Guest Guru: Alisa Singer – Shopping with my Mother – Then and Now

Shopping with my Mother – Then and Now

Article and illustration by Alisa Singer

Shopping with my mother is, surprisingly, much the same experience for me now, in middle-age, as it was for me in middle-school. There are several reasons for this but they all flow from my mother’s unshakeable belief that, as God made Adam in his own image, so each of her daughters will eventually emerge as more-or-less duplicate copies of herself. She appears to reject the concept of the separate and unique DNA of her progeny, perhaps subconsciously believing that we were conceived with a full set of her chromosomes through mitosis or other mysterious form of cell division. From her perspective it’s a simple matter of peeling away all those layers of mistaken identity we call “ourselves” to reveal the true person underneath – that being “her”. Understand that my mother is neither an egomaniac nor a control freak. She just knows this.

Disappointingly for my mother, so far neither my sister nor I have turned out much like her, nor have we given any indication that we ever will. For my part, I share with her only frizzy hair and an intense, nervous energy; my sister appears to have inherited none of her traits. Still my mother persists in her belief, wearing her faith boldly as a shield against any form of criticism from her daughters on any matter. “Hah! Just wait,” she warns, “someday you’ll do the same thing.” (That day, of course, being the day when we finally actually become our mother.)

If pressed my mother would probably acknowledge that this evolution will not occur suddenly (we are unlikely to emerge one day as full-formed images of her, like Athena springing from the forehead of Zeus), but she likes to hasten the process along a bit whenever she sees the opportunity. She has always found clothes shopping expeditions to be auspicious occasions to further this agenda. (I should mention that my mother had been in her day a “beauty”, in fact an actual beauty queen, winner of “The Girl I’d Most Like to Spend Christmas Vacation With” and other sundry titles. And she thrived on being recognized and noticed for being “fashion forward” – the first in the neighborhood to wear pants suits, go-go boots and mini-skirts.)

So there was my mother, a woman firmly committed to the proposition of redrafting her offspring into her own stylish image, attacking the mall with her two girls reluctantly in tow. These seasonal escapades (fall/winter and spring/summer) painfully highlighted the vast gulf between my mother’s dreams for her daughters and the reality of the paltry raw material she had to work with. I represented a particularly arduous challenge due to my morbid dread of drawing attention to myself through my appearance. In other words, I feared the result which is the very essence and purpose of fashion. Viewing me as simply a younger, unformed version of herself, the idea that I did not appear to share her views of fashion or self-image surprised and puzzled her (and continues to do so to this day).

As I said, the pattern of behavior between us shopping together today is eerily reminiscent of scenes played out between us four decades ago. The ritual begins with my mother shoving several colorful, trendy pieces into my hands: “Try these”, she says, then adding as though to seal the deal, “all the girls are wearing them”. This last familiar phrase inevitably touches several “hot buttons” at once, sending me (I’m ashamed to admit) reeling back to 7th grade, seething with the spirit of adolescent rebellion. At these times I am irritated by at least the following three things: first, by the implication that I haven’t yet evolved beyond the need to dress myself according to certain rules promulgated by unknown fashion mavens (I haven’t); second, by her refusal to notice that adult (okay, middle-aged) women are not “girls” and, a corollary to that, what would be appealing on a 12-year old girl would likely be appalling on a 50-something year old “girl”; and, finally, by any unsolicited advice my mother offers regarding how I should dress or handle any other aspect of my life. (I did say adolescent rebellion, didn’t I?)

The typical next steps in this traditional mother-daughter dance vary depending on my reserves of patience and good will at the moment. Some days, I confess, I simply thrust the items back onto the rack: ”Mom, I was too old for that look 20 years ago”, my churlish, whiny tone contrasting ironically with my words. But when I have myself under better control I will at least pretend to seriously consider the item in an effort to humor her. And once in a while I might even buy the thing. (She does, after all, have a good eye for color and design.) On those occasions my mother beams with pleasure and I feel the piece is worth the price, even if it ‘s likely to never leave my closet.

Every so often it turns out that the item my mother selected for me is actually kind of perfect, like the iridescent gold bomber jacket that proves to be just the thing to wear over jeans for a Saturday evening dinner and movie. Shimmering in a metallic glow I float into the living room, buoyed by the hope that I might possibly look, sort of, cool. There I face the most exacting of judges – my teenage daughter. She looks up from her laptop, appraising me with narrowed eyes and studied skill. “Cute”, she pronounces finally, then pauses, “but, I don’t know, not exactly … you.”

I head to my bedroom to take a final look in the mirror. Peering back is, of course, me but also a hint of someone else, someone quite familiar. “I told you so,” my mother/myself seems to say as she stares back at me with a triumphant gleam in her eyes, “and it’s about time.”

Alisa Singer’s humorous essays have appeared in a variety of print and online newspapers and magazines across the country and in Canada. You can learn more about her work by visiting her website: or contacting her at