the road - both had huge piles of clothing in their laps. I asked my boda driver to stop. I hopped off, thanked and paid him. I was curious about these large stacks of clothing.
Turned out they were bras. Hundreds of them. The woman explained they were selling them to the villagers.
A man soon approached on foot. The display of bras that hung from his arms was almost too much for me to bear. It was one of the weirdest, loveliest, most heartbreaking, poignant, comical sights I had ever seen. I knew I had to make a portrait of the bra salesman, and he kindly obliged.
Of course, then he wanted me to buy a bra or two.
We walked along the road together for a while and talked. I told him I might just might be able to round up a few customers for him.
By the time we reached St. Mary Kevin, word had already spread that Mama G. (that's me) was striking a deal with the bra man. Within five minutes, a gaggle of girls had gathered outside the SMK guest house. More streamed in as my new friend set up shop. He quickly realized it was his lucky day.
What ensued over the next fifteen minutes was pure joy. Girls giggling. Girls squealing. Older girls looking down the shirts of younger girls (sizing). Beaming young girls trying on their first bras. Girls adjusting straps. Girls laughing. Girls giddy. Pink bras, lacy bras, flowered bras, polka dotted bras, sports bras. Girls sharing. Girls admiring. Girls approving. Girls clucking. Girls delighted. Girls grateful.
Girls without their moms or aunts or grandmothers there. Just Mama G. and the other adults who had quickly gathered upon hearing the estrogen-driven commotion at the guest house (Lynne and Natalie included).
The girls tried on the bras over their clothes. They were each others' mirrors. Unbelievably, amid the chaos (arms reaching, hands searching, fingers snapping hooks and adjusting straps, heads nodding) each was able to find just the right bra - the perfect size and color.
The bra man was grinning ear to ear. He had hit the jackpot.
We quibbled over a the price for a few moments, I paid him (a whopping 50 - 75 cents per bra) and then the girls lined up to thank me, one at a time. My face ached from all the smiling I had just done.
It was one of the sweetest, happiest mornings I've ever experienced.
Aunt Evelyn: I wish you could have been there.