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A priceless Mother's Day gift

Op-Ed

A fancy store and a fancier purse become a treasured memory for two families.

May 12, 2013|By Miles Corwin
  • "One spring, when I was 10, during one of my father's layoffs, I could tell my mother was dispirited," writes Miles Corwin. "I decided that I would cheer her up by buying her a special Mother's Day gift."
"One spring, when I was 10, during one of my father's layoffs,… (Los Angeles Times )

The first time my mother made leg of lamb, she never connected the two events. The second time, she thought it was a coincidence. The third time, she knew it was a curse. Every time she prepared leg of lamb, my father was laid off a few days later. The first time it was for a few weeks; the second time for a few months; the third time for more than a year.

My father had a union job at a film-processing lab, and layoffs — and eventual rehirings — were common during the 1960s. He was laid off a few more times, but never after eating leg of lamb. My mother never served the dish again.

My father handled the layoffs with equanimity. He was an infantryman during the Battle of the Bulge and had vowed then that if he survived the war, he'd never let anything bother him again. He would enjoy and savor every day. And he did.

My mother, however, managed the family's finances, and each layoff was extremely stressful. She worked, but money was tight as she struggled to pay the rent and the other bills until my dad was rehired. She always managed to shield my sister and me from the financial difficulties, and we never knew the extent of her worries.

But one spring, when I was 10, during one of my father's layoffs, I could tell my mother was dispirited. I decided that I would cheer her up by buying her a special Mother's Day gift.

My sister had a friend whose mother owned an exclusive boutique, the Agins, near San Vicente and 6th Street. Actresses, including Ann-Margret and Yvette Mimieux, and wealthy women from Beverly Hills shopped at the store, which was known for its high-end fashions and style. One woman flew in from Mexico City every year to make purchases. My mother, who couldn't afford to shop there, occasionally mentioned the store in tones of awe and reverence.

One day after school I rode my bike to the Agins. I introduced myself to Sylvia Agins and told her I was looking for a Mother's Day present.

I remember that she didn't condescend or talk down to me. She treated me like a valued customer. She asked me what my mother would like. I told her I wasn't sure. She strolled around the store for a few minutes, lost in thought.

"Do you think she'd like a purse?" she asked.

I told her I thought she might.

After wandering to the back of the store, she returned with a box. She opened it, revealing a beige Italian handbag made of supple leather. She asked me what I thought, and I told her that my mom would like it.

"How much money do you have?" she asked.

"Twelve bucks," I said.

"You're in luck," she told me. "It's only $11. You have a dollar left over for the card."

She gift-wrapped the purse and thanked me for my business, and I rode off on my bike with the package under my arm.

When my mother opened the gift the next Sunday morning, she stammered in an accusatory tone, "Where did you get this?"

"I bought it at the Agins," I said.

My mother was stunned into silence.

It wasn't until many years later, when I learned that the purse was worth several hundred dollars, that I appreciated just how wonderful Sylvia Agins had been to me. I always felt bad that I never had a chance to properly thank her. Recently, I met someone at a party who knew her daughter, Roberta, and passed along her phone number. I decided to call Roberta, who told me her mother died 22 years ago.

When I told her the Mother's Day story, she paused for a long time.

"That just takes my breath away," she said. "She wasn't the kind of person who wanted credit for the things she did. She was so gracious and giving and loving. That little story exactly captures my mother's essence."

My mother, who carried the purse for many years until it was beyond repair, is now 90. She says she can still recall every detail about the purse: the rich texture of the leather, the color, the gleaming brass clasp and trim.

"You know what really amazes me to this day," my mother said. "Letting you have the purse for just a few dollars was incredible enough. But the fact that she let you leave the store with a dollar for the card was a touch of kindness that I'll never forget."

Miles Corwin is a former Times reporter. His most recent book is the crime novel "Midnight Alley."

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