Faith Gong: Adventures in Back-to-School Shopping

Our family went back to school the day after Labor Day. The Addison County schools began the week before Labor Day, but since we homeschool I figured: Why be crazy? (My daughters take a great deal of joy in their delayed start; every year they fantasize about appearing on the Mary Hogan School sidewalk on the first day of school in their pajamas, munching doughnuts and waving to their friends as they get off the bus. What prevents them from putting this plan into action is that they’re not even close to awake at that time.)

One of my favorite things about homeschooling is that I feel like I’m learning (or re-learning) right along with my daughters. As I remind them constantly, you’re never too old to learn, to grow, to change. Which may be why, this past weekend, I did something I thought I’d never do: I took my daughters shopping at big chain stores in Williston and Burlington.

I still remember our family’s first trip to the stores in Williston. We’d just moved to Vermont, and we needed to pick up a lot of cheap, basic home furnishings. We loaded our three daughters, aged three months through three years, into the minivan, and drove north for an hour. At those ages, an hour drive passes in dog years; we kept the minions pacified by tossing fruit chews into the backseat at regular intervals, and braced ourselves for long stretches of baby wailing. When we’d lived in California, an hour drive took us to wine country; driving the same distance for a bunch of chain stores hardly seemed worth the hassle. “I will do anything possible to avoid this drive,” I recall thinking to myself.

For eight years, I did avoid it. But now we have a tween, and our tween “needs” to go to Old Navy.

When my eldest daughter made the case for Old Navy, it seemed reasonable enough: She’s the one who doesn’t get flooded with hand-me-downs, after all. My husband, who develops a nervous twitch at any mention of clothes shopping, would be in a meeting all day on the Saturday after we started school. I figured we could treat this as a sort of mother-daughters “back-to-school” shopping trip.

We were up bright and early that Saturday morning -- not because of the shopping, but because my two middle daughters were farm-sitting for our neighbors and had a horse, three sheep, seven chickens, two cats, and a dog to feed and water. When we returned to our own house, we discovered that one of our monarch butterflies had hatched out of its chrysalis in a jar in the mudroom, so there was a butterfly release to orchestrate. Somewhere in the midst of all this, our tween daughter woke up, ambled down to breakfast, and then frittered away another couple of hours so that, although she’d requested this shopping trip, she was somehow still in her pajamas by 10 o’clock in the morning.

The drive up to Williston, when we embarked at last, was much easier than it had been eight years ago. Our four daughters, between the ages of six and eleven, no longer need food in order to keep the peace on a one-hour drive. But they do get carsick, dramatically; when we stopped in the Old Navy parking lot, they clambered out of the car clutching their stomachs and gasping for breath.

Clothes shopping trips are an infrequent occurrence in our family, but the pattern is always the same: My oldest and youngest daughters browse leisurely, piling their findings high atop a cart – a cart that is usually, to my great anxiety, pushed by the six-year-old. My two middle daughters, who have little interest in clothes, complain that they’re bored and spend the entire time hiding inside clothing racks in order to “spy” on other shoppers.

After an hour, my tween had reached her budget limit, my two non-shoppers had refrained from an all-out revolt because I’d promised them a stop at Michael’s arts and crafts store, and my six-year-old hadn’t maimed any other shoppers with the cart.

Riding high on this success, I took the girls next door to Dick’s Sporting Goods: My two oldest daughters are participating in a youth field hockey clinic this fall, and we needed to get them shin guards and mouth guards.

If clothes shopping trips are rare in our family, team sports are unheard of. This was our first time in Dick’s Sporting Goods, and it was overwhelming: A stadium’s worth of sports paraphernalia, and me, helplessly ignorant, with four increasingly hungry and bored daughters in tow. Eventually, we located the mouth and shin guards. There was an entire wall of each, and the shin guards were sized according to height.

“Okay, how tall are you?” I asked my daughters, who gaped at me as if it was my job not only to keep them alive, but to know their current height. Then I had to field questions like, “Mommy, why do we need these things?” without terrifying my daughters with worst-case scenarios before they’d even started.

During lunch at Panera Bread (one of the few restaurants that reliably pleases all four of my daughters’ palates) my ten-year-old daughter’s flip-flop strap snapped. The shoe was ruined, and she had no other pair. Back to Old Navy we went, to buy her a wearable pair of shoes.

It was a setback, but our final destination was next.

The problem was that Michael’s wasn’t where I’d remembered. I was certain that it was in South Burlington, right by the Home Goods store on Shelburne Road. Nope: That turned out to be T.J. Maxx. I hope I don’t sound bigoted, but all these large chain stores look alike to me.

This is when it would have been helpful to have a smartphone. “We’ll just find it the old-fashioned way,” I told my daughters. “We’ll ask people.”

Two false leads later, we reached Michael’s, a store that makes the creative hearts in my family sing. We emerged laden with Sculpey, paints, canvases, and needle-felting kits – and in need of a snack.

Halfway home, we stopped at Cookie Love in Ferrisburgh for delicious Kingdom Creamery creemees, fresh-baked cookies, and a much-needed coffee for me. We ate at the only table in the store, and my eight-year-old observed, “They need more tables in here.”

“Well,” I replied, “it’s a small space. They don’t have room for more tables.”

“Wait, is this the only Cookie Love there is?” she asked, shocked after a day spent entirely in chain stores.

And then I knew it was time to go home, where a monarch butterfly tested her wings on the hydrangea bush and some animals were hungrily awaiting their hay.

Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit director. She lives in Middlebury with her husband, four daughters, assorted chickens and ducks, one feisty cat, and one anxiety-prone labradoodle. In her "free time," she writes for her blog, The Pickle Patch.

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