Thrift-store shopping and life lessons

Wise Beyond Their Years:

High School Seniors Write About Money

The Resale Evangelista

As the mother of an about-to-graduate college senior, I am, of course, often on the lookout for advice to pass along. The headline on the NYTimes article made it seem a likely candidate: Four Stand-Out College Essays About Money.

(Note: I usually don’t pass along advice, for two reasons. First, I know he’ll never read these articles. Second, he’s already more mature, in many ways, than I am–and capable of filling in the gaps on his own. When he wants advice, he asks–that last bit is the lesson I’ve finally learned.)

Anyway, the other element that caught my eye was a phrase about thrift-store shopping morphing from being a hidden necessity for some families to a societal trend.

“We’ve got it down to a science at this point. That stain can be washed off. That hole can be sewn. That looks really comfortable! Wait, doesn’t every girl in your school have those shoes over there? Don’t pick that, it looks like it’s from when I was your age,” Clare Connaughton wrote, about shopping with her mother at Goodwill.

“Going thrift shopping with my mom is one of my most cherished pastimes now that I am older. Growing up, it felt so dirty. Why can’t we just buy clothes at the mall? I would incessantly ask my mother that every single time she brought me with her to Goodwill. Our shoes, jackets, pants, shirts and even appliances were from thrift stores. It annoyed me to no end.”

Max once asked me why we bought his jeans and t-shirts at “these charity stores,” instead of a mall store. “Because I’m not paying $50 for a ratty T-shirt at Abercrombie & Fitch,” I retorted. It our case it wasn’t so much about necessity as it was one of the relatively rare occasions I was practical about money. Now, of course, second-hand shopping for me is sport, as it is for Ms Connaughton.

“Today, going to the thrift store is a way for me to spend time with my mom when she is free from her busy work schedule. It’s fun to see who can find the nicest shirt or the fanciest designer shoes for the lowest price. My mom, the inventor of “shabby chic”, my mom, my mentor.” (I may break my rule about advice and send that last bit to Max. A little reminder can’t hurt, can it?)

The Times article is good; the four essays–also published–are fantastic. They could just as easily be college commencement speeches. Two of them not only made me envious of their authors’ writing ability, they touched me enormously with their insights.

I am estranged from my mother. I view her actions harshly and don’t see any path to reconciliation. But maybe there is a glimmer of light for me in the essay written by Andy Duehren–decades younger than I–about his father.

“I looked at my dad and I saw that being a man isn’t about any sort of superficial, external measure. As it was during my childhood misadventures, it’s about us, the imperfect son with the imperfect father, supporting each other up the proverbial mountain.

“For me, the transition to manhood was not an external one: Fortunately, there was no rite of passage or singular circumstance that forced me to become a man. Rather, sitting there against a cliff with my father, I wondered if maybe adulthood simply meant looking beyond oneself, to the other, without any pretense or pomp. Maybe my father, with his unpretentious generosity and willingness to get back up and continue the trek, is the best example of a man I have.”

In her essay, Viviana Andazola Marquez, describes an unrelenting focus on getting an education, in order to lift her family out of homelessness. Her writing is so concise, her words so perfectly chosen, that I’m struggling to match her quality.

“During the bitter winter of 2012, I reached a dead-end. …  Every night, my mother, sister, toddler brothers and I arranged ourselves on (a stranger’s) kitchen floor and turned on the oven, hoping the warmth would embrace us through the night. What were we going to do? Surely, we couldn’t live in front of an oven forever, but I couldn’t see my next move. …

“My whole existence is devoted to maximizing my potential. By tapping into a stranger’s Wi-Fi, negotiating with hotel managers, accepting the kindness of strangers, and sometimes, just for a short time, putting my own needs before my family’s, I fill the cracks in the road to success made by forces beyond myself. I won’t let these circumstances victimize me. I won’t let guilt paralyze me. I remain in control, making my moves, winning the game. Attending college is the surest path to victory, and I am prepared to play along until I reach the end.”

I’ll post Ms Marquez’s essay near the computer to remind myself of two things. Cut out excess adverbs and adjectives. And stop complaining about misfortunes, obstacles and frustrations. Just get on with the game.


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