Last month, I picked my kids up from Portland International Airport. They had been visiting their dad for five weeks in Pennsylvania, and in the interim, I had moved everything we owned 400 miles. Even though our new home was in a tiny town in northern Washington, I had my kids fly into Portland because Oregon has no sales tax and we needed to shop for school clothes.
This all sounds normal—pedestrian even—and it would have been except for one fact: We had never gone full school clothes shopping before. That’s because as an adjunct, I almost never had classes to teach over the summer, which meant I didn’t get paid for those months. Most summers I cobbled together our existence with freelance gigs, my tax refund, and food stamps. Every fall, I dreaded the school fees, and having to ask for scholarships. I also hated that my kids would have to wait until the end of October—when my first paycheck would finally come—before they’d get anything they needed like jeans or shoes. I usually crossed my fingers hoping their summer clothes would get them through until then and it wouldn’t get too cold.
This year, though, I spent the summer working full-time for my old college with the bright promise of my new job around the corner. I calculated what I still needed to purchase, the expenses I would have before my first check in September, and I realized I had $500 to spend on new school clothes for the kids.
To say this felt like a miracle would not be an overstatement.
The morning after they got into Portland, we headed to Target first. The girls thumbed through stacks of jeans while Ivan looked for T-shirts that he felt would solidify his coolness at his new school. I threw packs of underwear and socks into the cart while the girls tried on clothes, and had a discussion with Ivan on the relative coolness of a Minecraft T-shirt.
At the mall, we took our time walking the long stretches of tile between stores. We browsed, we stopped to admire the ice skaters on the rink outside of Macy’s. In one store, Ivan came up to me holding a long-sleeve plaid shirt, and asked if he could have it. I looked at the price tag, noticed it was on sale, and told him to grab a second one in a different color. We ate lunch in the mall, hanging our bags off our chairs like experts.
The novelty of the situation wasn’t lost on any of us. I carefully kept a running total of what each purchase cost all day long, as well as a separate total for each store before we got to the counter. I looked nervously as we accumulated more bags at each store.
At the same time, to be able to tell Chloe, “Yeah, you can get that” when she held up a skirt was thrilling. In previous years, when the kids have absolutely needed something at the beginning of the school year, we’ve gone to Goodwill, or borrowed items from friends, or I asked my brother or mom for money. So it makes sense that I’d feel happy when I finally could provide for my kids when they needed something.
But it wasn’t just happiness I felt. For a while, I couldn’t place the feeling that spread through me as we went from store to store, buying things. Then I realized what I felt was power. I felt like I could walk into any store in the mall and buy something. I wouldn’t feel embarrassed when salespeople would ask me if they could help me, because I knew my browsing wasn’t a ruse—I could buy something if I wanted to.
Buying stuff had never felt empowering to me before, so I felt surprised. Spending money had almost always filled me with worry and guilt: I was spending money that should be going elsewhere, to cover something else, there was always something else, and if not, then maybe next month the car would break down, or the kids would get sick and need expensive prescriptions, or maybe there would be no more classes, and no more money, and how could I think about buying this coat right now if there was any possible way to extend the life of the old one, even if it was just for a month or two?
It wasn’t just me who was dealing with this new reality. Giselle and I both hemmed and hawed over a pair of Adidas that were on sale and fit her perfectly. She turned to me at one point in the store and said, “I’m sorry,” from what seemed like nowhere. She frowned and looked away.
“Why are you sorry?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” she said. Then, “I’m sorry I need new shoes.” I understood how she felt, and how, when you don’t have money, you get used to the idea that your needs are an imposition on others.
I bought the Adidas.
I know that Americans buy things as if their lives depended on it, especially when they are faced with despair or worry or disempowerment. I have a distinct memory of my boss running out of the office on 9/11, moments after the second tower had collapsed, none of us able to figure out where she was going. She returned with boxes and bags filled with American flags of all sizes; red, white and blue bunting; pinwheels and streamers in the same colors; and three bags of candy.
“What is all of this?” I asked.
She glanced around, as though seeing it all together for the first time, then said, “I couldn’t stop myself, Heather. I just kept grabbing stuff. I couldn’t stop.”
At the end of the day, I spent $478 on new school clothes for the kids. It felt a little reckless, even though it was only about $160 per kid, hardly extravagant. I didn’t manage to buy everything they’d need either: They would all need snow boots and warmer coats for the winter, as well as a few odds and ends. But they finally started the new year with clothes that fit them, or that didn’t have holes I’d stitched closed.
I don’t want to answer our stretched-thin years with mindless consumption, and I don’t want to seek some fleeting sense of empowerment by buying goods. But I also don’t want to have to worry and fret over every purchase we make, or have the kids worry over them.
I have to, I think, make peace with this state of conflict I find myself in, where I have some money to spend, but still must remind myself that it’s okay to do so.
This is the third essay in a multi-part series.
Heather Ryan earned her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Oregon in 2006. Her non-fiction has appeared on NPR and Salon among others, and her fiction is forthcoming in the Southern Humanities Review. The first issue of her graphic novel The Imaginarium—about what happens when a teenage boy descends into the dark, fairy-tale world of schizophrenia—is forthcoming in October 2014. She’s currently finishing her memoir Now Entering America, about a failed road trip and life as a single parent and writer. She starts her new job teaching at a small community college in Washington state in the fall.
Photo: Izee by the sea