The first time I went out shopping with my mother, I was only a few months old—too young to remember the experience. My mother pushed my baby stroller from our house in suburban Queens, New York, to the Bloomingdale’s a little less than a mile away, on a trip that would become a weekly routine.
My mother didn’t need anything new to wear—she was taking a year-long sabbatical from teaching—but browsing the store was something to do; she was lonely with my father at work and without family or other mothers for company. So she’d push my stroller down the aisles, touching silk scarves and wide-brim hats at random. She tried on pearl earrings and leather shoes while I lay there, sleeping and gurgling.
Growing up, my mother wasn’t like other mothers I knew—she never wore makeup, she kept her hair short, and she hated cooking, which meant almost all of our dinners were ordered in from local restaurants. She couldn’t bear to feign interest in my preteen fascination with celebrities or my school crushes, and when I’d try to engage her, she’d raise her arm and flick her wrist, her long, piano-playing fingers gently swaying.
“I’m your mother, not your friend,” she’d say, re-establishing her boundaries.
As a kid, I didn’t understand why my mother couldn’t be like my best friend Sherri’s mom, who wore tracksuits and blue eyeshadow and knew the names of all five Backstreet Boys. When I slept over their house, Sherri and I stayed up late, splayed out on white leather sofas, talking about kissing. Sometimes her mother joined us in the living room, and we’d all giggle like equals. In Sherri’s house, I learned what to expect when it came time for my first period and the proper way to shave my legs. At 10, my mother thought I was too young for such knowledge. After all, I was flat-chested and still played with Barbies.
During these years before adolescence, my favorite moments with my mother were trips to Lord & Taylor on Long Island, during their annual Friends & Family sale. Here, my only role was shopping companion, and I walked behind her while she picked out work-appropriate clothing. My mother had rules about her wardrobe: preferably cotton, nothing itchy. My mother valued simplicity, and I’d sit in the dressing room and watch her try on garments, then help her put rejects back into place.
After, she’d take me to the top floor for frozen yogurt at the café. I loved these moments, sitting across from her, just us on a weekend date. Sometimes I tried to push harder, asking to get a pedicure or see a movie. The café was next to a spa, and a theater was down the street, but my mother would tilt her head to the side and raise her hand.
“That’s ridiculous,” my mother would say. “Why don’t you call and ask Sherri?”
I can’t remember exactly when my mother offered connection (that I refused).
Perhaps this happened when I was 13 and changing, a loud, young woman replacing the shy girl I’d always been. Like most teenagers, I’d mumble one-word responses when asked about my day. My commute from the high school I attended in the Bronx to my house in Queens took nearly two hours, so I’d often get back very late—at which point I’d retreat to my bedroom to do homework and talk on the phone, hiding in my closet so no one would hear me. When my mother knocked on my door, I’d shush her away. When she asked how I was feeling, I’d say I was fine, even though there was a volcano bubbling inside me.
As I got older, the eruptions became more and more frequent. She accused me of being disrespectful (I was) and veering toward wild (I wished!). At worst, I slammed doors and scribbled my hatred in my diary. My junior-year boyfriend was a source of contention—he was a year older and far more experienced; he wore a leather jacket and a pinky ring and snorted cocaine. He’d forge excuses, pulling me out of music or gym, and then we’d break into the janitor’s closet, where he’d pressure me to have sex.
He was, in many ways, an odd choice—I was a virgin who’d never even smoked weed—but the appeal stemmed as much from my own desire as from my mother’s disapproval. In the months before this boyfriend and my inevitable breakup, my mother and I fought relentlessly; she was getting calls from worried teachers to come in for after-school meetings. “Who are you becoming?” she’d scream at me.
When our fights were at their worst, my father allowed us to yell ourselves tired, and he’d take the family dog for a long drive around the block. Sometimes I’d stare at the window and watch for his car—there was my father’s cranberry Subaru, once, twice, three times around, the dog sitting in the passenger seat.
My mother and I needed neutral territory, and we found it at Filene’s, the discount clothing store that closed in 2014. (RIP, Filene’s. We loved you.)
I couldn’t appreciate much about my mother, but I knew she was an expert at bargain shopping. This helped when—trying to keep up with my changing body and size—I constantly needed new clothing. On weekends, I’d sit next to her at the kitchen table, and I’d help her cut coupons, organizing them by expiration date. Twenty percent off one item, 15 percent off the whole purchase, 50 percent off holiday deals. We smiled as we cut the pages, careful not to damage the discount code, a terrible mistake I made only once, sacrificing 50 percent off name-brand jewelry.
My father would sit near us, horrified. He had the same pair of pants in five colors, and sweaters in shades of blue and green. He bought new shoes when old ones wore through and was a master at fixing holes with duct tape. He didn’t understand our love of a bargain, the excitement we felt when we returned with pajamas reduced from $100 to $15. He’d flip to the sports section and shake his head, saying, “You’re acting like they’re giving things away.”
