Thrifting

When we were young, we were only allowed to shop at second-hand stores or in the sale rack at discounted department stores. In fact, usually in second hand stores, we had to look for the clothing marked down as well. A bag for a buck. All red dotted items half off. My mom would instruct us, “Only pick out things with the red sticker on the tag.”

She knew every good Church and charity thrift store within a 20 mile radius of where we were. Even vacationing with my grandma in Connecticut, she had several on her list. Sometimes the whole gang would pile into the car and go off to the “Hole in the Wall” which my dad and sister renamed “Hole in Head” for no particular reason. Perhaps because my dad was never a fan of shopping.

When I was young, I absolutely hated thrift stores. I hated the smell. I hated sorting through the pilled cloths, full of imaginary germs. I was always worried that someone would see me inside. I sulked around, picking up clothing with two fingers and giving dirty looks. I desperately wanted to go to the mall, to buy a fancy sweater from Abercrombie and Fitch.

But my mom was a dedicated thrifter way before it was cool. A way to save money and still get good quality clothing, she said. She was practical. She reminded me that if someone I knew saw me in this church thrift store, they were probably shopping there too. I never believed her. I hid behind shoe racks anytime the door opened. This went on for years.

After college though, thrifting (maybe surprisingly) became my hobby and my passion. As a penny pincher by nature, I understood something that I was too self conscious to realize when I was young. Second hand is better, more sustainable, cheaper and more fun. The variety! The finds! I’d scour church thrift stores before kids in Brooklyn knew what they were. (This is a lie, I am sure, but I was sad when my favorite church was run over 8 years ago by college kids, and all the fabulous five dollar leather jackets I used to find were swooped up by someone else much faster than me.) I still picked and grimaced, but this time with purpose and resolve. I would search racks for hours. Look through tables of clothes. I would be the girl who said “7 dollars!” when I received a complement for my boots.

The last time I visited my mom in SF for her birthday, my sister and I told her she could pick whatever she wanted to do for her day. First, as most moms often do, she bought herself a gift (a little backpack at a store in Chinatown) and thanked us all afternoon for the present she paid for herself. Then, afterwards, she wanted to do our favorite girl activity: hit the stores. For my mom, this obviously didn’t mean Bloomingdales. Her first choice was a Goodwill outlet, so not even the Goodwill, but a store that was even cheaper than that, with buckets of used shoes without a match. You paid by the pound. Nothing organized. All on the conveyer belt. The second was a bit farther away, a thrift store donating to cancer research, a great cause but a crazy establishment. I found a bunch of bloody tissues on the dressing room floor.

The funny thing about my mom: when she wants to dress up, to make something an occasion – I have never seen anyone as put together and as classy as she. On the flight to attend our wedding, for a fancy Christmas dinner, for a formal event, she steps out looking like a Chanel classic. Earrings to match. Perfect cashmere sweater. Classy, head to toe. When we gush, when we complement her, when we touch the soft fabric and marvel at her beauty, she always replies in the same way “oh this?” and shrugs it off, rolling her eyes, “just something from the Goodwill.”

young mom and me. Photo Credit: Susan Kandel
Mom at Christmas, 2016, Cambridge, MA

“I’ll wait in the car”

My dad was a good sport. He always picked me up from swim practice. He always drove me to the mall. For life in suburbia, parental quality was measured in a parent’s willingness to get in the car and pick up their kids. My dad was always there.

He would bring a book, usually something on Japanese history or Buddhist philosophy. No matter what we were doing, he’d say, “okay, I’ll wait in the car.” Sometimes he’d be sitting there for hours, he claimed. When he forgot his book, he’d admonish himself, shaking his head, “I should have known better” as I finished a three hour goodbye to my latest best friend at swim practice.

