To borrow from the iconic work of artist Barbara Kruger, “I shop therefore I am.” I am not ashamed of being a shopaholic.
First, while I have infinite lust for shopping, I exercise substantial control in buying. This discipline keeps me from drowning in debt. The process of shopping – the thrill of the hunt – is a large part of the exhilaration. (Although coming home with all those tissue-wrapped items in nifty shopping bags is a major high, too).
Second, while I love shopping, I am not materialistic to the exclusion of other redeeming qualities. For example, I have devoted most of my career to advocating philanthropy and children’s arts programs. I’ve never smoked or gambled. I eat and drink moderately. Shopping is my relatively innocuous vice. Besides, I help the economy.
According to my mother, my love of shopping goes back to when I was about four years old. Mom said that when I asked, “Mommy, are we going bye-bye?” I really meant “Buy! Buy!”
Until I started school, Mom would take me out for a walk every afternoon, weather permitting. We’d go window shopping in our Manhattan neighborhood and often she would take me somewhere that had little items – toys or decorative trinkets – that she could afford. We usually ended up in a “dime store” like Woolworth’s. Little Golden Books, the children’s line published by Simon & Schuster, were only 25 cents back then and I loved them. I also liked crayons, paints, tea set dishes, paper dolls, and coloring books. Sometimes we would buy something for the house like a pretty floral dish towel or a cupcake tin to make treats.
When I was old enough to understand, Mom explained that, back in those days, she was careful to avoid taking me inside stores that were too expensive for her budget. She did not want to disappoint me too much. Whenever we bought something, I would light up at the pleasure of carrying the package home. Mom got a great deal of joy from these little shopping excursions.
Some mothers and daughters cook together. Others bond while gardening, playing sports, or making quilts. My mother and I shopped. The early Woolworth’s experiences were just the beginning.
As I grew up, the shopping trips became searches for school supplies, sneakers, Barbie clothes, party dresses, and lipsticks. We did not always have a good time together. Sometimes we argued and walked home angry at each other and empty-handed.
Of course, in the difficult teenage years, I wanted to look like “everybody else.” This meant trips to the drugstore for black mascara, eyeliner, and turquoise eye shadow that melted into the creases of my eyelids. I was not good at applying this cheap make-up and resisted Mom’s offers of instruction for fear I would look like “a 1940s person” instead of “everybody else.” One day, Mom declared in frustration, “Your eye make-up makes you look like a roach.”
Years later, after I had long since graduated from the drugstore to the Chanel cosmetics counter, Mom would remark with astonishment, “Your make-up looks beautiful!” I guess she was relieved to know I had it in me after all.
Once I began working, our shopping arguments were usually about what looked good on me. Mom was not one to mince words:
“It makes you look fat.”
“Never wear that color.”
“You’re too short for that. Who do you think you are, Beatrice Arthur?”
“It looks deadly on you.”
Of course, as I got older, I often shopped with friends and bought clothes when I traveled. I think Mom felt left out, but continued to provide her What Not To Wear commentary:
“Who was with you when you bought that? She let you buy it? Did you try it on in the store? Don’t go shopping with her anymore!”
I always had many friends, but Mom didn’t. I was her daughter and her best friend, which made our relationship especially complex. When I announced I had saved up enough money to move into my own apartment, I think Mom stayed up nights inventing reasons for me to stay living with her and grandma.
“You could save even more money if you stayed with us longer.”
“That place is over-priced.”
“The bathroom is small and dark.”
“Friends will insist on staying overnight on your sofa and ruin it.”
“Think of your grandmother. She’ll miss you. Who knows how many years she has left?”
“We won’t be there to make you a meal when you get home late from work. Take-out food will make you fat.”
I figured that she felt excluded from my life, so I gave her tasks to help me. My goal was to make the situation more tolerable for both of us:
“Mom, could you make a list of all the cleaning products I should have on hand in my new place.”
“Mom, could you help me find another chair for the living room?”
“Mom, what kind of skillet would be the best buy?”
This approach did the trick. Mom was so busy with her assignments that she didn’t have time to rain on my new apartment parade. More importantly, she felt needed.
Of course, I could generally count on my mother’s total devotion to her tasks and this benefit yielded all sorts of bonuses for me. As Mom constantly reminded me, I am “not domestic.”
A match-making friend wanted to introduce me to a widower who was new in town. He had seven children, ranging from five-year-old twins to a middle schooler.
“Don’t bother. It won’t work,” volunteered Mom.
“Well, I do like kids…”
“But you are not domestic. A man like this needs a woman who can make children’s clothes out of drapes. That’s not you.”
The blind date never happened, but some months later Mom asked, “Whatever happened to the Sound of Music guy?”
But back to shopping. One of the tasks I gave Mom was ironing. I would take my clothes over to her home to be pressed. There was a time in the early 1990s when I was working primarily at home or in an informal artists’ environment. I wore relatively drab, ill-fitting clothes for everyday to save the budget for more extravagant concert and opera wear. I had an aversion to jeans at the time and wore beige and khaki pants with oversized chambray work shirts. Hideous, indeed.
Mom called. “I finished your ironing, but I ask myself, ‘Why does my daughter dress like a Boy Scout?’ I haven’t seen so much khaki since pressing your father’s uniforms during the Korean War.”
Mom did have strong style sense and good taste, though I did not always listen to her. However, I did always appreciate that she encouraged me to buy the quality clothes that caught my eye and discouraged me from cheap items or foregoing smart purchases just to save a few dollars.
As a young woman in New York, Mom took fashion modeling classes and loved stylish clothes. She remembered being sad that she could not afford them. She told me how she’d buy inexpensive simple dresses and then hunt the Manhattan garment district to find quality buttons, lace collars, trims, and leather belts to make her outfits more distinctive. I think she hoped I would enjoy the life she wanted at my age that was out of reach to her.
For example, we went shopping for a black evening top for a benefit event I was working. We found two pieces that fit my immediate need and I was having trouble deciding between them. She encouraged me to purchase both, even if that was not my original intent. “You’ll need it in a few months for a concert or the ballet or something. You might not be able to find it then. Buy both.”
We did go shopping for Mom’s clothing, but she had long lost interest in her own life. Despite her love of fashion, she was very practical about her own needs. She seemed to prefer living vicariously through me.
Perhaps we had the most fun together when Mom worked at Robinsons’ department store in Santa Monica. I was making pretty good money by then and we could take advantage of her employee discount to augment my closet. We would plan ahead for her bonus days or big sales. Since Mom was at the store almost daily, she would watch for new merchandise and alert me when my favorite makers’ lines were delivered. She’d put things on hold for me to try on and I would meet her at a bench in the mall to plan our strategy.
I cannot remember our final shopping outing. Mom started to devote herself to taking care of my grandmother, who began to decline when she reached 100. Mom left the house less often. I hoped against hope that things would get better and we would shop together again. But Mom’s own health began to fail and she spent her last months in a nursing home. I wish I could remember the last thing we bought together.
Robinsons’ is gone now. The Santa Monica Place mall was remodeled and reopened last year with all new stores. The bench where I used to meet Mom is gone, too, but each time I pass that spot on my way into Bloomingdale’s, I think of the best shopping buddy I ever had. She took me from Little Golden Books to Kate Spade bags. Shopping is just not the same without her.
Photo and text © Annette Simons, 2011. All rights reserved.