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

Cactus Pants

When I was younger, my mom would always buy my sister and me the exact same gifts: matching stuffed animals at first, clothing a little later. We would both get the same dog, or polar bear or stuffed rabbit. For other holidays, we would receive the same Valentines or Easter baskets – the same stuffed dog but with a flower or heart instead of the plaid scarf, depending on the season. Always in two. Always the same.

My mom made Valentine’s Day and Easter two of my favorite holidays when I was young. I loved dressing up in the most flowery frou-frou dress she could find, with a matching ribboned straw hat, and heading to my nana’s looking like an 8-year-old 90s style prom star, with my matching 4-year-old sister as a side kick accessory.

Recently, my mom gave one of our old matching stuffed dogs to my niece. And my niece is joyously carrying out her mom and aunt’s tradition of over-the-top and out-of-the-box fashion choices with red sparkle high heels and her own large collection of tutus she models and changes every day.

When I was young, the frilly matching dresses had their limelight for a good while before I became an angsty tween and started my exposed midriff phase that lasted too long. When the subsequent gift ideas plateaued, my mom adapted. We, as a family, adapted. We all started giving each other the opposite of froofy formal wear: we started gifting matching pajamas instead.

What started as my mom buying these things for my sister and me morphed into us buying them for her. Every Christmas, three new pairs of matching pink cat pajama bottoms would appear under the tree. We’d all head out to our suburban TJMaxx or Marshalls separately, and end up buying nearly the same thing for each other on the other end. Before there was a social media phenomenon of people wearing matching Christmas PJs at home, my mom, my sister and I were wearing, exchanging and switching our nighttime wear constantly for years, surprisingly on trend.

Now, in another country, an entire continent and ocean away from them both (they live in SF) during this crazy pandemic, I am comforted by this memory as I sit in a pair of furry cactus pajama pants I bought for myself and my sister the last time we saw each other, more than a year ago now, in a Marshalls down in New Orleans. I usually buy a cozy pair of socks or lounge pants for her or my mom right before any anticipated visit, and always get the same reaction of joy and excitement that I feel myself when I purchase them. This is what brings us together. This is what keeps us in each other’s thoughts. When I call now, my sister and I are still, almost 30 years later, wearing the exact same outfit on the phone, enjoying our lounge wear in our separate lockdowns, apart but still the same. Always wearing the same.

New Beginnings

One of my fondest memories from my first time in The Netherlands back in 2007 was a trip to Schiermonnikoog with my program. We stayed in an old farm house with lambs in the back yard, sleeping all together in one big room upstairs.

There are many moments in life that I don’t remember or appreciate. Sometimes individual memories can be different depending on the person remembering them. My sister read a post on this blog and is convinced I made up it up because she doesn’t remember the story at all.

But I actively wanted to make that Schiermonnikoog trip a memory. I felt so grateful, in wonder of this beautiful place: an island with green fields and sandy beaches and frolicking lambs. Having not traveled much beforehand, I knew I was lucky to be there.

This week, we’re on a similar trip with friends. After a year of hibernating and feeling fearful of others, we are at another Dutch farmhouse in the countryside, with big windows overlooking cloudy skies, close to sheep.

The area is typical of Holland – wet, green, and windmilled. Thirteen years later, I am still playing board games into the night with lukewarm enthusiasm. I am still grateful for the drafty rooms we are sharing with friends. And like before, I want to keep this memory. In a year of endless days that merge together and where time passes with a lack of special moments, I will try to remember the joy of watching my friend’s daughter read a book on the floor with my husband, and the look her son gives when he wakes up from a nap. Despite corona’s endless days, I can still make new memories worth keeping.