In typical dad fashion, he also saw it as his responsibility to fill all our vehicles with gas. As a collector of old beat up cars and with two daughters who “knew” how to drive, he would often spend the whole afternoon taking different cars from our driveway to the gas station and back. When he got sick and couldn’t drive anymore on his medicine, it was so important for him to fill the car for us that my sister and I risked our lives in one of the most harrowing journeys to the gas station I think we’ll ever experience. With him behind the wheel and his oxygen tank in the back seat, he pulled out of the driveway straight into a bush, unsuccessfully tried to swipe his grocery store rewards card into the machine, and then forgot his credit card twice at the pump before collapsing back into the car. The drive back was as scary as the drive there.

But we knew how much these things meant to him. He had been doing them all our lives. Even at his most sick, he still wanted to care for us the way he knew how. He still wanted to drive us around. He still wanted to wait in the car.

Tomatoes

My husband is using online retail therapy to cope with this pandemic. His purchases are mostly baking, cooking or gardening related. Yesterday, I came downstairs to find a box with a full greenhouse tent for the backyard, waiting to be unpacked.

This week he also decided to buy a number of different seeds: chili peppers and tomatoes primarily.

The tomatoes make me most excited.

When I was young, my dad had a prized tomato garden. It was his passion. He would watch the weather channel religiously to try to anticipate the first frost, always worrying about his crop. Each season, we’d have multiple one gallon buckets full of unripe, green tomatoes crowding our basement in order to protect them from the cold.

With so many plants, my youth was spent eating tomatoes like apples, for breakfast, lunch and dinner. We had an endless supply, given to neighbors, friends and the occasional passerby.

His question to his tomatoes and to their consumers: “are they rich and full?” This was a phrase in my family for years, for anything, really, that was produce related. Whenever we’d bite into a grape or a kiwi or an orange slice. “Is it rich and full?” I am still not even sure what it means.

Juicy, ripe, healthy looking, I suppose. My dad had an eye for these things. He was easily critical of other people’s vegetable gardens – if it was a bad year, if the plants needed stakes, if they didn’t have enough water, what kind of flowers were seasonal vs. annual, or too weak for the New England climate.

When we went for walks, he’d point out expensive shrubs, knowing quickly how much a garden cost based on what was inside.

These things never mattered to me much when I was young. I took it all for granted. My dad’s endless encyclopedic knowledge of gardening. But now I wish I knew more. I wish I knew the names of certain plants, or what can flourish where. There is something beautiful about tending to something while it grows.

That’s why I was so happy when, today, in a long list of tomatoes from all over the world, in different colors and sizes, I correctly selected the picture of the ones I knew best. The ones I wanted most for our new greenhouse. “Native to North America.” The ones from his garden. The ones able to grow rich and full.

“Wanna drive around?”

Last night, I had a nightmare about driving. These aren’t uncommon and always seem to involve me losing control of the car, or forgetting how to drive.

I was never a good driver. When I got my license, it was so surprising to my parents that my mom refused to get in the car with me for a full year and a half after I passed. My dad used to joke that my sense of direction was so bad that I had to drive to the mall to orient myself before driving anywhere else. It acted as my North Star. Even then, in the earlier days of my driving life, on a rainy day with poor visibility, I accidentally turned left out of the mall parking area into a two lane highway of oncoming traffic. Sometimes I think back on some of my driving adventures and am indeed surprised I made it through. When others got “prettiest eyes” or “most likely to succeed” as senior superlatives in the high school yearbook, I was nominated by my peers for a new category, complete with picture: worst driver.

I received the award with a certain amount of honor, and I will add: I have never been in or been responsible for a car accident. Just an occasional bump into a parked car (always leaving a note!) or a curb.

Nowadays, I don’t drive, and my biking abilities have vastly improved in Corona times since I don’t use public transit anymore either. But at the start of this pandemic, I missed driving more than anything else. I grew up in a town where that was the main past-time, driving around in circles, stopping at the convenience store, listening to music, breathing in teenage second-hand cigarette smoke. There is nothing that relaxes me more than a 90s soft rock song blasting on the radio as I wiz by trees on an empty suburban road.

But perhaps, at least for now, the world is better off without me behind the wheel. Now I listen to these songs at home, and think back nostalgically on my younger years. It’s strange what people idealize from their youth. I suppose my dreams remind me of a reality I choose to forget.