"I've outdone myself!" I proclaimed to my husband, who looked at me skeptically. I was swathed in a full-length beaver coat on a hot day in the middle of a parking lot. Beside me beamed my two young daughters, each wearing a vintage fur collar over rumpled play clothes.
"You might look better without the T-shirts," he said finally.
No matter. We three were in rummage-sale heaven. In a nod to our Yankee roots, we pride ourselves on dressing well as cheaply as possible. By now I have memorized the local churches' rummage-sale schedules, marking them carefully in my calendar, augmenting them with regular forays to thrift shops and consignment stores. I have taught my girls how to look for quality, what can and cannot be easily altered, and when to pass up a "buy" no matter how tempting.
My friends find this side of me particularly amusing. "There's Julie," I overheard one laugh as I tried on my soon-to-be-purchased beaver coat, "she's always at this sale."
"Yes," countered the other one, "but only on the half-price day!"
My closest friends find it especially titillating that I can discourse intelligently about alterations, since I am famous for my sewing incompetence. After all, they remember, I was expelled from the sewing class of my 4-H Club as a child.
("Julie, dear," cooed my teacher, "I think you'd be happier in the cooking class." "But there is no cooking class," I said, puzzled. "There is now!" she replied.)
It is poetic irony, perhaps, that the person from whom I learned all this hates sewing just as much as I do: my beloved grandmother. Now 95, she is still trolling the thrift shops and, like me, has amassed an impressive collection of "finds."
Equipped with a keen eye for quality and an innate radar for a bargain, she is my rummage-sale mentor. A beautiful woman, she remains an elegant dresser who loves shopping as much as she loves rooting out the very best bargain. For many years, when she lived in Manhattan, we would visit the Upper East Side thrift shops together. Our favorite was the one to which Jackie O. donated regularly. But our best discoveries were free.
Down the hall from Granny was a small room devoted to an incinerator chute. That room was invariably cluttered with all sorts of interesting castoffs. Fortunately for me, my grandmother always had her granddaughter in mind.
Her thriftiness had deep roots, as she was one of six children born to practical parents. But this tendency was purified further in the crucible of the Depression, the uncertainty of a world war in which her husband served overseas, and the crushing suddenness of single parenthood. Whatever its origin, I always liked how this aspect of her character flew in the face of popular culture. Wasting money - especially on herself - was never a temptation for my grandmother.
Spending time with her granddaughter was far more important - and something that she did in abundance. It was a lesson not lost on a young girl.
I enjoyed our many shopping expeditions: the chatty long walks and short bus rides when we got to know each other even better, the time spent systematically poring over merchandise in a thrift shop, the evening "fashion shows" for our patient and amused family.
And so now I repeat my grandmother's instruction with my own children. They love the thrill of the hunt, pulling treasures from a dusty box of castoffs, dressing up each other in rummage-sale treats. Unlike their peers, they do not clamor to go to the mall - they don't even think to ask.
Like their mother years ago, they ferret out their finds and put on fashion shows for the family at night. Perhaps this is how thriftiness is passed from generation to generation.