A few years before you died, my sister spent part of a summer holiday clearing out the family “rag cupboard”. At least, I think that’s what it was called. Bits of old sheets; face clothes too worn to be displayed, distressed underwear from all five of us. In my memory they were all white, though I can’t imagine you discriminating against coloured cloth in your drive to be frugal. They represented at least thirty years of thrift, and dusters, and mirror and car cleaners.
When Green Shields went out of business, we were left with a number of unused books, as well as a variety of hair dryers and other items bought with years of stamps. The kitchen cupboards contained glasses which came free with petrol – gas as I called it then – purchased for the family cars: all Fords, all blue except for the one which in later years was referred to as “Old Brown”. I spent the first 16 or more years of my life largely in hand-me-downs: my brother’s, as well as my sister’s. I preferred his, not because we were closer in age, but because I never was very girly.
Yesterday, I gave away the shoes you bought me. Tan Doc Martins, good quality, far from cheap. You were thrifty, but never tight, often generous. Dad earned a good wage, and he trusted you. I never remember anything but good humour in his voice when you came back from a shopping trip at Sears, Southland, or Fairlane. “What have you bought now?” he would ask. He wasn’t worried. Unlike your own mother and mum-in-law, you left it to your husband to handle the family finances, but I never remember a cross word about money, though heavens knows you had a temper.
Back to those shoes. You bought them for me on my last trip to America. It was also the last time I saw you, quite possibly our last shopping trip together. By then, you were like a simpler, more child-like version of yourself. I could recognise my mom, but only just. It was as though, along with your intellect, all your sharp edges had been knocked off.
I never would have dreamed that I would miss your sharp tongue, your views – often frighteningly right-wing – on every topic. They were gone, along with your morning Bible reading, done sat quietly in your chair; your obsession with the New York Times crossword which was re-printed in the Sunday magazine of the Detroit News, your desperate attempts to catch up with the latest issues of “Cat Fancy” and “The Hornbook”. I don’t know if you kept up a solo schedule of weekly Saturday afternoon trips to the library after first my sister, and then I, moved out. If you did, that was long past, too, along with your weekly stints at the church library.
My stars, but you loved books. Almost as much as you loved us.
So you see why I couldn’t just throw those shoes in the bin, don’t you, Mom? Why they stayed in the house for far too long, once I determined that they couldn’t be resoled, or at least not economically? I don’t know if they’ll end up on the feet of an African woman, or some impoverished Brit, or whether they’ll be recycled for scrap. I do know that any of those would please you. You were, as I’ve said, a generous woman, much more so than your politics would lead many to believe. I may have abandoned your religious beliefs – in part because they didn’t appear to make you happy – but not your desire to serve, to give.
Happy Mothering Sunday, Mom. I hope they sing hymns, and “Molly Malone”, wherever you are. Most of all, I hope there are cats, and books.