Seized by a fit of holiday consumerism last Saturday, I made a trip to the Ardmore City Sports, whose liquidation signs had been inspiring persistent questions from my 8-year-old son.
“Why is City Sports closing?”
“Maybe they’re bankrupt?”
“When you have too many creditors.”
And so on, these conversations repeating in a loop for several weeks whenever we passed through the area. They reminded me of circular talks I sometimes have with my 5-year-old when we visit the drive-through ATM and she wants to know why a machine just gives me money.
To take a break from these sort of “teachable moments” gone awry, I was heading toward the failing City Sports and hoping to find a deal to cheer myself up.
But while I was trying on some herringbone-patterned running tights and a polyester turtleneck promising to protect me in artic conditions — items so ugly that I never would have selected them had they not been marked down 40 percent from their initial half off — I overheard another mother and son having a discussion that eerily mimicked the ones I have with my own children.
“Is Santa Claus a god?”
“No, he’s not a god.”
“But he’s the son of god, like Jesus,” the boy insisted.
“He’s a myth,” I could hear the woman saying over Jingle Bell Rock blaring from the store’s speaker s—also, according to signs, for sale along with the mannequins, shelving and fixtures — as I carried my purchases to a cashier who informed me that there were no returns.
But I didn’t care because now I was feeling reckless, in the grip of a perverse form of holiday spirit that made me want to buy more gifts, not for the family and friends I loved, but for myself. And so I trotted over to the nearby GAP, clutching my City Sports sack and shivering in the brisk wind.
As part of my break from my children, I had left them early with my husband and gone running on the nature trail at Haverford College. When I run, I spit. And that morning I was expectorating when I suddenly saw another woman in her long-sleeve Philadelphia Marathon shirt zip past me and dodge out of the way of my phlegm.
“So sorry!” I yelled over Billy Idol’s “White Wedding” blasting into my earbuds.
Reliving this shame, I was now really cold in my perspiration-chilled clothes. So I darted into one of the GAP’s dressing rooms where I changed into the turtleneck and tights I had bought at City Sports.
My reflection revealed that the decal on my new top really was quite ugly, big and shiny and blue and broadcasting something about artic protection. But it was too late now — no returns — and I had chewed off the tags.
I emerged in my hideous outfit and bought two GAP shirts out of guilt. As a sort of cruel coincidence, Jingle Bell Rock was playing here, too, promising to run endlessly through my mind for the next 24 hours. And I suddenly regretted not having my kids with me to pester me into not walking through these doors in the first place.
“That’s a really ugly sticker on your shirt,” my son said when I got home.
“It’s not a sticker. It’s a logo,” I retorted, dragging him off to Bed Bath and Beyond, my impulse to spend more money this holiday season having not yet entirely flagged.
Traipsing up and down the aisles in my new shirt with its atrocious label, I bumped into a friend who leaned in for a hug. I found myself awkwardly apologizing about my stench, explaining that I had been running and hadn’t yet found time to shower, and mortifying my son in the process.
To distract him, I asked if he could fit one more container of K-Cups onto the teetering pile he was already carrying. And it was only later at home, as I was brushing my teeth under the glare of a fluorescent bulb, that I looked down at my new shirt and saw that the bright blue label wasn’t actually a label but just a sticker after all—and I realized that my son, like all children, had far more sense than most of the adults around him.
He didn’t spit on people when he ran. He didn’t give people sweaty hugs in box stores. He didn’t buy K-Cups and ugly shirts. He recognized inauthenticity. He asked all the right questions.
And as I flicked the sticker into the garbage, I felt a renewed sense of faith that my children would steer me straight through this frenzied season and all our future days — a richer form of holiday spirit than I could find bargain hunting in any going-out-of-business sale.