There are three things I learned from my mother at an early age, Faith, Storytelling and stories, and the joys of shopping. I have written about her influence on my faith in other places, but let me share this memory. As much as I love shopping, and that is the confession at the heart of this post, it was always more than a little boring when she was pouring over dresses. What is a little one to do except go in and out of the dresses on the racks, back and forth, pushing the dresses aside as though they were a thicket of cotton, silk or wool? Or, standing on the base of the dress rack swinging back and forth asking the question, “When are we going to be done?”
I asked a similar question as a young child in Catholic Mass, in between the prayers in Latin, standing, sitting, kneeling and standing again. I tugged on the skirt of her dress and asked in a hoarse whisper , “When’s it going to be over?” The fact that I am now a Pastor, I regard as evidence of God’s sense of humor. Church is never over!
I loved her stories and could listen to them over and over again. She told stories about her childhood, lining the bottom of shoes with cardboard, because the soles had worn out and there was no money for new shoes. In fact, there was no tradition of throwing out old stuff and buying new because you felt like it. Stories of hiding from the gas man, or the electric man who had come to shut off the utilities, because there was no money to pay. She told me Bible stories and stories of the saints. It always struck me as funny since in the 1950’s and even 1960’s Catholics were not encouraged to read the Bible for ourselves, but she had a good grasp of the story of the Wedding at Cana (John 2:1-12) and other Bible stories as well.
My favorite children’s book that she read was “The Pokey Little Puppy,’ it was a large Golden Book. (Written by Janette Sebring Lowery, 1942). The first books she bought for me to read were classics, “Jane Eyre” and others. I also read “Little Women” and “Gone With the Wind,” before I was 11. It didn’t make me an eclectic reader, but even back then, I could appreciate the drama in the narrative.
NEW BEDFORD BOUND
It was about a half hour drive from Onset, to the city of New Bedford, Massaachusetts. Mom’s favorite department stores in New Bedford were The Star Store and Cherry and Webb. (The Star Store, and probably Cherry & Webb too, used pneumatic tubes to send money and receipts back and forth between floors. I still remember the whooshing sound as the tubes were sucked up into the works, as well as the thud when the tube came back with her change and receipt. We also hit the Mill outlets, Arlans and the Fairhaven Mills. It was a pilgrimage. I have two trinkets or three that belonged to her, a vase and some smaller pieces that I am not sure if they came from the Mills or the Mediterranean from one of dad’s trips. I also loved going to Cornwell’s Department Store in Wareham, especially the housewares department.
A good shopping trip also involved lunch, preferably at the Star Store lunch counter, but there were other places as well. A good shopping trip also included one of her friends, Abby or Billie. She would call them in the morning, when she was thinking of shopping and ask, “What’s on your foolish mind?” which turned out to be mom speak for “Want to shop?” I don’t necessarily remember her doing a lot of buying, but mom sewed her own clothes and mine and it may be that she was looking for ideas.
One of the outcomes of shopping with mom as I got older, was a love of housewares, and especially dishes. Ironstone, bone china, it really did not matter. I took accordion lessons at DeRossi’s Accordion Studio (I was not very good and did not advance far). The Studio was very close to the Star Store, and if we got to New Bedford early enough, we would window shop at the jewelry store near the intersection and look at all the china patterns. I fell in love with Lenox China at a tender age. We never bought dishes, not in those days anyway, but we sure looked. I like housewares and dishes so much that truth be told, I would buy a new set of dishes every two years, if I thought I could get away with it. Time for a new pattern!
Maybe part of the reason I don’t remember the buying as much as the looking is that shopping was all about the hunt, the search for that one special something. For reasons that don’t matter here, I got to spend three and a half months with mom, in my early 20’s, the year after my dad had died. We went to Mass on Sundays and 3 days a week minimum, there would be shopping. Mostly in New Bedford, but sometimes we would go to Braintree to the Mall and I loved that too.
THE ART OF SHOPPING
We had set on two simple goals for the three and a half months of shopping, we searched for a soup tureen and a glass pedestal cake plate, both for me, with the understanding that I would know what I liked when I saw it, and there was no real hurry. I am pretty sure the soup tureen was mom’s idea and the pedestal cake plate was mine, but I was all about the hunt. And the companionship. It had been a hard year for both of us and shopping was a lovely diversion and quality time together.
