While thrifting in L.A. with my teenage son, I found what my mother missed

My 13-year-old son has entered his thrifting era. It started with an off-chance trip to Goodwill over the summer while he was skating through Glendale with a friend two grades ahead. He came home with a decent pair of Nikes and some questionable acid-wash jeans. The purchase totaled $26. The Nikes haven’t left his closet, and the jeans never had a chance.

Still, thrifting has become the new, more expensive and less accessible trip to the corner store. He went a few more times and acquired two random hoodies, one for a 2017 Kendrick Lamar album release, and the other for the Washington Huskies team he’s never seen play. Then he started inviting me along. I know my wallet and wheels offer obvious appeal, but I’ve also flattered myself into believing he wants me to thrift with him because he trusts my taste in clothing. Not that I am holding down any FashionTok feeds, but I’ve spent a good chunk of my life studying what to wear and how to afford it.

On a pupil-free Monday in mid-September, we made a plan to hit up a few spots. I discovered curated resale stores like Crossroads Trading Co. a few years ago when I sold two bagfuls of clothes to stretch my own irreconcilable shopping budget. Call it Middle Age Mom Math.

We hit the store in Silver Lake first, splitting lanes in the entranceway. He veered toward men’s jeans and I went to browse dresses and skirts. I pulled an $18 white cotton midi skirt, wondering if it could pass for a replica of the $200 Doen Sebastiane piece I coveted. My son found a pair of many-sizes-too-big dark-wash Levi’s and nodded to me to come check them out. We studied our findings. We were both just trying to see what fit.

I started thrifting when I was a teenager too. Back in the early ‘90s, Aardvarks on Melrose Avenue was a resale closet full of dreams. I used to go with my mom, who allowed me to scour each row of jeans and sweaters until I found a treasure or two. I focused as much on the other shoppers as I did the racks of clothes. If someone cool examined a blouse, I moved to that section. If she held out a dress, I swooped in to give it a second look.

Aardvarks was like my imaginary mother’s glamorous closet, open for me to play dress-up. It wasn’t Koala Blue, the destination store down the street owned by Olivia Newton John. When my mom bounced a check there a few months earlier when trying to buy me a logo sweatshirt and herself a dress, the Xanadu singer herself wrote a note graciously forgiving the oversight. It also wasn’t Betsy Johnson, an upscale boutique with a femininity and price point still inaccessible to me.

Sometimes my mom browsed beside me at Aardvarks, nudging me toward a babydoll dress or a cardigan she liked. Usually, she just waited outside smoking cigarettes, returning to meet me in the checkout line where I stood with treasures draped over my arm. She’d join me in a waft of nicotine and say, “This place stinks.” Before we hit the register, she counted wadded-up bills to make sure we had enough for my purchases and could still afford lunch at Johnny Rockets before we headed home to sneak the shopping bags past my grandmother, who unwittingly funded these excursions.

Those Saturday afternoons on Melrose were the last of our mother-daughter shopping days, before she crashed her hatchback Honda Civic, the one with no radio that we’d drive to shop across town. Before I was in high school, when my friends asked why she wore stained dresses or took the bus in her housecoat. Before she stopped caring what either of us wore, or ate, or did on a weekend afternoon. She kept trying on different combinations of psychiatrists, lithium, diet pills, but none of them seemed to fit.

My mom passed away while I was pregnant with my first son, just as I was trying on motherhood myself. I’ve rummaged through a lot of grief, looking for pieces of her to take with me as I mother teenagers and weather middle age. I’ve rediscovered her here, thrifting with my son the way she thrifted with me.

As my son and I stood in the checkout line at Crossroads with a pair of Levi’s I know he wished were 501s, he inched close enough to me to rest his chin on my shoulder. I reached up to tussle his disheveled blond hair that is just like my mom’s, when I noticed a young 20-something sales clerk sneaking a glance at our tender moment. She offered a quick smile and darted her eyes to a stubborn tag on a pair of trousers.

Next in line, we approached her with our scores and as she draped them across the counter, she looked at me and said, “You two are really sweet.”

I glanced at my son, aware that any response could tip off an ever-looming embarrassment. “Thanks,” I said, trying to show my gratitude with a smile in my eyes.

“It makes me miss my mom,” she admitted. I took in the chestnut brown hair that swept down just past her shoulders, and the delicate cluster of moles sprinkled across one of her cheeks.

“Trust me,” I told her. “She misses you more.”

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