Last week I had a few rare baby- and kid-free hours, so I hit my favourite local consignment store. We have a couple of weddings to go to this summer and one of the things I gave up when I became a parent — along with staying up late and sleeping in on weekends — was paying full retail for a dress I’ll wear once (and likely spill something on).
Now I know some people think the idea of wearing clothes strangers have already worn is kind of, well, icky. Each to their own, I suppose.
I grew up scouring charity shops, the British equivalent of thrift stores in North America, where it wasn’t unusual to find chocolate wrappers or bits of long-lost toys or even, once, a tooth (!) hidden in the pockets of not-very well cleaned items. This, I now realize, was why my mum was so fastidious about always washing whatever we bought before we wore it, something you’re actually supposed to do to new clothes as well because of the chemicals and dyes involved in manufacturing.
The professionally dry-cleaned items in consignment stores are a far cry from the outgrown sweaters and jeans of my childhood. But going to look through the racks of barely-worn dresses and one-night-only shoes still brings me back to going “bargain hunting” with my mum, as she liked to call it.
The surroundings are much trendier, and there’s a much greater likelihood of running into an Armani jacket or a Dolce and Gabbana dress, but whether its designer labels or little kids’ dungarees, the process is still about the same: sliding my fingers over the racks, sifting by size and colour, considering things that others might have overlooked. When I find something promising, I check for damage to zips and clips, for stains and stretched parts, for signs of wear and tear just as my mum used to do. Sometimes I’ll catch sight of myself in a fitting room mirror and realize my face has assumed the same pose my mother’s did: head slightly to the size, lips pursed, slight brow furrow.
More often than not, what you’re looking for and what you actually find are completely different. Mum and I would go looking for coats or spring dresses and come home with silk scarves and silver jewelry. I often find party dresses when I have nowhere to go, wool coats in the middle of summer, tiny delicate clutch purses when I have a baby in tow.
Sometimes, I let these things go, knowing they might never appear again when I have a use for them.
Sometimes though, I accept serendipity as a way of predicting the future.
I couldn’t find a dress I could wear to a summer wedding. Everything was either too big or too small, made for someone taller or shorter, or too sombre and winter-y.
What I did find was a knee-length black wrap dress. Not right for a wedding, but perfect for interviews, first days, and cocktails parties, for funerals and farewells. Of these, I can only be reasonably sure I will eventually attend the latter, but I can hope for more the former. It fit beautifully, the fabric draping in just the right way. There were no stains or snags, no tell-tale signs of wear.
As I left the fitting room, I stopped in front of the showcase for designer shoes, attracted by the glittery Prada heels, the patent Stuart Weiztman slingbacks, the shamelessly sparkly Betsey Johnson wedges. In the middle, towards the back was a pair of black patent Manolo Blahniks: the shoes beloved by Carrie Bradshaw and coveted by a generation of women, even those like me who wouldn’t dream of paying the equivalent of a month’s rent for footwear.
They were my size. What could be the harm? I tried them on.
Usually, the things with the most hoopla, the things you’ve only heard about, fall short when you meet them: celebrities are aloof, concerts are out-of-tune, convertibles only mess with your hair.
But these shoes, these were every bit as beautiful and well-balanced as I’d dreamed. They were unworn, the sole unscuffed, the insole pristine. And they were even on sale.
Reader, I bought them.
As I clutched my new purchases on my way out, I was reminded of my Mum’s thrill at finding such little treasures as these. She delighted in antique jewelry, in dainty clip earrings and filigree brooches. She adored scarves, the more colourful and unique the better. But her greatest love was always shoes.
When we would take little trips together, we would always find shoe stores to visit, ideally little boutiques filled with quirky heels and adorable flats. After she first got sick, once the chemo and radiation were done and we were hopeful for recovery, we took a trip to Phoenix. It was the middle of summer (hello cheap flights!) so while the temperature outside peaked at forty-three degrees Celsius (!!), we spent almost the entire weekend dotting from one (air conditioned) shoe store to another.
This is how I choose to remember her – smiling and full of fun, trying on just one more before we stopped for a cup of tea.
A year or so later, after the cancer had returned and she had exhausted all available treatment, we would spend hours reminiscing about our trips together, about our favourite finds.
I remember telling her that I didn’t think I’d be able to do those things without her.
“No, you must!” she told me, quite emphatically, “and you have to enjoy them for me. Enjoy them twice as much, once for you, and again for me.”
So here I am, in our shoes.