Innergiggler's Blog

THE BALLAD OF LIBBY STEIN

Posted on: July 29, 2010

            I remember the year I was in the third grade.  At eight years old I was all puffed up with pride because my mom had her own store and still made dinner.  It was a knitting store right down the street from our apartment building on Brighton 6th Street in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn.  The store wasn’t much bigger than our living room, but instead of a couch and chairs, there were two long display cases filled with beautiful sweaters and gloves and hats and shawls which were mostly made by my mom.  Wooden cubby holes lined the walls, each one stuffed with wool of colors pulled from a rainbow.  Mom co-owned this magical place with a beautiful, dark-haired, mysterious lady named Libby Stein, who also lived in the apartment right above us. 

            Libby always wore lots of lipstick.  Her large, full lips were creamed with either orange or bright red shine.  Her long, black hair which curved under rested on her slim shoulders with one sweeping wave crossing her face, then falling right into place on the side of her head.

            She was tall and slender and straight, not short and curvy like mom.  Also unlike Mom, she was very serious.  I don’t remember her ever cracking a smile.  Once in a while I’d make funny faces or silly sounds, but those large creamy lips never parted.  I often wondered if they were pasted together. 

            Everyone who saw Libby said she was a real “knock-out.”  Sometimes customers walked into the store and just stared when they saw her.  I didn’t like that part; no one was supposed to be more beautiful than my mom, who dad said was a real “looker.”  Even if her overall appearance didn’t leave you breathless, you couldn’t help but notice those lips.

            And that posture.  She always stood upright like a soldier; as if she were waiting to be lifted onto a pedestal and moved to another dimension.  Mom never had to tell Libby to keep her shoulders back and stomach in.  Aside from standing tall, Libby’s chest was like a stop sign so I never got too close.  Reciting a polite hello when I entered the store, I’d secretly hope she’d notice me but rarely received a response.

            The store had a real fifties bohemian rhythm. On the left side of the store Libby’s lip-matching painted fingernails were pop, pop, popping on the cash register as she rang up sales.  On the right side Mom’s tongue had a bongo beat used in describing techniques of knitting, pearling, crocheting, designing, and pattern-making.  Her joy created laughter and lots of customer giggles.    

            There was a blue and brown curtain at the back of the store separating the bathroom and kitchen area.  When there weren’t any customers, Libby retreated behind the screen and stayed there until she heard customers.  I’d wonder what she was doing besides using the toilet.  Maybe she was putting on more lipstick.  She might have been getting a snack or lunch, although as I said, I never saw those lips move, so I was convinced she never ate.

            Libby was totally different at night.  I couldn’t see her, but I would hear her – walking back and forth in the bedroom right above mine.  Sometimes she’d actually wake me up in the middle of the night clickety-clacking with her high heels.  I knew she had a husband and wondered if they were dancing.  But I could never match the timing of the steps with any music I’d ever heard.  As the nights wore on, Libby’s footsteps became louder and lasted longer, interrupting my sleep and making it very difficult for me to wake up in the morning.  Tossing and turning one night, I decided to tell mom about the racket.   Right after school the next day I went straight to the store ready to call mom aside.  I turned the glass doorknob but it was locked.  I peered inside and didn’t see any customers.  Looking through the display window, I saw mom with her arms around Libby whose lips were actually open because she was sobbing.  Her shoulders were bobbing up and down all loose and free.  She was grabbing onto the back curtain and holding it up to her face like tissue paper.  I slipped away without saying anything about the night noise.     

            I never saw or heard Libby again after that day.  I did hear my parents mentioning her name from time to time saying:  “It’s too bad.” Or: “What a shame; such a young, beautiful woman.”  That was the first time I ever heard the term nervous breakdown.  I remember thinking Libby’s nerves must have been tightly controlled by her lips and eventually were destined to explode.  I’d close my eyes and imagine a doctor prying those brightly-colored lips open with a screwdriver, releasing millions of words making up for all her silence. 

            Within a couple of weeks, the store was emptied and closed.  Mom continued knitting and crocheting beautiful clothing at home…but I missed the store and all the action.  I couldn’t stop thinking about those shiny lips that never smiled.  After months of careful thought I decided it’s better to be friends with people who could laugh because the others were too busy listening to sad songs in their minds. 

*Excerpt from “How I Buried My Mom…While Still Attached To Her Umbilical Cord”  ©2009

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4 Responses to "THE BALLAD OF LIBBY STEIN"

Linda, what a beautiful remembrance of your mom in respect to the sorrowful Libby. I almost see her through the sweaters and hats that she made that showed her skill and love.

So glad you have that remembrance and I only wish I knew what happened to Libby…I guess you do as well.

Love,

Linda Spear

OMGosh I wanted to be you all in that knitting shop. How wonderful to go there after school to see and be with your Mom. How sad for Libby with bright red lips. Laughter and a sense of humor are so important in all facets of life. So now the big ? do you knit, crochet? I do hope so or at least have some of your Mom’s creations. xoxo

This was so easy to visualize. I know Libby and your Mom. Love the memories.

Hi Linda;

Great vivid picture painted by you of that knitting shop.Felt like I was there. When I think of Brighton Beach all I can think about is Mrs. Paul’s Knishes!!! But, when I think of your mom, I think about a sweet lady who loved you to death! Your dad was right, she was a “looker”.

God bless.

Valerie

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