Mom was anxious about a surgical procedure her dermatologist wanted her to take care of in Fargo. The timing of her appointment was all wrong. It was scheduled for the second day of our family gathering at Mom and Dad’s lake home in Minnesota.
When their grown kids and grandkids arrive from California, their place turns into summer camp. Crack open the card decks for Liverpool Rummy marathons in the front porch; send Erin to the kitchen to whip up iced coffee drinks or raspberry cocktails; bring the s’more ingredients to the bonfire by the lake; it’s time to play and recreate!
Mom tried to explain this to the doctor’s assistant when she called the clinic to postpone the appointment. She got nowhere so Caitlin, my youngest daughter, and I agreed to take her.
Caitlin got behind the wheel of the big, black Cadillac SUV that we’d rented in Fargo the day before. She searched for Suzy Boggus on her Spotify app so Mom and I could enjoy Merle Haggard tunes as we retraced our seventy-five mile route back to town.
Back to Fargo
We made it in record time, having accounted for the possibility of road delays. Summertime is road construction season in the Midwest.
We pulled into a strip mall on 45th Avenue South, right across the street from the clinic. What to do next? We had forty-five minutes to spare. I spotted a store called Clothes Mentor. “Mom,” I said, “Could that be the store your next door neighbors own?” She’d told me about the new neighbors at the lake. The wife owned a consignment store in Fargo.
The three of us walked in and a tall young blond at the counter spotted Mom and said, “Hi Alma!” It was the owner’s eldest daughter. Mom introduced us. Midwesterners are neighborly. It would have been rude to say ‘hi and bye’ so we stayed and shopped.
Caitlin disappeared to find the young people’s clothes. I headed for the accessories. Mom went over to the ladies clothes section.
I found a big, baubly pearl necklace and wanted to show it to Mom. I stepped away from the jewelry counter to see where everyone was. Caitlin was trying on shoes near the front of the store and Mother was in the back by the dressing rooms.
I didn’t move. I just looked at the two of them. Here we were, three generations, mothers and daughters, shopping—together. What were the chances?
I was in one of those scenes you never forget and the wonderful thing is, I knew it at the time.
I was so happy but I kept it to myself.
I was finished shopping for myself. I knew Caitlin wasn’t interested in any assistance—after all, I’m her mom. So I went over to my Mom.
“Finding anything?” I said.
“Well, this is pretty nice,” she said about a golden colored crinkled top. It looked like something she already owned.
“Want me to help you look for stuff?” I asked.
“Sure,” she said.
“How about this … and … this?” I said and held up a couple of jackets. “How about I put these in the dressing room and you can go in there and try a few things on? I’ll help you.”
She tried on a leopard print top first. I stood behind her looking at her reflection in the dressing room mirror. “I always buy things too big,” she said.
Since she had her pacemaker put in, she’d lost twenty pounds really fast. She was used to buying clothes for her previous shape but was confused about how to dress her current shape.
“I can see that,” I said. “I think you should be at least one size down, maybe even two or three.”
I went out and grabbed some items in smaller sizes. Back in her dressing room, I scooped up the too-big items and replaced them with this new batch.
When I returned she was looking so cute in a black and white, wide striped, cowl-necked three-quarter sleeved top. The neckline was so glamorous. It made me think of actresses from the 50s, like maybe Audrey Hepburn. Mom could pull this off.
“I know some jewelry at home that would look good with this,” I said and reminded her of some earrings she’d bought at a hospital gift shop in Perham one time when I was with her.
Then she fell for a turquoise and black zebra print jacket with a zip front. She’s not a gushy, loud, falling-in-love-with-something person. She swoons her delight more than she shouts it from the rooftops.
But she was afraid of one thing.
“Is this really the right size?” she asked.
“Zip it shut and let’s see how it looks closed,” I said. She wasn’t used to seeing this much definition in her waist. “Yup,” I said. “It’s the right size!”
Caitlin came over to where we were and reminded us that we needed to wrap things up soon. I helped Mom get out of the jacket and back into her summer white top with floral embroidery. I held up the cowl-necked top and the zebra print jacket and said, “What do you think? Do you think you’d wear these?”
“Oh yes!” she said. (Picture the swooning.)
“Maybe not right away but in the fall or winter,” she said.
“Well, that sounds good,” I said. “They sure look great on you. It’ll be nice to have something new that fits you, Mom.”
I put them over my arm and headed to the counter. I was ready to pay for my necklace and Mom’s two pieces. Caitlin was there already paying for a pair of sassy black ankle booties with cowboy details.
Mom caught up with us at the counter and pulled her credit card out. I said, “Put that away. I’ve got this.”
“Why are you doing that?” Mom said.
