A Year in the Life, Week 33: Shopping

Today’s prompt from A Year in the Life was to write about a store you went to as a child. I didn’t write much about a particular store, but about my memories of shopping with my mom. I wrote for probably an hour, which is about twice as long as I usually take for these exercises. It provided the kind of rich, reflective experience I hoped for when I started this project. All the extensions were great, too, although I’m no longer deluding myself about extensions. Still, I did flag them for potential use in my spiritual writing group. Interestingly, this entry about shopping comes on the eve before I plan to finish my Christmas shopping — just like the “recipes” entry fell on my cooking night. Strange how these things line up.

What I remember are the wooden carts at the Kandiyohi Mall, the way they rode so low and so smoothly, the metal “knockers” at the back of the baby seat, which were inserted and locked into the cart corral. It cost 75 cents to unlock the cart, but if you brought it back to the corral, you got 25 cents back.

I don’t remember ever sitting in the front of that cart. Instead, Mom laid my fuzzy bunny blanket down in the back, and it was such a cozy way to spend the day, the sound of those disc-like wheels humming over the smooth floors. What are mall floors made of, anyway? There was no textured tile like at the local mall, and there were ramps at various junctions for going up and down. The ramps were carpeted red.

This was before Krystl was born, so it was just me and my mom, and the memory fills me with such warmth. How I woke up in the morning and Mom said we were “going to Willmar,” and I couldn’t remember what far-off place that was, so she would always remind me about the wooden carts, and that’s how I placed it. It was an hour away, which seemed far, but I don’t remember anything about that car ride that took us there and back again.

I remember very little about the stores Mom went to, except that my space would get smaller as she draped potential or actual purchases in the cart. I remember the bright purple shag carpet that slowed the cart down in Deb’s. She was shopping for clothes, apparently, a pursuit that interests me as little now as it did then (confession: I still get most of my clothes from my mom, whether hand-me-downs or deals she couldn’t pass up.)

Mom would tell me throughout the day how “good” I was, and in retrospect it certainly seems I was–much more patient in that cart than I am at a shopping center today.

Perhaps there was something about those early trips, when I had my mom all to myself, that had me riding in shopping carts long after I was too old for it–once getting caught by a teacher who happened to be shopping away from home, too, and I was so mortified that I don’t think I ever rode in a cart again. It was about time, anyway!

If I was good all day, I usually got a treat before we went home–a toy or a coloring book.

I have more vivid memories after Krystl was born, of us both in the wooden carts with our My Little Ponies or paper dolls or coloring books. I can’t imagine how we both fit in one cart–I remember then I was big enough to get in and out on my own. Krystl was a toddler. And the ritual of getting “treats” if we were good all day continued every time we went on an out-of-town shopping trip. This was before the Internet, so we always found something that wasn’t available locally, that we’d never seen before. Often we’d be someplace as banal as K-Mart, but Marshall didn’t even have a K-Mart back then.

There were a few unspoken rules in this “if you’re good = treat” arrangement. One was that it was not spoken of by Krystl or me — to ask about how our behavior was or if we’d get a treat was taboo. Mom would have to be the one to broach the subject, usually about halfway through the shopping day: “You girls are being so good–maybe we’ll get you a treat before we go home.” And Krystl and I meeting eyes, thrilled every time even though we’d learned to expect it.

The second unspoken rule was that toys were always the last stop of the day. Since even Sioux Falls didn’t have a Toys R Us back then, I didn’t see a dedicated toy store till I was at least 10. So this meant the discount stores that had toy aisles were the last stop of the day. And we never knew what we would find there. I remember going home with coloring books, play-doh, and My Little Ponies, all on separate occasions. Then when we got home, we quickly hid the packaging at the bottom of the garbage can so Dad wouldn’t know–although I wonder how often he noticed and just didn’t bring it up. He always claimed we had “too many toys,” and he was quite right. Yet, Mom claimed it was fine because we actually played with all our toys, and she was also right. We weren’t the type of kids who needed new toys for a moment’s distraction, and we played with the same collections hundreds of times. I think that’s partially why Mom couldn’t resist buying them for us–she didn’t do it to “keep us satisfied” but because she took joy in our imaginations, because it awakened her imagination, because she was curious about how a new addition might enhance or shift our play lives. She liked it when we spread our toys all over in the living room or the kitchen, I think so she could eavesdrop on our storylines, and I imagine her projecting what we might do in her mind every time she considered getting us something new. Ah, this looks good on the shelf, but what will it become in my children’s hands?

Part of it was also to make up for her own childhood, for growing up too poor to have all the toys she longed for–a longing that I don’t think ever went away. I think that’s why she still loves shopping to this day, and why our family tends to go a little overboard with Christmas. I imagine that when I have my own children, I’ll try to swing back in the direction of simplicity, but not all the way to deprivation. We’re always seeking a balance, generation against generation.

The good shopping with my mom memories extend all the way into my teenage years, when going to Barnes & Noble was like going to heaven. Remember, no Internet! This was the only way we knew so many books existed. We each got to pick out one per visit, and I remember agonizing over which it would be, starting with a stack and then slowly whittling it down to one. A few books I remember acquiring on these trips:

Yeah, I was pretty into fantasy. And I remember that whatever I was reading at the time, I always wanted to be done with it at once so I could crack open that shiny new book.

With all these wonderful memories, it’s strange that I grew up to be someone who almost despises shopping. The Internet lets me almost avoid it altogether — if I know just what I’m looking for, I can go straight to it, without seeing all the things I’m not looking for. Still, I think my main aversion to shopping is my aversion to spending money or getting bogged down with too much stuff. But show me a used booksale, and that old Barnes & Noble magic comes back, the thrill of the hunt to find that perfect book you did or didn’t know you were looking for.

Even better if you can do it with your mom.