I was thinking about how different this August is from last August. In June, I celebrated Number Young Son’s graduation from high school; but what he probably didn’t know is that I also celebrated the end of school clothes shopping. I hate clothes shopping. I have always hated clothes shopping. And I will hate clothes shopping as long as I live.
Yes, I said it.
Shopping and I have had a mutually antagonistic relationship from the start. School clothes shopping was by far the worst. For one thing, Mother was practical. She had to be, with seven children on one income. She tried very hard to be equitable for each child while maintaining her budget. So there was an allowed amount that would be spent on each of us; we would get shoes, a winter coat, undies and socks, and maybe a new outfit. Being the youngest, my wardrobe was supplemented with hand-me-downs, too, and Mother also sewed for us.
In grade school, my mother would take me to the local stores for clothes and would choose several things for me to try on. I hated — no, loathed — trying on clothes. I was a chubby girl, and it was hard to find clothes that fit me right. She would come into the changing room with me, and after I dressed, I would have to stand before her, following her direction to turn, bend, squat, and raise my arms. She would tug on zippers and snaps, check snug waistbands, adjust crooked seam lines, and button my blouses clean up to the top, with running commentary about my posture (“Stand up straight!”), the fit of the clothes (“Now, why would anyone put bust darts in a child’s blouse?”), and their construction (“That wouldn’t see three washings before falling apart!”). Ugh. By the end of the day, Mother and I would be angry and frustrated with one another, and I would try to distance myself as far from her as possible, which was hard to do in the car. I grew up hating clothes shopping, and that has stayed with me all my life.
When I was a teenager, clothes shopping trips were a little better, only because Mother would load us up in the station wagon and drive 45 minutes to the only mall around. Plus, Mother no longer had to come into the changing room with me. It was one of the two times we would go there each year — once for school shopping and once for Christmas shopping. My sister and I would be chatting about all of the new fashions of the fall that we had seen in magazines and catalogs, and we were eager to make our pilgrimage to the department stores and mall shops.
I would follow my sister’s lead into the junior department, where she would find cute clothes at bargain prices. Missy was a great shopper — she had style and an eye for quality. She had extra cash from her babysitting jobs, so she often bought accessories to make her outfits more versatile. She enjoyed shopping, and her enthusiasm kinda rubbed off on me during those trips. Instead of getting frustrated with clothing that didn’t fit, like I did, she’d shrug it off and find something else. We’d hit a few stores that were having big sales, and eventually, we’d be done. Mother often put our items on layaway, which was more affordable, but that meant we couldn’t even bring our new treasures home yet. All that work and nothing to show for it — what a letdown.
The only part of school shopping I actually liked, rather than tolerated, was when we would buy school supplies. Now that was fun — new PeeChees, unchewed #2 pencils, hard pink erasers, and later, binders, compasses, and a TI-30 calculator. I loved the stiffness of the new folders, the perfect point on the freshly-sharpened pencil, and the clean, white pages of the new spiral notebooks. I would try to negotiate with Mother for the ‘cooler’ pens — Flair felt-tipped or a nice Bic 4-color retractable — and sometimes she gave in. When I got my own babysitting money, I spent it on a fountain pen with different-colored ink cartridges, finely perforated notebooks that wouldn’t leave the ragged edge that spirals do, and mechanical pencils with fine lead. In high school, I had pens of every color and style, stencils, stickers, fancy binders, and a better calculator. I still made paper-sack book covers, though. Didn’t everyone?
When my own children became school-aged, I had to step into my mother’s role and take my kids shopping. I had to endure their frustration with the changing room routine as I found myself doing the same things Mother did: tugging at zippers and snaps, checking snug waistbands, and commenting on the quality of the clothing and my children’s posture. It never failed that the size they wore at the beginning of summer was too small by fall. I budgeted a set amount for each child and broke it down to shoes and coats and pants and shirts. I hit all the sales in all the stores and tried to get it done before we were all tired and cranky from hunger. Still, for me, the best part of school shopping was done not at the mall, but in the stationery section of the department store. Binders. Composition books. Protractors. Crayons. Glue. Red pencils. Blue pencils. Index cards. Rulers. I was in heaven. My sons didn’t care at all about a certain type of pen, nor were they concerned about the lead thickness in their mechanical pencils, but I shopped my little heart out. It sorta made up for the other stuff. Sorta.
When my sons entered high school, clothes shopping got easier. I’d follow them around to the stores as they tried on what they liked, and I’d whip out my credit card and sign on the dotted line. That kind of shopping I can do. We didn’t have to spend a lot of time browsing and pawing through racks of clothing for just the right color or style; we didn’t have to try on 10 different outfits at each store. Get them some sneakers, some socks and underwear, some shorts and tee-shirts, and maybe a hoodie, and that was fine. It was a necessary fall ritual, and although I didn’t hate it with them as much as I did when I was young, it still wasn’t on my list of fun things to do. Sorry, guys. I love you, but I hate shopping — that’s just how I am.
College — that’s the new mindset. It’s a whole different ballgame, but at least they can do their own shopping. Thank goodness.
photo credit (top) Jessie Pearl