I just found this image on Keri Smith’s blog, which, you guessed it, sums up in a single picture what I’m going to use a thousand words to say.
Two days ago, my mom and I went to Marshalls, because I haven’t bought a pair of jeans since last April, when my body had not yet endured the extreme-heat-and-no-food Spanish diet, and because she needed to get out of the house. As usual, we took the bus. Neither of us own a car in this state; hers in Washington, and if I had one, it would probably be on Mars.
For those of you unfamiliar with the retail chain, Marshalls stocks discount clothing for all ages, plus shoes, candles, and anything else a bored suburban housewife might want. You can find one in every fourth strip mall around the country. My mom and I used to go to Marshalls and its clone chain, TJ Maxx, all the time when we lived in eastern Washington, during and after my last two years of high school. My dad’s new job provided a hefty income, my mom finally had a house to renovate and decorate, we had two cars, a front and back lawn, nosy neighbors. After years of moving around, living on a budget, and renting apartments, we had it good.
And a lot of that good went to Marshalls, and stores like it. It was with that sense of deja vu that I found myself moving hangars from one end of the rack to the other, and listening to Green Day compete with housewives talking on their cell phones about their dogs and their children in exactly the same tone of voice.
After scoring a few exciting deals, including the smallest pair of jeans my mom has fit into in a decade, we walked next door to a Chinese restaurant, eating near a pair of those women from Marshalls, their round bellies hanging down to their navels. As I ate my garlic sauce chicken, I watched one heavyset woman after another climb out of her SUV and walk inside, to order egg rolls and sweet and sour pork. Judging from their clothes, it was fair to assume they all shopped at Marshalls, too.
Their eyes wouldn’t meet mine, they walked with shoulders thrust back to let their stomachs hang free over their waistlines, and ordered without having to look at the menu. They, too, have it good. They fill the house with treats to fatten up their family. Everyone drives everywhere, watches TV, plays electronic games, drinks too many glasses of things besides water. And we call this the good life. We do. A man or woman who has provided this for their family feels proud, and their children praise them, and Mom writes a Christmas letter to mail to relatives and includes a photo of four or five fat white faces smiling above matching red turtlenecks.
I know this because I lived it. My family never sunk low enough to wear turtlenecks, but we could play some sort of disc in at least one device in every room of the house except the bathroom. We were all at minimum twenty pounds overweight. My mom and I had digestive problems and low energy, yet drove everywhere.
I would purge my closet every few months to avoid feeling guilty for not wearing all the clothes inside it. My mom filled her cabinets with hand painted Italian dishware, cheap at stores like Marshalls. My dad’s eyesight actually suffered from regularly opening drawers full of striped shirts. This is what happens from living in comfort: you grow fat, your house grows fat, and worse, you lose faith in yourself that you can survive without the fat.
My mom and I finished our Chinese food, picked up our bags, and walked out to the bus station. We rode home along with two women in wheelchairs, one of them about two and a half feet tall, the other one my age, with an easy smile and stains on her left sleeve from spinning a wheel dirty with Buffalo slush. They laughed and joked with each other, as the bus pulled over a few blocks from my mom’s apartment.
Last night, we went out for a few drinks with my brother. By the time we left the bar the day’s rain had developed into a downpour. My jeans were soaking wet to mid-thigh by the time I got home, my shoes holding standing water. But, to reach that point, I had to walk the three quarters of a mile home first.
Navigating between ankle-deep puddles, rain sparkling off them as it fell so fiercely, I paused to holler to my mom, “I can’t go on!”
Knowing our joke, she turned, with an enormous smile, looking totally in her element, and called back, “I’ll use your body for food!”
As I’ve said before, my mom was thrown out of a lifestyle as well as a relationship when she discovered my dad had cheated on her last October. She has to contend with both; the heartbreak is worse than the degradation of her circumstances, but doesn’t eliminate it. So I don’t want to discount her struggle when I say that I can’t help wonder if we’re not both better off.
She has fewer closets now and less money to fill them, but if I was to guess, I’d say she misses the ability to paint and tear out windows far more than the ability to climb into her car with three well-stuffed bags of Marshalls purchases. We’re both thinner than we were, more easily pleased by good companionship and simple comforts, and most importantly, we’re not afraid.
We know that, worst comes to worst, we can hole up together in the poorest city in the country, get around on foot, live on a shoestring, share a one-bedroom, struggle with matters of identity and relationship, and still laugh over a beer, hold a door open for a stranger, and smile brilliantly in torrential rain. As Dorothy would tell Oz, I don’t think you have that in your Marshalls bag.