I have embraced an annual tradition with one of my sisters that may seem morbid to some: We take the anniversary of each of our parents’ deaths off and spend it together. We go to the cemetery and to Mass, and gather the memories and the mourning into our arms and hearts for one more year.
Since our dad died on the Fourth of July, a national holiday, getting together is easy. If you knew my dad, with his hearty, charming, larger-than-life presence, you’d understand how appropriate this anniversary is. But our mother died on the first of March, an unassuming, trickier day to get together, and if you knew my mother, with her darker, insecure, behind-the-scenes chafing in the shadow of her spouse’s spotlight, you’d understand the aptness of this day.
We go to the cemetery and to Mass, and gather the memories and the mourning into our arms and hearts for one more year.
Nevertheless, and with a side serving of guilt, my sister and I made certain to meet on this past March 1.
Our pious plans for the day, however, went awry. We did buy flowers and go to the cemetery and clean up our parents’ gravesites and reminisce and say a prayer, but our lunch date with a good friend—the priest who buried our parents and has presided over many other sacraments for our family members—fell through at the last minute. As we floated ideas about how to spend our afternoon together, I confessed to my sister, a bit tentatively, feeling sacrilegious, that I intended to stop by Nordstrom before I drove home later that day.
My sister’s face brightened. We realized at the same moment that going to the mall was exactly the right way to honor our dead mother, a shopping warrior. Sometimes, when a loved one is ill for a long time before dying, we forget what that person was like in healthier times. Our mother had been stricken with Parkinson’s disease and with dementia, and her last few years were not easy, for her or for us. Mind you, my mother was never a particularly positive person, but as she deteriorated physically and mentally, she become more negative, more accusatory, more unhappy about everything and just plain meaner. (I feel mean-spirited myself writing these things now that she’s gone, but I’m going for honesty here.)
My mother was a difficult person to love, but we did our best to love her until the end. And many years ago, when she was mobile and lucid, one of my mother’s favorite activities was to go shopping with her four daughters.
We realized at the same moment that going to the mall was exactly the right way to honor our dead mother, a shopping warrior.
In some ways, buying us stuff was how my mother showed love. Any upcoming event was all the excuse needed to go clothes shopping. Because my mother felt she was overweight, she rarely bought outfits for herself on these marathon trips; she was more likely to buy herself clothes through mail-order catalogs, pre-internet mail-ordering being another of her passions. But she loved dressing up her slimmer daughters. These daylong excursions entailed us piling into the biggest dressing room we could find, as long as it had a bench or a chair for our mother, and trying on things that we ourselves could never have afforded, and our mother signaling yay or nay. “Just don’t tell your father what we spent,” she’d say conspiratorially, and of course we all promised secrecy, even though it didn’t really matter if he found out. It was a game they played with money.
Our shopping trips always included a lunch break, usually at a fancier place than any of us would have chosen, and again at my mother’s expense. This was her idea of fun.
I used to wonder, as a young mother on a tight budget, how my mother derived such joy from buying extravagant things for her daughters. Now that I am an older mother, with a better cash flow and adult daughters with their own economic struggles, I totally get it. Maybe because I remember those days of dizzying gratitude and the feeling of leaving the real world behind for a brief respite while shopping with my mother and sisters, I now delight in treating my girls whenever I can.
My mother was neither a saint nor a heroine, but she did love us in her way. She had grown up desperately poor and never really sated her need for security. She often resented my father’s easy way with people, but was afraid to risk rejection on her own. She hid behind her husband and fretted and fumed. When my dad died, it was as though she needed someone else to be mad at, so each of us spent some time in her glare. But as my sister and I went to Nordstrom—I bought criminally expensive anti-wrinkle cream and she a stunning purple dress for a charity event—we felt our mother’s presence on the little chair in the dressing room.
Later, at lunch, we felt strangely at peace with our conflicted and complicated feelings about our mother. We hadn’t shopped with her in many years, but her spirit revisited us that day. Her laugh and her quick wit and her generosity came back to us. We had perhaps honored her memory more fittingly than we had on past anniversaries. It was odd for two grown women to get teary-eyed in a department store dressing room, but I guess that’s where we mourned our mother this year. Shopping was our prayer for her, an unlikely walk with God into Nordstrom.