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"I'm not going in there. No way. Forget it."

My seventy-something mother's stance was as rigid as her words; arms folded across her chest, unyielding legs pointed away from the shop I'd just suggested.

She and I had spent the entire afternoon combing through three department stores for the definitive pair of panties. Or at least my mom's idea of same. This illusive undergarment had to be loose, comfortable, 100% cotton, and totally devoid of lace. And that was just for starters. It also had to completely cover my mother's hips and come in a large size, the exact number of which she resolutely refused to disclose.

In this fashion day dominated by form-fitting frills, slinky silks, and polyester impostors, finding my mother's fantasy panties was no easy assignment. But I was game and even understanding. (I too have my own peculiar undergarment proclivities.)

Aisles of dainty garments loomed before us. And as we perused them, it became clear that our search would not be brief. Nevertheless, I remained confident; we'd surely find something to fit the bill.

"This one's all cotton," I said from time to time, as I wended my way through the wares. "Give it a try. There's only a touch of lace."

"It'll scratch," she always answered, and that was that.

But I refused to be deterred. So what, if she's inflexible? So what, if each time I touched something, several precariously perched items dove off the display rack into an underwear avalanche? So what if the sales clerk -- also in the dark about my mother's secret size -- kept muttering under her breath about clumsy shoppers who made her job a living hell?

"This one's good, ma. Look. No lace," I said several times with waning hope, while dangling a white garment over my throbbing head.

But she always progressed from gaze to frown, finally banishing the panties with the words: "They're not bad. But they don't come in my size."

"And what would that mystery size be?" I asked.

"I'm not telling you," she said. "Let's leave. "There's nothing here for me."

After enduring this ritual in three sizable stores, I was inclined to delegate undies-hunting to my 80-plus year old dad. Either that, or start campaigning for a nationwide panty ban. And then I saw it -- lingerie heaven -- undergarment paradise. Victoria's Secret was right there in our local mall, and we had almost missed it.

Now I grant you that Victoria's Secret is better known for silks and lace than for practical cottons. Still, I figured that so large a lingerie shop would surely sell something my mother might buy. There was only one problem; she absolutely refused to go in.

We argued for nearly fifteen minutes. Having never stepped inside Victoria's Secret, she presumed it to be disreputable and sleazy -- a purveyor of pornographic catalogues -- the stuff of red light districts and Tonight Show jokes -- a veritable den of iniquity.

I tried coaxing, coercion, and even logic, as in "Do you really think a middle class mall would lease space to a business that should be banned in Boston?"

Finally, she agreed to go inside, so long as we pretended to be shopping for me.

My mother moved tentatively at first, eyes averted, refusing to finger the displays. She could have been a first-timer in an adults-only book store, so cautious was she, so afraid of being noticed, of being -- heaven forbid -- recognized.

But she gradually grew more comfortable. After all, the merchandise did bare a distinct resemblance to department store wares. We were surrounded by normal lingerie -- much of it sexy, but nothing that could be labeled lewd.

Alas, my mother didn't unearth her paragon of panties at Victoria's Secret, although she did spot and reject some simple cotton briefs meant for women spurning silks and lace. She even admired a slinky nightgown. But when I urged her to buy it, a look of horror overtook her face. "Are you crazy?" she said. "As it is, it doesn't take much to put your father in the mood."

I think I'll go back and buy my mom that gown. It'll make a great gift...for both of them.

© 1996 Madeleine Begun Kane. All Rights Reserved.

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