Confessions of a Marsha Jordan Girl
When blueberries are in season and I’m feeling nostalgic for my younger days, I dig out a purple-stained card from my recipe box and begin baking blueberry muffins. Although the ingredients–flour, sugar, vanilla, eggs, baking powder, and salt–don’t seem magical, when they’re combined in a certain way with enough berries to turn the batter a pale lavender and topped with a heavy sprinkling of sugar, these muffins can transport me back in time.
As they bake, if I close my eyes, I can go back to when I was Ann-Marie, not Ann. I can picture a happy half-dozen of them snuggled into a white bakery box, the lid open, and me trying to choose the blueberriest one of them all. It’s a long-ago Sunday afternoon, and our house is filled with relatives, some who show up every Sunday and some who drift in and out over the years. My grandmother, Mama Rose, is hoisting a pan of lasagna from the oven, trimming fennel to serve with a dish of oil for dipping, stirring a pot of red sauce–”gravy,” we called it–and making coffee, seemingly all at the same time, moving around our tiny kitchen–”the pantry,” we called it–as in a well-choreographed ballet. She made that coffee right on the stove, with eggshells added to the grounds to cut the bitterness. In “the kitchen,” the room other people would have called the dining room, the relatives ate Auntie Etta’s cookies: small round ones fried and covered in honey, then topped with colored sprinkles; delicate butter cookies shaped like wreaths and seashells; and her “daffodil cake,” an angel-food cake with egg yolks stirred in at the right time to create the shape of daffodils in bloom.
And … the muffins. They came all the way from Boston, from the Jordan Marsh bakery. I’d never been to Boston, never been to Jordan Marsh. It loomed large and sparkling in my imagination. I thought it must look like a palace, its floors filled with dazzling mirrors and fancy women spritzing perfume at customers as they passed. We had department stores in Rhode Island, sure–but none that produced muffins the size of those, none the size of Jordan Marsh’s, none that dwelled in a city like Boston.
The only rival to Jordan Marsh in my mind was its rival store, Filene’s. My birthday, December 9, came the day before my godmother’s birthday. Auntie Ellen herself was a romantic heroine to me: tall and blonde, her makeup always perfect, her hair always flipped just so. She had no children of her own; that gave her an air of tragedy but also added to her mystery. Auntie Ellen never had to run off to pick up her kids, never smelled of applesauce or baby or the other things our own mothers smelled like. Instead, she could go all the way to Boston, just to shop at Filene’s.
My birthday presents always came from there, arriving in their own wrapping paper and tied with a perfect red bow. One year, I opened the box to find a brown suede bracelet with a gold rectangle in the center, and in that rectangle, in the fanciest script I’d ever seen, my own name: Ann-Marie. It was the most sophisticated gift I’d ever received, made even more so because it came from that Boston mecca of sophistication, Filene’s.
Founded by a German immigrant named William Filene, it was originally called Filene’s Sons & Company, a group of many small shops. In 1881 Filene combined them to create his department store on Washington Street, where Eben Dyer Jordan and Benjamin L. Marsh had opened Jordan Marsh & Company, the first departmentalized store in the country, 20 years earlier.
Filene’s and Jordan Marsh began many of the services contemporary shoppers would come to take for granted. Both stores were elegantly designed, with products from around the world sold in different departments. As a way to sell excess merchandise, Edward Filene, William’s son, opened the bargain annex that came to be known as the famous Filene’s Basement. He also developed an automatic markdown schedule that’s still used today. Filene’s slogan was “Money back if not satisfied.” Next door–just across Summer Street, the cross street that divided the two stores–Jordan Marsh pioneered its own services for shoppers, including charge accounts and the policy that “the customer is always right.” It was also one of the first stores to feature electric lights, glass showcases, telephones, and elevators. And it also had art exhibitions, the bakery that produced those blueberry muffins, and fashion shows, a specialty that would reach across almost a century to me in Warwick, Rhode Island.
The Warwick Mall opened about a mile from my house in 1970, when I was 14 years old. At one end: Filene’s. At the other: Jordan Marsh. To me, the arrival of these two department stores heralded an opportunity to buy the clothes and makeup I drooled over every month in Seventeen magazine. It meant that even for a girl like me, someone who sat and stared out the window dreaming of a vague but glamorous future, sophistication was within my grasp. And the stores turned out to be exactly as I’d hoped. They dazzled and enchanted me with their displays of goods. Cosmetic counters filled practically their entire first floors; the air smelled of Chanel No. 5 and Shalimar. When I walked into either of those stores, I became someone new. They held the future, I thought: my future.
One summer afternoon as I was walking from the mall entrance toward Jordan Marsh, a woman called to me. She had the best posture I’d ever seen on a real person, and she sat at a makeshift desk. Her smile stretched brightly across her face. “Have you ever considered modeling?” she asked me.