“Because I want to, Mom. I don’t get to shop with you very often and your birthday is coming up too. I won’t be here on the 31st so Happy Birthday.”
“Oh Babe,” she said, humble, but happy. (Picture soft fluttering eyelids and an impish grin.)
We took our shopping bags back to the caddy and drove across the street to the clinic. Caitlin and I went with her to have the suspicious spot removed from the back of her neck. The doctor put a few stiches in. Everything looked good and we were out in thirty minutes.
Off we went to have lunch at Nichole’s Fine Pastry in downtown Fargo. After a couple of more stops for food and flowers, we headed back home and got there in time to join the card game and sip fruity cocktails while Mom showed off her bandaged neck to Dad.
Going back again if I could
If I could go back and do it all over again, while we were having lunch at Nichole’s, I might have told a story about a shopping trip Mom took me on over forty years ago.
I was fifteen and for Christmas Mother was taking me to a nice store on Broadway for the after-Christmas sales. The women’s clothes were on the first floor; the teen clothes were in the basement. It was a pricey store. We’d never have shopped there regularly but the 50% off prices made it just right on December 26th.
Going somewhere upscale was the good part. The bad part was that I was fifteen, the age when shopping with “Mom” is just so uncool.
Plus, if you ever shopped with Mom, you’d see that she takes her time whether she’s in a department store, a hospital gift shop, at a craft faire or the only boutique in a one-light town. I know because I’ve been with her in all those places and it’s always the same. She has to touch everything.
Chances are great that I was moody and most likely kept my end of the conversation to a minimum. But I ended up with an education and three smart dresses that I wore forever.
One of Mother’s selections was a sleeveless empire dress. The top part of the dress was a creamy ivory lace. The bottom part was solid orange and had about eight vertical seams circling it. Where the two colors joined together there was a thin black velvet ribbon that went all the way around. It was so very beautiful.
Her next dress selection made me nervous. It was a long-sleeved, deep lavender jersey knit dress with dark purple hearts printed all over it. It had a flippy hemline and was short, easily three inches above my knees.
I looked at myself in the mirror. “But Mom, it’s so short! Isn’t it too short?”
“Brenda,” she said with knowledge and authority, “Every girl needs a flirty dress.” And that was that.
The third dress was my favorite. It was A-line with cap sleeves and great texture. It was dark chocolate brown. It had black lace detail running down the front and across the sleeve edges. When I slipped into that dress I felt like a lady, grownup and sophisticated. You know when someone says she’s wearing something that makes her feel like a million bucks? Well, that was how I felt in that dress, but I’m sure I kept that information to myself.
When we got home from that shopping trip hours later, Mom insisted I pull the dresses out and try each one of them on for Dad. “Doesn’t she look great?” she said. “Oh, Brenda, go try on the other one. Wait until you see that one, Don.” He agreed with everything she said. His fashion knowledge was limited but he knew she was an expert. I’m pretty sure we went over budget but Dad never heard about that part.
Of all the clothes I had in my teenaged closet, the things I wore the most were those three dresses. She was right: everyone does need a flirty dress and I felt flirty as heck walking the halls of West Fargo High in that lavender heart dress.
The brown dress she bought me turned out to be the equivalent of a Little Black Dress. I wore it for so many occasions. The ivory lace and orange empire dress was worn less than the others but was perfect for church and special occasions. It was an essential.
Remembering how satisfying those three dresses were – and believe me, I’ve thought of that shopping trip dozens of times in my life, especially since I built a career around fashion and style and shopping – I guess I had hoped that in that brief shopping trip with Mom last summer, that she’d put on those two things I helped her pick out and every time she’d wear them she’d feel radiant and special—just the way I saw her that day in the dressing room when she had them on.
I don’t know if she got a chance to wear them last fall or winter like she’d planned. She might have thought to pack them in her suitcase when she and Dad were going to visit us last January. But she had that fall a week before they were due to land in San Francisco. She was in hospital gowns for weeks instead. She had a brief period of time when she wore her own loose clothing in the rehab hospital in Fergus Falls but she died in a hospital gown, not in one of her pretty tops.
In July, when I was back at the lake, I packed up mother’s clothes including those two pieces, and my sister-in-law took them to a consignment store. Maybe they’ll be perfect for someone else.
It’s Mother’s birthday today and I have a hope and a wish.
My hope is that every time she saw me in those dresses that she realized how much I loved them, even though I never told her.
What I wish is that I could have more shopping trips with her where I could fuss over her and spoil her the way she spoiled me that day so long ago. We’d do it her way—we’d shop all day and she’d touch every thing.
It would be my greatest joy and this time, I wouldn’t keep those joyful feelings to myself. I’d share them with her right on the spot.