I was a child, the height of a price tag that dangled from a coat, hiding among the dresses on the rack to stave off boredom. My mother and grandmother rubbed fabrics, inspected seams, scrutinized items from an arm’s length away. They’d pull a dress on me, off me, again and again — dull. But the communal dressing rooms — all those women, half-naked, soft, white, grown bodies, rolls of skin over the top of their girdles and just beneath the elastic bands of their bras, how they bent forward, their breasts like batter filling a cupcake tin, how they could reach behind without even looking and fasten the back of those bras. The faint scent of strange bodies, a mix of old cigarette smoke, Ivory soap, Bluegrass, Arpege. The tugging on hems and sleeves. Twisting to get a view of the back. Try this in a size larger, smaller. Clothes everywhere — a mob of dresses, a madness of jackets, a menace of skirts. Live bodies became mannequins, roughly handled but carefully adorned so they could be shown to their best advantage as if all the women were going off to some gigantic party not merely home, shopping bags over their arms. Afterwards at the kitchen table, the cup of tea. If I were quiet enough, my mother would forget to send me out of the room, and I could listen to her gossip with her sisters just home from work. Shopping online is a solitary, paltry business in comparison.
Soon after my mother died, I started shopping, buying sale items, mostly clothes, that, strictly speaking, I didn’t need — bargains. Not that I hadn’t shopped sales before, but usually I’d gone with friends to some biannual warehouse sale. We’d try things on for one another, comment on outfits, buy one or two then go for coffee. Now, I went doggedly from store to store, alone, not sure what I was looking for. I felt as if my resistance to my mother’s love of shopping had collapsed and in this way, at least, I might bring her back to me as she’d been before Alzheimers.
My mother was acquisitive, perhaps, but not extravagant. She had a good eye for furniture and art, and her aim was always to get the best buy. She and my father traveled quite a bit, and some of her purchases — antique furniture, paintings by then little known artists Donald McIntyre and Charles Durante, Chinese rugs, a dining room table from Scotland so large I imagined it once belonged to Lady MacBeth that later they gave to a historical museum, a long case grandfather clock made by William Dobbie of Falkirk were also good investments. In marketplaces in Spain and Greece my mother haggled with the best of them while I cringed. Perhaps such shopping helped her find a way into local cultures when she traveled with my father or lived in cities where he was transferred but which removed her from the society of her mother and sisters. Nor did she have any compunction about asking a grocer to give her “nice” peaches. Embarrassed, I wondered what shopkeeper would admit to giving her bad produce. When my parents moved to Southern Shores on the Outer Banks of North Carolina after my father retired, she discovered an artist who carved and painted delicate seabirds mounting them on driftwood. She bought several of his pieces. In fact, they became such chums he gave her a gift of a small bottle of moonshine. My parents, my husband, and I sat around that grand dining room table taking turns sipping this hair-raising liquor that tasted slightly of apple but was mostly pure burn. During this same period, at my mother’s instigation, she and my father would drive to Hatteras when the fishing boats came in to buy pounds of shrimp, much cheaper in bulk. When they got home, together they’d perch on stools at the kitchen counter peeling, deveining and putting shrimp in zip lock freezer bags until their hands were raw, and the entire first floor smelled fishy. As a result of this, to me, distasteful work, we had delicious shrimp dishes at a moment’s notice. On the Outer Banks she also became interested in local real estate, buying desirable lots and selling at a profit. I always think that if my mother had been a businesswoman instead of a 1950’s housewife, I’d have been a “trust fund” baby.
But I have no talent for choosing real estate or antiques, no patience to peel pounds of shrimp, so clothes were what I shopped for after her death. I’d gone into New York, “the city,” with my brother and sister when my mother needed to buy us children new clothes. A disdainful “cheap” referred not to the price but to the quality of the material or the stitching. An admiring, “rich looking,” I now assume referred to something wealthy people might purchase. I remember sitting on the screened-in porch in Southern Shores displaying a navy blue and white dress decorated with a red anchor that I’d bought for my infant daughter at a consignment store. “Rich looking,“ my mother commented approvingly. These rich looking outfits were also usually “simple,” another complimentary term. I’d been a momma’s girl. Her admirer and apprentice, I’d stood still while measurements were taken, suffered the appraising look not exactly directed at me personally but at me in the clothes, as if I’d become both horse and rider. I absorbed every gesture and phrase during these shopping expeditions. While still in elementary school, I’d stand in front of my bedroom mirror, admiring a new dress, smugly describing it to myself as “simple.” Perhaps grey was also simple and rich because it entered my pantheon, along with the more obvious hot pink, of favorite colors. The very words “seer-sucker,” “pique,” “taffeta,” “linen,” “silk,” “piping,” “lace,” “rick-rack,” “pleated,” “tucked,” “gathered” seemed magical entrees into the world of women. I loved to hear my mother say them. I loved the adult feel and crinoline rustle of them in my mouth.
