A Little Bit of Wonder is where I journal about the somewhat roundabout way that I have been working to establish a career and a strong sense of self--I spend a lot of time thinking and writing about "direction" and "identity." I have a Master's Degree in Literature, but I'm no longer working as an English Professor; I'm starting the next step in my life as I work to establish a career as a writer in the non-profit sector.

At my companion blog, Little Wonder's Recommended Reading, you will find reviews for both books and other blogs that I enjoy. The two blogs are inter-linked, so you can access my reviews and reading challenges from the sidebar on the left.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Alone at the Clinique Counter

Grief is a strange and changeable monster.

Some days, it is strong and ferocious, washing over me like a tidal wave – an apt comparison to a tsunami even, since my memories of my grandparents become a painful surge with the potential to destroy everything in their path.

Then on other days, I can chatter casually, even flippantly about my grandparents with co-workers, hair dressers and waitresses. With a little smile, I can say something to my husband like, “Remember how grandma used to buy us those horrible sugar free candies at the dollar store? I never had the heart to tell her that I didn’t like them because it made her so happy to bring us a treat she had always two or three more bags for us. Don’t we still have a big jar of them somewhere?” In certain moments, I somehow manage to be detached from the strongest emotions that otherwise threaten to overwhelm me – and I can enjoy the memories of my grandparents precisely because I’m detached.

Sunday was one of those days that I felt separate from my emotions, as though the grief belonged to someone else. I could see it, almost pick it up in my hands and examine it. I was hanging out at the mall – all by myself because my husband was out of town this weekend. But despite the fact that it’s pretty pathetic to go marathon shopping by yourself, I wasn’t sad about the current dismal state of my social life.

I felt lonely not because I was alone, but because shopping was a special pastime that I shared with my grandma.

When we were young, my grandparents would take me, my brother and my cousin to the mall all the time. They would allow us to sit at our very own table and order the grilled cheese sandwiches and chocolate milk ourselves. This is a big deal for a five or a six year old, and as we chattered with the waiter, we felt as though we were independent grown-ups. After lunch we would wander around the mall for a while with grandma and grandpa trailing behind us, peering in the shop windows at the glittering gowns on display. While at the mall, my grandparents allowed us a sense of independence and freedom that was exhilarating, especially to a couple of kids whose mother wouldn’t allow us to go down the block on our own.

Later in the afternoon, we always got to order a giant cookie before we went home. I believe my grandparents might have actually believed that not only were cookies an excellent treat, but were a valid remedy for many minor illnesses. I remember a couple of times that I had a stomach ache and was surprised that when they came to pick me up from school, they didn’t take me home and tuck me in to bed – instead, they insisted that I would feel much better after we went to the mall for a cookie.

In fact, I think I played hooky from elementary school more often with my grandparents than I ever tried to ditch class in high school! I felt sort of guilty sitting out in the open, in middle of the mall at 1 o’clock in the afternoon. I worried that someone would catch us and yell at us for sitting there so casually, munching away on our cookies. My grandparents, on the other hand, seemed perfectly at ease. The funny part was that their remedy worked – I suspect that my stomach ache had more to do with social anxiety than anything else, so a cookie and a little time spent with grandma and grandpa turned out to be the perfect medicine.

As I got older, my grandmother became my best friend and my favorite shopping partner. We would go to the mall at least once every season (spring, summer, fall, winter). Children and teenagers are always growing and always need new school clothes, after all. But these were not just quick trips to find a functional, institutionally-approved wardrobe; these were full-day excursions, complete with a leisurely lunch, during which grandma imparted many important life lessons. She taught me to appreciate good-quality fabric and stitching, to avoid horizontal stripes, and create a clean, uninterrupted visual line from head to toe in order to appear thinner. She taught me to always buy more than one tube of lipstick when I found a shade that I liked – so that you’d have enough for a long time if the cosmetics company discontinued that color. The same goes for a good pair of shoes or nicely-fitting jeans – buy more than one pair and you’ll be set for years. She helped me develop an eye for coordinating colors and her taste for anything sparkly rubbed off on me.

She taught me all of that before the age of twelve and so by the time I was a teenager, I was as picky of a shopper as she was. Even after I started hanging out at the mall with my teenage friends, I still went shopping with her for my clothes because she would be much more honest with me about how something fit. “That doesn’t flatter you,” she would sometimes tell me, wrinkling her nose. “It makes you look pregnant, the way that it poufs out over your stomach…” But before you imagine that her comments were cruel, let me assure you that I appreciated them – her honesty made her a much better shopping partner than any of my peers, who were afraid to hurt my feelings. But there was also the fact that when something did “flatter my figure,” she was a much more gratifying admirer than any of my friends would have been. Her eyes would sparkle and she would begin to beam. I’m fairly certain I wouldn’t be nearly as vain if it weren’t for her unadulterated admiration.

