My dear Memere passed away eight years ago this January. She was a lovely soul, stubborn and pragmatic and with a sense of humor that I never expected but would catch in the twinkle of her eyes when she gave me a sidelong look. She taught me to knit and to use a sewing machine (although garment construction was beyond me and I had to wait until college to figure it out). We had many adventures together, traveling down to Virginia each summer to stay with her youngest daughter Danielle for weeks at a time.
Once per summer, Memere, Tante Danielle, and I would head to the mall for a day of unabashed retail therapy. Memere loved to dote on her family — presents, cooking, cleaning — any way she could be of service. And practical lady that she was, she did all this as economically as possible. She and Danielle would pick out clothes for me to model, most just for the fun of seeing pretty things, but if the clothing was on sale, the bargaining would begin. “Don’t you like this?” Memere would ask me, rubbing the fabric between her arthritic fingers, “It’s pretty, and only $6. You can’t go wrong! Want me to buy this for you?” It wasn’t just me; she did this with Tante Danielle too, and I learned a few lessons about making family happy watching Memere coax Danielle into letting her buy a few dresses, and Danielle negotiating Memere down but still letting her mom spoil her a little.
You can’t go wrong. It was like a refrain weaving through my childhood, punctuating back-to-school shopping, Christmas buying season, grocery runs. It lives on in Memere’s other daughter, my mom (hi Mom!). And now Seth and I have picked up the habit. Seth, though, uses it differently than I do. He says it most often in the thrift store when I come up to him with my hands full of yards of some beautiful fabric or a hand-knit wool sweater that is now being sold for a song. “Would you look at this? Shetland wool! And only $5!” I’ll say, frenzied with excitement.
“You can’t go wrong,” he’ll reply gravely, like a call and response. Despite the serious tone he has a twinkle in his eye similar to Memere’s, and I know he’s teasing me.
I guess I do love a good deal. I didn’t think it was anything out of the ordinary until recently when I told Seth about an antique baby dress that I didn’t buy at a rummage sale earlier in the day. I had second-guessed myself because I was hungry and wasn’t sure it was worth the price, and so I came home empty-handed.
“You’re so cheap,” Seth said, holding the baby after a long day working in the fields during that heat wave.
“Excuse me?!” I was indignant.
Seth thought a moment. “Not like that,” he amended, and smiled at me and the baby both. “You like quality. You just don’t like paying full price for it.”
Truth! I like to think of it as a genetic thing. It runs in my blood.
This conversation flashed before my eyes recently when I was at the thrift store again trying to avoid a hot little house with my hot little baby. We were about to leave when I spied a few skeins of yarn in the craft section. Now, the yarn that people donate to the thrift store is typically scratchy acrylic. But this had the look of wool, and what’s more, it had the rustic appearance of small-scale processing. A little investigating revealed skeins from Maine and New England, and I could feel that wild expression creeping onto my face as I snapped up the yarn and scurried to the cash register.
A little embarrassed at myself, I showed Seth the yarn when he got home that evening. He smiled when I told him the price and I knew what he was thinking. What we were both thinking. And it called to mind all the rest, the memories of those summers, the cool air-conditioning in the quiet mall with Tante Danielle gently laughing, the train rides down to Virginia, and Memere with her pink shorts and curled hair teaching me to knit, knit, knit one stitch at a time.