I hate to shop. Mama loves to shop. She’s a 98-year-old clothes horse. She bought “well-made” clothes from places like Frederick & Nelson (Seattle’s now defunct subsidiary of Chicago’s Marshall Field’s, also gone). F&N was Frango Mints, the basement Paul Bunyon Room with hamburgers and ice cream sodas, and the animated windows at Christmas of my childhood. It was the top floor Tearoom with white tablecloths where I met my mother for lunch when I was in college. It was also the home of the well-made if not faddish clothes she bought for me and my sisters on our annual school shopping trip to Seattle.
“They just don’t make clothes like they used to. They don’t last,” she told me the other day, for the 4 millionth time. “No one cares if they last 40 years,” I’d said. Mama keeps her clothes—almost every purchase she ever made—in three large closets, three dressers, a cedar chest, and plastic boxes under the bed. Her closet shelf holds dress shoes in their original boxes, relics of the days she wore anything other than sturdy-soled Merrill’s black or brown walking shoes. The rod is filled with dresses, jackets, vests, and fancy blouses she hasn’t worn in a decade or more. In the guest room, even older ones are in plastic garment bags.
She’s been on the hunt this fall for shoes, a warm jacket, and a sweater to replace the Icelandic knit that fell apart winter before last. She brings her purchases home, then takes some or all of them back. It’s a familiar pattern, dating back to my childhood. Michelle took her jacket shopping last week, putting several on hold, then Mama dragged me to the store to see what I thought. She tried on three styles, three sizes of each, with much discussion of the various colors and hats she owns that might go with each. She bought one. She returned it two days later. It wasn’t warm enough.
She finally decided on a pair of shoes—of the six pairs she brought home two weeks ago. When we go for a walk at the Nisqually Wildlife Refuge, she doesn’t wear her new shoes. Apparently the old ones are good enough. I don’t ask why she got new ones, she can’t answer why questions.
After the walk, we go to REI to look at jackets. It needs to be water resistant, although she no longer walks in the rain. It needs to be big enough to wear over two sweaters, but then it’s too big if she doesn’t need two sweaters, and the sleeves on a jacket that large are too long, which seems to outrage her. She got a down jacket I am sure is warm with modern materials, but because it’s not weighty, I know I will be returning it.
Today Michelle takes her to the outlet mall to look at sweaters. She comes home with one, along with a pair of wool pants. If they aren’t wool, they aren’t well-made. She refuses to have pants custom made because she doesn’t want to pay for it, but every year she drags Rebecca (who has warned me against engaging) in the search and failure to find a pair of pants that fit her specifications, including nothing tight around her abdomen, so she buys them so big they droop around her hips.
“It’s not what I was looking for,” she says of the sweater. “It isn’t warm, and it doesn’t close in the front, except for two hooks.”
“Why did you get it then?” I ask, stupidly, knowing she can’t answer why questions.
“I thought it would look dressy with black pants,” she says.
“It would,” I agree. I should not have asked if she needs another something dressy to wear places she doesn’t go. Of course I do anyway.
“I wonder if I have a hat that matches?” she says, ignoring my question.
“It’s blue and black. You have a blue and black wool hat,” I say.
“But is it the right blue,” she says, more of a statement than a question. “Is it a summer sweater, or a winter one?”
“It’s winter colors and summer weight,” I say, trying to answer her questions now without the commentary in my head, pretending I am a witness in a trial, which it feels like.
The next day I’m at lunch with a friend when Mama calls to tell me about more sweaters and pants she and Michelle found that morning. She asks if I could take her back to the Pendleton store to look at another sweater she hadn’t gotten. Two days in a row? I groan soundlessly. “Yes,” I say, brightly.
“I don’t know if I look good in stripes,” she says when she tries it on for me.
“It looks nice on you,” I say, “but what do you want it for? This is more like a jacket and I thought you wanted something warm and cozy for in the house.”
“That’s right,” she says, remembering her mission.
She tries on a burgundy cardigan and the sales woman points out the mirror. “I can’t see it,” Mama tells her.
“Well, how does it feel?” I ask.
“I never liked red,” she says.
“What matters is how it feels,” I say. She takes it off.
I feel amazingly patient. She likes to shop. She likes to buy stuff she used to need. I will get my reward: there will be no shopping in my heaven.
I find a wool cardigan she hadn’t been shown this morning. Zippered. Pockets. Even has an Icelandic-type design like the worn out one. “It’s perfect,” I tell her. She decides to get it. As the sales woman puts it in the bag, Mama says, “I can return it, can’t I?”
From now on, Rebecca—cut from the same cloth—is on shopping detail.
You can listen to me read this here!