Most mothers wheedle, coax or coerce their offspring into doing what’s right. If that doesn’t work, some resort to creative, even bizarre self-improvement strategies. My sister and I had less than perfect posture, a defect that drove my poor mother to distraction. After the usual inducements failed, she devised a solution that was pure genius.

An old Swedish lady lived across the street from my grandmother’s house. We never exchanged more than a hand wave, and it’s very likely that her command of English was limited. Still she appeared outside her home each day walking her white Spitz Queenie, and tirelessly sweeping her porch and steps. Winter or summer her garb never changed— always a dark babushka covering thick tufts of white hair and a short, thick woollen coat from which an apron protruded. And sunglasses—all year round she wore sunglasses.

We played on the patio, high above the street, under the watchful eye of my mother who always feared that a kidnapper would abscond with her precious girls. One day when I asked why our neighbor wore sunglasses, my mother swore us to secrecy and spilled the beans.

“Mrs. S. is working undercover,” said Mom. “She is a Hollywood talent scout for Photoplay magazine. That’s why you always have to stand straight and tall. Remember, she’s watching.”

At six years of age, the secret identity made sense to me. I never questioned why Hollywood would station an agent in Irvington, New Jersey instead of Schwabs Pharmacy on Sunset Boulevard. It had to be true. After all, she wore sunglasses and my mother told me so.

For the next year, my sister and I promenaded past the house across the street—walking soldier straight—as often as we could. Mrs. S. never signed us to a contract or even said a single word. Just that brief wave every time she walked with Queenie. We moved away and Mrs. S. went to her final reward. It may not have been Hollywood but I know it was heavenly. My mother told me so.

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