Because of both her honesty and her appreciation, she was also the first and most important person to take when shopping for special events. She and my mother accompanied me to choose every single prom dress I ever bought, and while in college, she once convinced me to go out and look for a black cocktail dress – when I didn’t need one for any particular reason. (We actually ended up buying two that day!)

Grandma and my mom both obviously had to be present for every single trip to the bridal salon when I was planning my wedding as well. She became obsessed with Oleg Cassini, the designer that created my gown. She was also the one who insisted that I buy a $200 wedding veil simply because it was the only one that had sparkles… if I wasn’t going to buy it, she was going to buy it for me, and that was that. According to grandma, you cannot ever under-estimate the value of sparkles.

Once I moved to Washington D.C., I never did find another shopping partner and so my trips to the mall became lonely affairs. I sometimes drag my husband in to the dressing room once I have tried everything on and vetoed the losers – his job is to apprise the second round contestants. Sometimes he helpfully offers comments like, “that pattern looks like cauliflower,” and then I know I have to return that shirt to the rack. But he lacks the critical eye and the ability to color-coordinate that my grandmother had. I started calling my grandma from the dressing room, trying to describe the items that I was trying on, which met only with limited success since she obviously couldn’t see how the clothing actually looked on me. But at least it was a little bit like having her with me.

The day after she died, I decided that I had nothing appropriate to wear to her funeral – and something that would have been incredibly important to my grandma would have been my wardrobe and appearance when I got up to give her eulogy. I knew that in order to honor my grandmother properly, I had to go shopping.

And so, despite the fact that I hadn’t slept more than 45 minutes and I felt like I was a zombie that had been drained of even the desire to consume human brains, I went to the mall the day after my grandmother died. It was the most miserable shopping trip of my entire life.

I wanted to find some kind of a black or dark dress, or perhaps a fancy top and black pants. But there wasn’t a single dress or dress blouse that didn’t either 1) have awful-looking ruffles all up and down the front or 2) look like a skanky clubbing outfit. "Oh, grandma,” I muttered to myself, “I'm glad you can't see all these hideous ruffles. What are they thinking this season?” When I couldn’t find anything to wear at any of my favorite stores, I stopped and thought, “What would grandma do? She would tell me to look in Macy’s and the other department stores. She would tell me to persevere, at least until I had exhausted my options.” So I trudged around the mall for another two hours without success (the hideous ruffles were everywhere), and ended up buying four different sparkly scarves in a fit of self-indulgence and self-pity. I came home in despair, knowing that I still didn't have anything nice to wear for the funeral. (Thankfully, I was able to find a dress in a last-ditch effort at a little shop near my parents’ house. I made my mom buy something new to wear, too -- reminding her that Grandma would have told us to go out and get something nice.)

Now when I go to that mall by myself, I can’t help but think of that horrible day, the day after she died, at least for a moment. Because of that epic shopping failure, even my mall in New York seems to have a strong connection to my grandma.

And when I took myself to the Clinique counter on Sunday, of course I thought about her. She is the one who scheduled me for a Clinque pore-cleansing and make-over when I was in high school. She was the one who insisted that I buy two tubes of Stellar Plum the last time we dropped by the counter in Macy’s together. After all the time I spent fusing over foundations and powders and lipsticks with grandma, I suddenly found myself going for a consultation at the Clinque alone. And although I didn’t cry while I was there, I felt very hollow inside knowing that I couldn’t even take home my new lip gloss to model for my grandma and ask her if she thought it was too dark.

1 comment:

XY said...

Sweet moments.. for the most part.
I hated my mom's taste and started to refuse anything she would pick out for me from the first year of high school. Don't have too high expectation for Jeremy on this aspect:) While reading your stories shopping with your grandma I kept thinking how I would shop with Claire when she's growing up. We're already spending a lot of time in the mall on the weekends, especially on cold winter days. She once loved a rosy pink Ralph Lauren jacket, wearing it for the whole time my husband was picking out his coat and wouldn't allow me to take her jacket off in the end. She screamed and threw tantrum when I forced it off -- it was too small for her already. That was the first time I realized she had specific preference for clothes already:) I'm looking forward to the days when she would love to shop with me and ask for my opinions like how you loved to shop with your grandma, what a special occasion to bond:)

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