The Shoe Whisperer: My Mother's Shopping Addiction

It took me 40 years to stop kvetching and start appreciating my mother’s shopping obsession. First I had to walk a mile in her Manolos.

By Amanda Robb

Born to Shop
The first memory I have of my mother is losing her in Joseph Magnin, the fanciest ladies’ clothier in 1960s Reno, Nevada. She was hunting through the sale racks, and I, age 4, was keeping a line of sight on her pink plaid pants. Then, in a terrible instant, Mom spied some "to die for" espadrilles.
Even as store security plied me with a rainbow of lollipops, I was hell-bent on hysteria. My preschool brain was intent on teaching my mother a lesson. Later, in the parking lot, however, it was she who gave me a facts-of-life primer. "As long as I could hear you crying, I knew you were okay," Mom explained. "But if I’d put these shoes down, they would’ve been gone forever."
If a small child could understand the lineage into which she is born, I might have been less surprised by my mother’s behavior. The most revered person in our family was not Great-Uncle Joe, whose engineering achievements had earned him a permanent exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution, or even distant cousin Simon, who hunted Nazis and was loosely portrayed by Sir Laurence Olivier in a movie. Instead we worshipped Great-Aunt Fan, a woman who tore through four husbands and operated an in-home sweater boutique.
"Such cashmere," Vi, my maternal grandmother, would croak with the utmost reverence. "Such a family discount!"
"It really was magnificent," my mom would confide. "I never knew we were poor, because I always had such nice twinsets."
I grew up equally poor, and in equally choice bell-bottoms and peasant tops. My friends were jealous of my finery. I was jealous of their boring family vacations. It wasn’t that we didn’t have our own dull relatives to visit. But at our reunions, Mom would simply cut out before any pan-family activities, such as skiing or lunch.
"A restaurant?" she would hiss. "We’ll use our money to buy something cute instead!" Museums, she asserted, were an even bigger rip-off than food. "But you can always get into the gift shop for free," Mom counseled.
I’d like to say I was worried about my moral and intellectual development. But really what I longed for was my mother. Time together when, instead of looking at stuff, she would look at me.
That was not her style. Acquisition to shake off deprivation was the coping skill our family handed down from generation to generation. And my mother needed it. Shortly after the espadrille incident, my dad, age 27, died. Mom was pregnant and jobless. She invited her younger brother to move in with us. While he babysat, she worked as a speech therapist, waitress, wallpaper hanger, and blackjack dealer. Exhausting years passed. Mom married again. That husband developed heart disease, had seven bypasses, and retired in his 50s. Mom hoisted herself up the education-career ladder: school counselor, vice principal, principal. Her brother, who had become a doctor, was murdered because he performed abortions. While we were all still reeling, my stepfather was diagnosed with lung cancer.
Right as the disease spread to my stepfather’s bones, liver, and brain, Mom got the news that she had to retire. It was something about her pension, and she guessed it wasn’t the bureaucracy’s job to care that school was the only place where she felt in control. "But what am I going to do now?" she wailed at me.
I said the only the thing I could think of.
She sniffed and said, "I knew I did an okay job with you!"

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