Laura and Nikki bounded ahead of me, rhapsodizing about the racks of used clothes. I followed, trying to hide my irritation. Had I not worked like mad for years so that she didn’t have to shop at places like this? Buying brand new clothes had been my dream throughout a childhood of wearing hand-me-downs and thrift shop purchases. Now my would-be fashion designer daughter thinks it’s cool to shop in these places.
“Mom, the planet is being overwhelmed by the cheap fashion industry. Think of all those poor women slaving in sweat shops to make things that people wear twice and toss. These might be used, but they’re vintage. Look at the quality of the workmanship. Relax, Mom.”
“I just hope you don’t get fleas,” I thought, but managed to hold my tongue, as my friend Barb had advised.
“Lighten up,” she’d said. “She’s a good kid, but she’s going to tune you out if you keep nagging her.”
I was noticing a pattern here. Was I really that grim? Frank used to tell me I took things too seriously. If he had lived…I shook my head. No sense in going there.
Not secondhand clothes, vintage designs, I recited to myself as I traipsed after the girls. I was privileged that my teenager and her friend had invited me on this outing and was determined not to ruin the mood. The clothes were organized by decade.
“Hey, Mom, does this look familiar?” Laura said, giggling as we passed through the twenties.
“Cheeky brat,” I said, heading for the seventies. “This is my era. Bell bottoms, peasant dresses and platform shoes.”
A sudden surge of nostalgia hit me, and I was a skinny fourteen-year-old again, longing for clothes like these and trying not to be jealous of friends who were allowed to wear them.
“This is pretty cool,” Nikki said, pointing to a swirly printed maxi dress. “Look, Laura…”
Heads together, they were oblivious to me as they oohed and aahed over the clothes.
“It’s a blast from the past,” I said. “I now feel officially old.”
“Age is just a state of mind,” Laura said blithely, as she and Nikki hustled off into the next room.
“Easy for you to say now. Just wait,” I said, trying not to sneeze as I followed through the racks of dusty garments, shuddering at the thought of all the dust mites billowing around. There was a squeal of laughter as I rounded the corner. This room was full of fur coats, jackets, capes and stoles, real and faux. PETA would have been horrified.
“Look, Mom,” Laura said. “This poor little guy looks like he was run over by a steam roller. This is gross. Why did people want to go around wearing dead animals like this?”
She twirled around, stroking a mink stole complete with head which was draped around her neck. The mink’s beady eyes locked on me with an accusing glare, and I heard a shrill voice berating me.
“Do you think I am made of money? You do not need clothes like that. Phyllis Lemmon brought over some hand-me-downs from her daughter that you can go through. You’ve been reading those teen magazines again, haven’t you? If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a hundred times not to fill your head with that nonsense. Plain, good quality clothes that you can get some wear out of will do just fine, thank you very much.”
I reached for the wall as the room seemed to tilt and blur. A voice came from far away.
“Mom? Mom, are you okay? Help me, please. My mom’s not well.”
I was plunked down onto a chair. After a moment, my vision cleared, and I looked up. Laura and Nikki were hovering over me, Laura looking on the verge of tears. A young saleswoman rushed up with a glass of water. I would normally have made an acid comment about her nose ring and tattoos, but all I could see now was the genuine concern in her eyes.
“Thank you. Sorry, I don’t know what came over me. I’ll be fine in a moment.”
I sipped the water and felt my heartbeat gradually slow down. Nikki looked at Laura who seemed almost as bewildered as me and took charge.
“I think we should go for a cup of tea. There’s a café just around the corner. Do you feel able to walk?”
I nodded as I got up slowly and cautiously. If I had been feeling elderly before, I felt ancient now with Laura and Nikki hovering over me. A blast of cold air hit me as we opened the shop door and I inhaled thankfully.
“I think I just needed some fresh air. It is a little stuffy in there.”
“Hey, wait,” said Nikki to Laura, giggling. “You’re still wearing the mink. Take the poor thing back.”
Laura looked down and shuddered as she saw the mink. Hastily pulling it off, she rushed inside and handed it back to the assistant. We proceeded slowly to the café.
It was a pleasant place decorated in an old-fashioned style. Old clothes, old décor. I wondered when everyone had started regressing to the past. I revived over a cup of Earl Grey. Laura and Nikki ordered coffee with more ingredients than a wedding cake and delved into homemade scones.
“Are you feeling better, Mom?”
I nodded, smiling.
“I am. I think I know what happened. It was Grandma Ethel’s fault. I thought I had put that old woman out of my life, but apparently, she was lurking in my subconscious.”
Laura and Nikki looked at each other uncertainly.
“Don’t worry, I’m not losing my marbles.”
“Grandma Ethel who brought you up?” said Laura.
“Your great-grandma Ethel. I was brought up to think she was my mother, but she was my grandmother. My mother was her only daughter who got pregnant out of wedlock, as they used to say. Ethel was a very righteous, religious woman, though to be fair, an illegitimate baby was a huge scandal in those days. The solution was to pass me off as Ethel’s daughter and my mother’s sister. My mother headed for the hills as soon as she could, leaving me with Ethel, who hated me. Never failed to remind me of how she was doing her Christian duty by bringing me up. She was a mean woman in every sense of the word. In some ways I feel sorry for her. It’s not as if she had a choice, but I don’t think she would have been a nice person in the best of circumstances.”
“Wow, that sounds like something out of Victorian times,” said Nikki, round-eyed.
“You young ladies have no idea how things have changed, often for the better. The good old days weren’t always so good.”
I took a deep breath.
“Ethel had a mink stole like that. It was one of her prized possessions. It was old fashioned even then, but she wore it whenever she could. Somehow that poor little animal’s eyes brought it all back.”
“I’m sorry, Mom,” said Laura.
“Don’t be,” I said. “You had no way of knowing. I think you might have done me a favor. I don’t ever want to be an old killjoy like Ethel. From now on, if I go into old people mode, complaining about young people today or not trying to hear your side, just say ‘mink stole’ and I’ll get over it.”
Nikki and Laura laughed. The sound was music to my ears, music that had been missing for too long.
“You are cool, Mom,” Laura said, squeezing my hand. “Love you to the moon.”
I beamed with pleasure.