Aside from the fascinating communal dressing rooms at Loehmanns, the best part of these outings took place back at my grandmother’s house, where we’d model our new clothes for my aunts, who’d also rub the material and exclaim over the cut, the style, the incredibly good price, before they all retreated into my grandmother’s kitchen. At home, perhaps my father nodded approvingly at our purchases, but I doubt he understood their import. He didn’t share my mother’s love for getting the best bargain. He bought her beautiful extravagant bags and jewelry, and he paid full price.
As much as my mother loved a good deal and relished sharing it with her sisters, my proud “we got it half price” would elicit a glare, and, later, when we were alone, a scolding: You don’t have to tell everyone your business. I couldn’t figure it out. That word “rich,” of course, provides the answer. I suspect people were meant to admire not her shrewdness but the affluence required to buy such goods. In shopping, the victory was to get something expensive inexpensively. In wearing that purchase, however, the aim was to fool people into thinking you were able to buy full price. My mother grew up during the Depression. Perhaps for her sewing and buying clothes that looked expensive was a necessary economic disguise.
I, on the other hand, grew up comfortably middle class and from my earliest report card knew the one thing my mother required of me was that I go to college. To me, being able to get something at a good discount proved that most important quality of all — “brains.” I still resist paying full price for anything and admit to feeling vaguely contemptuous of those do. In response to a compliment I will happily exclaim that I got this scarf, skirt, coat, dress etc. on sale, at Goodwill or at the consignment shop. In fact, so early was the desirability of buying for less than full price impressed on me that it is the one thing I’ll brag about without hesitation. Even my husband, who has been known to buy second-hand clothes, tells me to simply smile, say thank you, and stop crowing over how little I paid.
When my father was transferred to London in the late nineteen-sixties, my competent mother, separated not only from her three college-age children but from her sisters and her few close friends, seemed to unravel. For a while she suffered from agoraphobia and, uncharacteristically, would not leave the house. My father hired a nurse to stay with her and act as a companion, but it took a trip back home to her sisters for her to recover and become her former adventurous self. Upon her return to England, she began to explore the boutiques of “swinging London” with her two daughters in mind. On our first winter break, as soon as my sister and I recovered from jet lag, she brought us to a little shop called Laura Ashley’s that sold romantic Victorian style dresses and pinafores. She’d also discovered Biba and Bus Stop, which I remember being staffed by Twiggy-thin young women with ferocious eye-make up and mini-skirts whose sweet manners belied their intimidating appearance. If my sister and I couldn’t decide between two dresses, my mother would insist we take them both. During this period, my left-wing friends and I eschewed materialism. In addition, having been so attached to my mother during my childhood and adolescence, my refusal was a way to differentiate myself, to prevent myself from becoming her. At some point, I’d balk, sickened by the sheer amount of stuff being packed into bags. I didn’t want all those clothes. I couldn’t wear all those clothes. But my mother was insistent and most times she’d win. At the time I’d thought that this — to my mind — excessive consumption had to do with my mother’s resentment at my father whose job had taken her away from her home. Now, I wonder if I were just too young and self-righteous to imagine that outfitting her daughters in the latest fashions might have brought her pleasure and comfort. Maybe she was trying in these shopping sprees to recover the closeness she’d felt in her sisters’ company just as I was trying to recapture my closeness with her in all that shopping I did the month after she died.
I was certainly among the best-dressed undergraduates at Tufts University: mini-skirts and maxi-coats, a red-lined black cape, a rabbit fur coat, a sheepskin hat. I’d spent my junior year at Edinburgh University, and when I returned to Somerville, then still a working class community, a taxi driver deposited me in my black crepe knickers and white go-go boots on the front steps of the ramshackle apartment building between the Bay State Smelting Company and the Garden Court Bakery on Somerville Avenue where my friends and I would be living our senior year. Even then, I sensed the incongruity between my outfit and my surroundings. I could have arrived from outer space rather than Logan Airport.
My ambivalence toward my mother’s interest in shopping and fashion continued into my thirties. I remember my mother’s inquiring what I planned to wear to my father’s retirement party. I hadn’t given it any thought. “Oh, I have lots of clothes,” I said offhandedly.
“People will be coming right from work,” my mother said, and, knowing that I didn’t own anything someone might wear to a professional job, insisted on taking me shopping for an appropriate dress. Unenthusiastically, I agreed to a knee-length, long sleeved pink dress with a fitted top that I wore perhaps once after my father’s party. The dress had nothing to do with my life, but at least I didn’t embarrass my mother on this occasion.
