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The Birth of a Shopper

I was four when my momma took me to “the city” as she liked to call it, a trip to downtown New Orleans to shop. The stores along Canal Street were magical, glittering places filled with sophisticated and glamorous women. And even on a weekday, they were crowded. She had only turned her back for a brief moment when I disappeared, the stuff of every mother’s nightmare. Frantically, she called for me and although this was well before a time when store staff would announce a missing child alert, everyone in the vicinity began to search. I was found a few minutes later, sitting on the floor behind the perfume counter with the saleslady, spraying and smelling all of the different scents as I giggled loudly. Such became a chapter in the story that my momma used to tell about when I officially became a shopper.

In those days, it was quite commonplace for women to buy a seasonal wardrobe, which meant a full day of browsing for the wearable essentials. It was fun for her but exhausting for me as a kid. I usually managed to wrangle some kind of a treat out of the deal, which made me a little more patient. When I was little, it was a sweet from the candy counter. Later, it was a purse or sweater. Both were thrilling.

Shopping was a dress up occasion, complete with a hat, although I never much cared for the itchy veils, and couldn’t manage to keep the darned thing attached to my head without that uncomfortable elastic band that slipped under the chin. By mid-morning it was in her tote bag, along with the white gloves she sometimes insisted I wear. My momma would haul me from one store to another as we visited the fashion departments, followed by accessories and shoes. I recall on one such outing when as a precocious young girl, I stared in wide-eyed wonder at the buxom woman with flame red hair, who sat at the adjacent dressing table, trying on hats. One of the employees casually whispered in my mother’s ear that she was Blaze Starr, the toast of Bourbon Street, and the governor’s current mistress. I had never seen a stripper in person, with or without clothes, and I gawked so much that my embarrassed momma had to leave with the promise that we would return at a later time.

Lunch was usually a festive affair at the restaurant on the second floor of D.H. Holmes. I was always starving and impatient as we waited for our ladies’ lunch of chicken salad and fruit, but I do recall that it was there that I was taught how to order from a menu, how to make polite conversation, and how to have table manners. One quick glance around the room did a lot for my education about the public behavior of a refined, cultured woman, and my momma was quick to reinforce those lessons as part of the day. As I grew into adulthood, I came to appreciate that education.

Daddy often said that the charge account statements looked like the national war debt, and although I always thought he was joking, there was a bit of seriousness in the tone of his voice. But Momma smoothed things over in her charming way as she pointed out how much money he actually saved based on how much she would wear everything. Besides, she was a Cracker Jack seamstress and since I was growing so quickly, she made almost all of my clothes until I was well into high school. I grumbled a bit, but I knew that each outfit was a labor of love. And since store- bought dresses were a rare, special occasion purchase, I blame that for turning me into the clothes “collector” that I am today.

Twice a year, I was given a “sensible” pair of everyday shoes, as my feet were carefully measured for proper fit. They were ugly, no joke, and I often cried when I compared mine to the fashionable ones my classmates wore. But in the end, my momma was right as now, many decades later, I have pretty good feet for an old lady. I am grateful for that. At Christmas and Easter, I was allowed to pick out a dressy pair, to be worn only to church or other important places. How I loved them. She called them “sitting shoes,” a term I still use for heels that hurt too much to walk in more than a few feet. I would tell you how many shoes I currently own, but that’s top secret information. Let’s just say that I have a problem.

Age has made me more frugal, careful about how I spend my hard-earned money. While there is a thrill that comes from donning a new outfit, it is even better when it is purchased on sale. I have become much more interested in the hunt, the bargain, the deal. And I have scored some big ones over the years. My favorite memory happened when I wandered into a store that was going out of business. It was their final day of operation, and they had discovered a huge box filled with Bandolino shoes tucked away in the store room. They offered them for fifty cents a pair. I bought ten pairs of assorted sizes and brought them into the faculty lounge at school the next day. “If you can find your size, you can have them,” I announced. Yeah, that was fun.

Being sick put me in a time-out for everything. Just a few months ago, I was too uncomfortable and weak to consider a trip to the stores. And the worry over being in public places with a weakened immune system kept me close to home. But lately, I have begun to shop again, partially out of necessity since most of my pre-illness clothes don’t fit. But I have also rediscovered the sheer joy of browsing, admiring the foolishness and finery. It is symbolic of my return to life as I once lived it, I think. But more than that, shopping reminds me of happy moments spent with my momma, even as an adult. In some ways, I can feel her presence as I thumb through the racks of clothes. I can almost see her holding up something outrageous saying, “This would look great on you,” as we collapse into laughter. I sure do miss her. Especially now.

Last weekend, I told my daughter-in-law to put some crime scene tape over my closet door if something happens to me. Much like the Southern woman, who ran to hide the silver from the Yankees, I worry about the treasures in there that the men in my life would easily discard, toss into a bag bound for Goodwill. This is part of my legacy. And, after all, I do have granddaughters, and one of them can wear my shoes.

I just read through this post and laughed out loud. Yup, I must be feeling better. I sure am grateful.

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