All these years later, I still like to shop. And call me reactionary, but I prefer to shop in person. Admittedly, I buy some things online, mostly books but occasionally clothes that I cannot get any other way. I suppose it is not much different from the days when we ordered things out of a catalog. But I much prefer to make my own choices, to see the actual color, feel the fabric, try the garment on and see how it feels and fits and looks in the mirror.
I realize that shopping with children and youth is a whole other game that can be emotionally and physically draining, especially when it has to be fit in between work, rehearsals, practice, scouts and other pressing events. I have my own memories of the challenges of shopping with an infant and two toddlers, and later, with three middle school youth. There was the time when my young ones took great pleasure in trying to fill my grocery cart with frozen turkeys, faster than I could pull the turkeys out. “Lunch! they said with glee. “More lunch!” they said, grabbing another turkey. Middle school mischief makers!
I try to shop locally, or items that I cannot buy locally, within an hour drive. This has become even more challenging in the last two years as more and more chain stores and mall anchor stores have closed. I know it may sound very superficial, especially considering our current situation and need to wear masks, practice social distancing and get in and out of stores as quickly as possible. But, I still love to shop.
Partly, it is about the lingering, the free time to carefully choose and ponder the purchase. Lingering over a decision to buy is the opposite of caving into high pressure sales and instant gratification. That is one of the things that makes me sad at the moment, no time for lingering and socializing is not considered safe. A few weeks ago I saw a woman whom I know at the store and do not see her often. I wasn’t going to rush up and hug her, but I was clearly happy to see her. However, the expression on her face, as well as her body language seemed to say, “Hi-Bye, Stay where you are do not come any closer.” I understood, but admit to being disappointed to not have a six foot greeting and smile. This was before masks became mandatory.
If shopping is about lingering and careful choices, for me, it is also about the human connection. Several years ago I led a group in a prayer walk at a shopping mall during the Christmas Shopping Season. The point was not to preach, or be preachy, showy or pious. The goal was simply to walk around the mall and in stores, quietly praying for the shoppers and store employees and to ask, when possible and practical, how the clerks were doing, how there day was going and how they were being treated.
Because I want to practice what I preach, it is a tradition that I have brought into my every day life. I don’t expect to have a full blown conversation in the check out line or expect anyone to tell me, a stranger, their life story. But it doesn’t take a lot of effort to look the cashier in the eye, ask them how their day is going and during the busiest times of year, sales, holidays, etc. to ask them how they are being treated. Oh humanity! Because I am in the store way too much (eight miles away to the nearest Walmart) it forces me to be aware of the person on the other side of the register and not whisk through the line as they they were not human, or important.
One day I was in a check out line and the cashier caught me off guard, she asked me the questions I generally ask the cashiers. I bit my lip just in time. I wanted to say, “Wait! That’s my line.” But I just smiled a grateful smile. It doesn’t take too much effort and it can make a big difference in the life of a busy, hardworking person who often may feel unappreciated and underpaid.
I know that not everyone looks at shopping the way I do. Many people have recently celebrated the shopping plans that Walmart and other stores have introduced, shop online and pick it up at the door, or have your car loaded. It is a genuine blessing that our local grocery store in town has also started making that service available. That would never be my choice, but I have neighbors who have been rejoicing at the time saving factor. Perhaps that shopping program was introduced just in the nick of time for COVID-19.
I admit two things in that regard. I did get a bit anxious about shopping in person, even though we are not in or near the epicenter of the virus and our county has a relatively low number of cases, compared to other parts of our state and other parts of our country and the world. My husband managed to talk me off that particular ledge. When it comes to shopping for food, we both prefer to pick out our own meat, fruit and vegetables. Touch, smell and appearance are important.
My other admission is the fear or concern that this could become an irreversible trend, either shopping online or doing self-check out. I want the personal contact. I want to linger over my choices. Shopping for food or other items is not an area of my life that needs to be streamlined. The more limited my social world becomes as a retiree, the more in-person shopping I will want to do.
It’s my mother’s fault, and of course she is not here to defend herself. She transmitted to me, the thrill of the hunt, the joy of the find, the companionship of the journey and the simple gratitude of human connection.
Not holding back the tide,