This summer is my daughter’s last summer as a high school student. Although she doesn’t know yet where she will be accepted, she can’t wait to start her college life without her parents nearby. I am excited for her but also dreading the summers to come. Will she or not come to our Maine lake cabin where she learned how to lick ice cream cones, swim in the ocean and canoe on the lake? As I am rewinding with nostalgia our fifteen Maine summers, the last one comes back as one of the most vivid.
In August 2009, my daughter who was then fifteen, made a strange vow: she wouldn’t buy any new clothes until June. The economic crisis was raging across California, our home state. Foreclosed homes, unemployment and state budget cuts convinced my daughter that shopping was indecent. She had enough clothes to survive a whole school year, yet I found her decision unique for a teenage American girl.
Early June, I was dreading a “shop ‘til you drop” frenzy. After all, anyone can morph into an addict when offered the forbidden fruit, but my daughter arrived to her first visit to the mall in nine months fully prepared. She had made a list of absolutely needed items. Mostly new underwear. Upon my insistence, she picked a pair of jeans and shorts.
“Only because they’re on sale,” she informed me.
Most stores actually offered additional discounts on top of the regular sales and deals such as “buy two get one free”. Sign of the times, I realized, checking the thin crowd browsing the quiet aisles.
Moms learn how to resist a new pair of shoes or a purse but my daughter had just turned sixteen so I pointed to a rack of tee shirts.
A frown creased her smooth forehead. “It would only be for the summer.”
“Summer lasts until Thanksgiving in California,” I argued.
“With the AC on, I’ll be cold in this top,” she said.
She walked to the men section and returned with a long sleeve, shapeless tee shirt. “Perfect for doing my homework, running, watching TV and even sleeping,” she said.
My face must have registered concern because she added, “We can’t pretend that the world as we know it will last forever. Clothes should have more than one use. I feel a new responsibility. I’m not a kid anymore.”
Although her green eyes appeared as innocent and naïve as when she was a little girl, her voice carried a new the maturity I couldn’t ignore.
We left the mall with one plastic bag. We passed people who had none. My head filled with thoughts.
I was a college student in France in the early 80s when unemployment was skyrocketing. Teachers and parents urged us to make wise career choices or we would end up jobless. I got a job I chose and liked but France wasn’t yet embracing the high tech changes that were taking place in the USA, so in 1990 my husband and I left Paris for California.
People spoke of a slow economy and even a small recession then, but the U.S.A. felt bountiful to the French immigrants. We started from scratch. Although we had by necessity to be financially conservative, we weren’t afraid of working long hours and of moving several times for a new job. Year after year, our new American lives became more comfortable and more remote from our fragile beginning.
My daughter’s meager shopping triggered memories of leaner years, when I had to be a watchful shopper. It also matched the pessimistic economic mood and was appropriate when I checked the deserted mall.
A few weeks later we arrived in our lake cabin in Maine. My children called it Snow White’s house when they were little. That’s how cozy it is. When my husband spoke of getting a small flat screen so we could rent movies on rainy days, my daughter disagreed.
“This is a minimalist place and should remain that way.”
I reminded her that we have no dishwasher, no washing machine/dryer, no TV and no Internet access in Maine but she barely talked at dinnertime.
The following morning, I offered truce. She had always liked Freeport, the outlet shopping Mecca of Maine, home to L.L. Bean and pristine coastal coves.
My daughter accepted but warned me, “I don’t need anything.”
“Remember, this is junior year. You will have less free time. Maybe you should reconsider.”
Freeport, always buzzing with avid shoppers, was as quiet as a Maine winter day. We browsed empty shops and I noticed my daughter checking the tags on the clothes.
“Don’t worry,” I said. “Better buy a good quality shirt rather than several cheap ones.”
“I’m only buying Made in the USA,” she explained.
“It will be hard,” I said as gently as I could.
“I want to improve our economy,” she said. “Besides I can’t buy clothes made by people who work in bad conditions for a small wage.” She sighed. “Really, I’ve enjoyed our time together but I’m content with what I have. I’m ready to go.”
She hadn’t bought anything. She accepted a pair of earrings only because they were handmade by a Maine artist, were affordable, and represented a tree.
Later that day, we walked through Gardiner. Nestled along the Kennebec River, the Central Maine town has worked hard at revamping its downtown. A couple of cafés and restaurants, several art galleries and a fancy clothing store have opened next to the post office, the A1 historic diner, the bakery, the bank and Reny’s, Maine department store. Some businesses have closed. Thrift stores have replaced them.
“Let’s get in,” my daughter suggested.
“You know that most clothes won’t be made in the USA,” I said.
“That’s fine since people already wore them,” she explained. “I just don’t want to trash the landfill more than it is.” She bought another long sleeve shirt.
We went out for dinner that night. Next to the restaurant sat a used bookstore. We spent an hour exploring the packed shelves. My daughter offered a radiant smile when she found four books for less than ten dollars.
“Frugal,” she declared. “That’s how I want to live!”
Easy for you, I thought, you have everything you need. Back in the 90s I had no choice but being frugal.
My daughter knows little of her parents’ early years in the U.S.A. But her thoughtful choices that summer took me back to that time and frugality sounded then the only proper way to celebrate my twentieth anniversary in the land of abundance.
A year later, our little corner of Maine hasn’t changed much. Some of the stores that opened last year have closed. Others have opened. Whole buildings are For Sale.
People still smile and how do you dos as if life was perfect. I caught a few women checking their food stamps at the grocery store. Our neighbor is back from Afghanistan. His little boy told us last summer that he hoped his dad would be home for Christmas.
We have bought a foam topper for the old Jennifer Convertible sofa that we bought fifteen years ago and brought from California to Maine with a U Haul trailer. We got a coffee and waffle maker and we ate lobster thinking of breakfast. We are talking again of a flat screen but getting rid of the old TV seems indecent. Internet has reached our lake. We discussed the pros and cons and agreed to be connected only to spare us daily trips to the local coffee shop.
It concerned my daughter that the business would suffer. But she also said that she would love to go shopping with me one day.
I am grateful for the opportunity.
After all, who knows what will 2012 be?