By Amy McCollom
Getting ready to start school was a big deal at my house when I was a kid. It was really about the only time we ever got new clothes, except for maybe Christmas or birthdays. We didn’t have a lot of clothes to begin with, and I only remember having two pairs of shoes growing up; dressy shoes, and sneakers.
We would go on a Saturday morning, and my dad always knew the back way into the store parking lots, so we never actually saw the front of the buildings. Maybe that’s why I dislike going through the “butt-crack of the city” to get where I’m going now, because I saw it so much when I was a kid. I like going down the main drag, the pretty streets that are meant to greet me with signs and lights and decorations. I like to pull in the parking lot like I own the place and walk in the double front doors. I don’t like weaving through discarded boxes, appliances, dirty rugs, and naked mannequins and feel my way through dark doorways and round corners until I find the store.
Of all the stores in Champaign and Urbana, we only ever went to two stores; Sears and J.C. Penneys, and in that order. Sears wasn’t like the big catalog that we got in the mail. At home I would look at page after page of cute little dresses that I wanted to get to wear to school, but at the store I could not find any. It didn’t matter, as my mom picked out three or four outfits, held them up to me, and decided that is what we were getting. The same for my sister. My brother had more choices, because they had a thing back then called Garanimals, where the clothes matched by pattern and color using different animal tags so you never made a mistake as long as you matched the animals on the tops and bottoms. They only had boy’s clothes in Garanimals, unfortunately. My brother was lucky in the fact that his outfits at least matched. It was the 1970’s, so we all kind of looked dorky.
We would usually get our winter coats on this shopping trip. My mom liked to buy my sister and I matching coats, which we hated because we were not twins, and we were two sizes apart. Finally she agreed one year to let us pick different coats. That was when those long hooded fur-trimmed velvet coats were the big thing (think 1800’s Christmas carollers.) My sister wanted this long baby blue coat with off-white fake lamb’s fur cuffs and a huge hood. It looked warm.
I, of course, being a rebel, wanted a velour purple coat with shiny silver buttons and no hood. I loved the feel of it! I grabbed onto that coat and nothing and nobody was going to get it out of my hands. It was mine! Of course when my mom and dad saw what I had, they said no, but I refused to put it back. In fact, I remember sitting on the floor, bracing myself against the wall, my feet against a metal clothing rack, and I wasn’t going to budge. I really, really wanted that purple coat! My mom, sister, dad, the sales lady, everybody was trying to get me to change my mind by showing me other coats. I don’t know why they didn’t want me to get that coat? I do remember eventually there were tears, and from more than one of us.
Everyone was getting hungry and mom wasn’t one to give up, as she was just as stubborn as I was, so she pulled out one last stop. She brought over to me this shiny-like brown patterned coat with a hood and a very wide shaggy cream trim. It had a big hood. It did get my attention because of the unique pattern, which looked like it was engraved in the tawny brown fur. I reached out one hand to touch it, and felt the softness. My sister tapped her foot and glared at me impatiently, and my mom leaned down and said these words, “It’s made of real pony fur.”
“Really? It’s pony fur?” I asked? I looked up at everyone, and they all shook their heads yes, even the sales lady, who now had smeared lipstick and a messy bun.
“Ok, I’ll take the pony coat.” I said. And I stood up and handed over the purple coat to be placed back on the rack.
Wow, I thought. A real pony coat! I felt like a real cowgirl. Man, I was sure lucky to find that! And when I went to school that year, I sure was proud of that pony coat. And if anybody wanted to argue about it, then they were clearly an idiot, and I let them know it. Because Mom said so.
When the Market Place Mall got built, and Sears moved, we went there to shop for school clothes then. There was a shoe store right outside of the Sears store, and we usually got our shoes there. My sister and I would get our dress shoes, usually a pair of oxfords, and then a pair of sneakers, and that would last us a year. My brother had a pair of cowboy boots, and a pair of sneakers.
Well, one year, my brother’s old sneakers were so bad that they were literally falling apart, so Dad let him wear his new sneakers out of the store, and they put his old shoes in the new box, so we could throw the old ones away when we got home but he could keep the box.
After we had done all of our shopping, we were all sitting on a bench, just people watching, when my mom got an ornery look in her eye.
She took the bag from the shoe store that had the box with my brother’s old shoes in them, and she sat it down by the water fountain, and said, “Watch this.”
Then we waited for people to come along and steal them. It was quite funny. People you wouldn’t expect would walk past, see the bag, and walk past again. Finally they would stop and get a drink at the fountain, look around, and pick up the bag and walk quickly away. One of us kids would follow them, and watch as they opened the box to find the wore out shoes, which they would quickly abandon. We would bring the bag back, and do it all over again.
We probably did that trick 20 times while we sat there that day. It was really interesting to see what kind of people would fall for it. Mostly people who were well-dressed and looked like they could afford to buy new shoes were the ones who took them, which was a little surprising.
Our school shopping trips always ended with lunch at Burger King. My dad had a Whopper one time and talked about it being the biggest hamburger he had ever seen, so that was the place we had to go. Mom would ask us all what we wanted, and we would tell her all our orders, then she would disregard what we said and just order three Jr. Whoppers, three Strawberry Shakes, and three small fries. Didn’t matter, Mom was not patient and not one to make things complicated. It was still good, though, even if we didn’t get exactly what we wanted. Isn’t that true about a lot of things in life?
I guess I said all of that to say this: everybody probably had a crazy childhood. If you didn’t, you are probably lying about something, or grew up in a boring household. No, it wasn’t perfect, at times it was ugly, but sometimes it was funny and worth telling others about. We all survived. We all were blessed, and should never stop counting our blessings.