Deathly Afraid by Melinda Burns
I hold the door open for my mother — my little mother in her red coat and red gloves, her blue knit hat on her still-dark hair like a tea cozy. “Now look to your heart’s content,” she says, “and I’ll meet you back here.” And off she goes to roam the aisles. Thrift store shopping is a recent shared enjoyment, a mutual love of a bargain uniting us. I hear her asking the woman at the cash register where the ladies’ blouses and earrings might be as if we’re shopping at Eaton’s downtown. She’s looking, she told me, for a navy blouse and earrings to match, to replace a pair she lost.
I chew on the word “navy” as I begin to look through the clothes, a word I never hear except around my mother. It seems like a colour from another era. For Easter, as a child, I would have a navy suit with a white collar and gloves. I have pictures of me on the porch step, hands clasped, standing straight, my straw hat with the felt flowers a little droopy over my bangs. “Stand up straight,” I hear her saying at my shoulder though she’s probably taking the picture. “Speak when you’re spoken to. Do as you’re told. Count your blessings.” Her rules to live by are now embedded in my brain forever. Navy is the essence of conservative, proper, lady-like colourless colour. I own nothing in navy.
I settle happily into this respite in the day, this familiar and comforting routine of sorting through clothes. Lately, I shop in thrift stores all the time. I like the surprise of them, the possibility of treasures. Communing with these already worn-in clothes, fingering their soft materials as I walk, soothes me as if the store itself is a kind of mother to me, holding me gently. A place to play. Shopping in thrift stores is the nearest thing to play I have these days. All else seems to be a duty of one kind or another — wife, mother, daughter.
I find a green top and pants, a set, and a red wool sweater to try on. On my way to the dressing room, I see my mother at a table piled with slips and assorted lingerie. She holds up a camisole to me, and I nod, glad to see her find something that pleases her. In the dressing room, I hear her asking the woman at the cash register the price. “One dollar,” the woman says. Silence from my mother.
The green pants are fine but the top doesn’t fit. I wonder if I could just buy the pants, but I know they don’t like to break up sets. Five dollars is too much for just the pants. If they were all cotton maybe . . . I hear my mother’s voice again. “Would you take seventy-five cents? I haven’t got much money.” I cringe. I know she means she didn’t bring much money with her, but my mother sounds destitute, a poor old lady asking the Salvation Army if they can’t spare her a quarter. I linger in the dressing room, grateful I’m not out there to be associated with her. I hear the woman say “Yes” and imagine my mother fumbling with her change purse to extract the precious quarters or nickels or dimes, triumphant at not paying top dollar.
I decide against all the clothes I try on. I put them back, keeping a fair distance between my mother and me. She finds a little green plastic container for fifty cents, “to put things in,” she says with a laugh when she shows me, unperturbed at handing over the quarter she just saved plus another to the same woman she bargained out of it a moment ago. I walk ahead of her to the car.
I ask her if she wants to go home or to another thrift store now. “Anything’s fine,” she says. “Whatever you want is fine with me.” So easy going. But I’m ready for another, myself, and I want her to find her navy blouse and earrings. As we drive, she tells me happily about her twenty-five cents victory. It is her favourite kind of story, showing her savvy ways, how she’s nobody’s fool at eighty-nine. I don’t answer.
Once again, at the entrance to the store, she says, “I’ll meet you back here,” and sets off herself while I begin on the first row and settle into my world. A few moments later, she comes to show me a navy and white striped blouse, and round navy and white striped earrings to match. My mother is all smiles. “Does this say $1.49 or $149?” she jokes. “And the earrings are ninety-nine cents!” She heads off to buy them, and I speed up my rounds knowing that, having accomplished her mission, she’ll soon be ready to go. My mother says she’ll just sit down as I go into the dressing room.
Again, as I’m trying on clothes, I hear my mother’s voice. She’s speaking to the girl at the counter. “I forgot. I don’t pay provincial sales tax.” As a status Indian, she has a card that exempts her from the tax. It comes in handy for large purchases like a car or a new television. When they bought us a crib for our newborn, she came all the way downtown with me to present the magic card and save us 8% off the price. But today, on her $2.48 purchase, the sales tax amounts to twenty cents. The clerk has to call her supervisor to authorize the refund. When I come out of the dressing room, I see the poor girl filling out forms. “A lot of work for you just for twenty cents,” my mother says in her most charming, sympathetic voice, but with an edge of sureness that says she’s getting her twenty cents no matter what.
I move past her to the door. I can hardly look at her. This time in the car she doesn’t tell me about her victory. She asks if that’s the grocery store we shop at as we pass it. I don’t ask if she wants to stop. I don’t slow down. She is sitting beside me now, in the front seat, and I can’t see her face as I drive, but she sounds cheery, talking of groceries and what she’ll do when she gets home.
I’m still back on her encounter with the store clerk. I don’t know what her status card means to her. I know she lost her Native status when she married my English father, then regained it when the law changed a few years ago. In a letter to me at that time, she wrote, “I’m an Indian again after forty years as a white woman,” with a note of pride I’d never heard before. Is the card just an 8%-off coupon like one she might clip from the newspaper, except good on everything with no expiry date? Or is it proud proof of her rightful reinstatement to her heritage? Or does she see it as the meagre compensation it is for stolen lands and the residential school system? My mother never speaks of either of those things.
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