While saving money in LA with my teenage son, I discovered what my mother was missing

My 13 year old son has entered his frugal era. It started with an unexpected trip to Goodwill during the summer, while skating through Glendale with a friend two classes away. He came home with a decent pair of Nikes and a pair of questionable acid-wash jeans. The purchase was $26. The Nikes never left his closet and the jeans never had a chance.

Yet thrift shopping has become the new, more expensive and less accessible trip to the corner store. He went a few more times and bought two random hoodies, one for a 2017 Kendrick Lamar album release, and the other for the Washington Huskies team he's never seen play. Then he started inviting me. I know my wallet and wheels are obviously attractive, but I've also flattered myself into believing that he wants me to save with him because he trusts my taste in clothes. Not that I follow FashionTok feeds, but I've spent a lot of my life studying what to wear and how to afford it.

On a student-free Monday in mid-September, we made a plan to free up a few spots. I discovered curated resale stores like Crossroads Trading Co. a few years ago. when I sold two bags full of clothes to boost my own incompatible shopping budget. Call it middle-aged mom math.

We went to the store in Silver Lake first and split the lanes at the entrance. He leaned towards men's jeans and I started browsing for dresses and skirts. I put on an $18 white cotton midi skirt and wondered if it could pass for a replica of the $200 Doen Sebastiane piece I coveted. My son found a pair of oversized, dark washed Levi's and nodded at me to come check them out. We have studied our findings. We were both just trying to see what suited us.

I also started saving when I was a teenager. In the early 1990s, Aardvarks on Melrose Avenue was a resale closet of dreams. I always went with my mother, who allowed me to search every row of jeans and sweaters until I found a treasure or two. I focused as much on the other shoppers as on the clothing racks. If someone looked at a blouse, I went to that department. If she was holding a dress, I ducked in to take another look.

Aardvarks was like my imaginary mother's glamorous closet, open for me to play dress-up. It wasn't Koala Blue, the store down the street owned by Olivia Newton John. When my mother handed over a check there a few months earlier when she wanted to buy me a sweatshirt with a logo and a dress for herself, the Xanadu singer herself wrote a note in which she kindly forgave the mistake. Nor was it Betsy Johnson, a luxury boutique with a femininity and price point that are still inaccessible to me.

Sometimes my mother would browse next to me at Aardvarks and nudge me toward a babydoll dress or cardigan she liked. Usually she would just wait outside smoking cigarettes, then come back to meet me in the checkout line, where I stood with treasures draped over my arm. She joined me in a whiff of nicotine and said, “This place stinks.” Before we went to the register, she counted wadded up bills to make sure we had enough for my purchases and could afford another lunch at Johnny Rockets before heading home to sneak the shopping bags past my grandmother, who unknowingly financed these excursions.

Those Saturday afternoons on Melrose were the last of our mother-daughter shopping days, before she crashed her hatchback Honda Civic, the radio-less car we would drive around town shopping. Before I was in high school, when my friends asked why she wore spotted dresses or took the bus in her robe. Before she no longer cared what any of us wore, or ate, or did on a weekend afternoon. She kept trying different combinations of psychiatrists, lithium and diet pills, but none seemed to fit.

My mother died while I was pregnant with my first son, just as I was trying motherhood myself. I've sifted through a lot of grief, looking for pieces of her to take with me as a mother of teenagers and middle-aged women. I rediscovered her here, saving with my son as she saved with me.

As my son and I stood at the checkout counter at Crossroads with a pair of Levi's that I know he wished were 501s, he got so close that he rested his chin on my shoulder. I reached out to ruffle his messy blonde hair, which looks exactly like my mother's, when I noticed a young saleswoman in her twenties sneaking a glance at our tender moment. She smiled quickly and looked at a stubborn label on a pair of pants.

Next in line, we approached her with our scores and as she draped them over the counter, she looked at me and said, “You two are very sweet.”

I glanced at my son, aware that any reaction could trigger an ever-looming shame. “Thank you,” I said, trying to show my gratitude with a smile in my eyes.

“It makes me miss my mom,” she admitted. I took in the auburn hair that fell just past her shoulders and the delicate group of moles that dotted one of her cheeks.

“Trust me,” I told her. “She misses you more.”

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