For my wedding, I believe I also planned on wearing something I already had, but my mother insisted on giving me money to buy a dress. I didn’t want a traditional wedding gown but took myself shopping and found a mid-calf length lacy dress with a full skirt I was pleased with. Many years later, I happened to join my nieces and sister-in-law to shop for a wedding dress with my nephew’s future wife, Jen, and her mother. We went to a town on the outskirts of Cincinnati that specialized in stores selling wedding gowns. The store Jen chose was filled with racks and racks of gowns and groups of women shopping together with the brides-to-be. Only one person was allowed to accompany each bride into the dressing room. The rest of us waited for her to come out in a loose gown that an assistant pinned to fit her as she stood on a platform in front of a mirror. After Jen had modeled multiple gowns and chosen one, my canny younger niece, a business woman who had recently married, got on her phone, found the same model at a better price, and bargained the saleswoman down. Someone had inherited my mother’s bargaining genes! What an education this was for me. My friends all had informal weddings, and I had never been part of planning a contemporary one. On the drive home my sister-in-law said something about my mother’s fear I wouldn’t buy a wedding dress, or perhaps the remark was about my mother’s wanting to go with me to buy one. What I do remember clearly is my sharp remorse at denying my mother the pleasure of shopping for a wedding dress with her eldest daughter, at the way my stubborn independence kept me, even at thirty-three years old, from understanding what this ritual might have meant to my mother. Now, a mother myself, I just seemed mean.
* * * *
I haven’t got anything to wear, my mother, stricken with Alzheimers, would complain to my father during the last years of her life, and dutifully, lovingly, he would take her shopping or help her order from a catalog although every closet of their four-bedroom house, from the walk-in closet of the master bedroom to the wardrobe in the immaculate basement, was filled with my mother’s clothes, many of them unworn, price tags still attached. She didn’t remember buying them, and my father, who adored her and didn’t want her upset, refused her nothing. Perhaps he should have opened a closet door to show her all she owned but no doubt the next day she would have forgotten and complained once more. Maybe she would have looked at the clothes, and called them dismissively “from the year of the flood” or said they’d make her look like she was “just off the boat,” two phrases she’d sometimes used to describe my haphazard wardrobe and appearance when I was in my I-don’t-care-about-fashion period.
My mother discarded very few items of clothing. As a result, when she died her closets served as a sort of history of her life and figure. She had suits and dresses tailor-made for her in Bangkok and Athens during my parents’ travels, along with slacks from Kohl’s and a row of blouses in shades of blue and pink from L.L. Bean, some with her initials inked in permanent marker inside the collar so they wouldn’t get lost in the nursing home. At the end of her life, as Alzheimer’s had its way, my mother wanted to wear the same clothes every day, and these blouses, not the expensive suits and dresses, were among her favorite items. I have them in my closet, their sturdy L.L. Bean colors unfaded, along with a black two-piece cocktail dress with matching jacket that I doubt I shall have occasion to wear, a lightweight khaki jacket, and a brown car coat with a zip-out lining that I wear every spring and fall in New England’s uncertain climate.
In my mother’s generation, ideas about the role of mothers in child-rearing, about the desirability of letting the world know that the man of the house could support his family entirely on his own salary, as well as, of course, ensuring that post WWII jobs went to men not women, curtailed women’s activities in the working world. When I think about my mother’s shopping and bargain hunting, I see it as a way for her, and women like her, capable, energetic, smart, to participate in the world of commerce from which they were otherwise discouraged. To be in charge of the family’s money, to have the power to find a deal, made her someone to contend with outside as well as within the family, no small thing. And although some might dismiss the communal dressing room as creating merely a frivolous, temporary, alliance, it is no more foolish than men bonding by sitting together shouting at sports teams.
During those weeks immediately after her death, perusing the aisles of T.J. Maxx or hitting the latest Designer Circus sale, I shopped to remember my mother through my fingers that assessed a fabric, through the twist in my waist as I turned to glimpse the back of an outfit in the mirror, in my tone of voice as I talked to other women in a communal dressing room “Looks great on you” or, “Doesn’t do a thing for you.” Perhaps I foolishly hoped to recreate the sisterly sense of intimacy in the post-shopping try-ons as well, but my grandmother and aunts were also gone, my own sister lived miles away, and, although my husband did his best, it wasn’t the same. He didn’t quite understand the victory of my bargains, so the post-shopping modeling felt unsatisfactory. I had the thrill of the hunt but no one to appreciate the kill. When I was a child, on the rare occasions my parents went out to parties or on trips, I would comfort myself by going into my mother’s closet and burying my face in her clothes to breathe in the smell of her perfume and soap. These clothes I’d just bought smelled of nothing. Whatever I imagined they promised — a more exciting life, a more glamorous, assured me, my mother back again and once more enterprising and comforting — never materialized.
Still, for one evanescent moment my magical thinking worked. As I shopped my mother was with me. Then, I hung my purchases in the closet and the feeling popped like a soap bubble hitting a clothes pin.