The new clothing was a perk, of course, but the real win from these shopping trips was coexisting with my mother in the same space. Inside the store, we shared a goal and a vision. We took to the aisles like two private investigators on a mission, putting our well-practiced plan into place: First, we’d sort through bras and underwear (the easiest to hold while continuing to shop) before moving on to dresses. There, we’d sift carefully through the racks, my mother starting at size zero, and me, at size six. From dresses, we moved on to jeans and then tops. Shoes, too cumbersome to carry into the dressing room, were saved for last. I found comfort in our routine.
Long fingers are an advantage when discount shopping. I was grateful to have inherited my mother’s hands, though I never took to the piano because I refused to practice—a symptom of my stubbornness. But at my most nimble, I could carry 30 items at once, one hanger on each finger and several on my wrists. The rest we stacked high in a pile on my arms, hangers all facing the same direction. This made it easier to count when we made it to the dressing room’s entryway.
The Filene’s dressing room was small and cramped and predictably hot; the store we frequented never had air-conditioning. Though we could easily have two rooms—the place was never packed—we always opted for one, squeezing around each other as we placed hangers on hooks and the doorframe. When I was a child, the close space made sense; it meant less effort when I wanted to show her something. At 17, the arrangement proved more difficult. I had three inches and 40 pounds on my mother, and I tried to shy away from her gaze.
At my most nimble, I could carry 30 items at once, one hanger on each finger and several on my wrists.
“Why are you hiding?” my mother asked me once. “You’re a good-looking girl.”
“And chubby,” I told her, as if the two couldn’t exist simultaneously. “We can’t all be your size.”
“Nonsense,” she told me and turned away from the mirror. She looked over her shoulder. She wore high-waisted cotton underwear and a lightly padded bra. She sighed and shook her head. “The family tuckus. We all look the same from behind.”
The front was a different story. I hadn’t worn a padded bra since elementary school— my chest seemed to be getting bigger by the day, and, in fact, probably was, since I was on high-estrogen birth control for my acne. Once, I got stuck in a too-tight dress, unable to pull it over my DD breasts. Lack of air-conditioning and nervous sweat didn’t help the situation, and I squirmed and wiggled as my mother attempted to free me.
“What would you do if I wasn’t here?” my mother asked, as I knelt before her and finally off came the dress, without a pop or a snap or any evidence of mishandling.
In truth, I don’t know what I would do. I think about this question all the time.
“I miss it,” my mother said to me recently, confessing she still felt the loss of Filene’s. I laughed at the statement—it’s a store, not a person—but, of course, I feel the same way. I think about our shopping trips every time I drive past the Michael’s art store sign, an “M” where the “F” used to be, or when I open my parents’ basement closet and find ghosts of clearance sales past: my prom dress, junior-prom dress, and a dress I wore when I was in a band for three days.
There’s the suit that I wore to my first interview; numerous Halloween costumes; and a pink, tea-length dress from Laundry, with sequin flowers scattered all over and too-long spaghetti straps, which my mother had to tighten so they’d fit me. It was my mother who found it, of course, and convinced me to try it on, even though with my dark hair and reddish cheeks, I thought I looked terrible in pink.
“Why not?” she said. “Trying on is free, and if you love it, it’s only $15.”
Of course, I loved it. It was perfect for me.
The next time we were in a dressing room together wasn’t until years later.
We were shopping for my wedding, and I relished the small moment when I asked her to join me in the curtained-off space. We are rarely alone together, even though I don’t live far away. When we speak, our words are stunted, repetitions of “that’s fine” or “that’s good,” neither of us quick to display vulnerabilities. We’ve found a rhythm, and it works for the most part, although sometimes I even miss our fighting. Tension brings its own kind of intimacy.
The wedding dress was cotton—much like my mother’s had been—but far more elaborate, strapless, and hitting right below my knee. It was perfect for a laid-back, early-summer wedding. I knew it was right the moment I saw it, and I wanted my mother to agree.
She would never be the mother on Say Yes to the Dress, clapping and crying about the loss of her baby. She wasn’t that kind of mother, and although, as a teenager, I’d longed for that “best friend,” I learned to appreciate her as she was. She could be stern and to the point, and she always provided boundaries. Still, in crisis, she was my first call, even at two in the morning.
And even though I knew it shouldn’t matter—I was my own person—trying on this wedding dressing in front of her unnerved me.
“Turn around so I can zip you,” she said. “Put your hands on your waist and don’t breathe.” I did what she said. The sales rep sighed outside the door; he’d wanted to help, but I’d asked him to leave. I heard the zip and then felt my mother clasp the hook-and-eye. She patted the dress and tied the ribbon in a bow in the back. I turned again, so she could look at me.
“It’s beautiful,” she said, soft but still practical, checking off a box now complete. She walked out of the dressing room and left me alone for a moment. Her words replayed in my head. “Beautiful,” she’d said. I smoothed the lace in the skirt and thought, That is all I need.
Jessie Male is a freelance writer, educator, and Ph.D. candidate based in New York City. She is currently working on a memoir and can be found on Twitter at @ProfJMale. She also shares stories about her family and vintage clothing at FashionAndFamilyStories.