Shopping for a new coat unleashes old memories

A shopping trip for a new winter coat turned into a trip down memory lane for Bonnie Adler and her mother.

Story highlights

  • First Person is a series of essays about how our experiences shape us
  • Bonnie Adler shares the story of shopping with her mother, whose worsening dementia is a daily challenge
  • When Adler and her mother find the perfect winter coat, they are transported to a different time

First Person is a series of personal essays exploring identity and personal points of view that shape who we are. The latest contributor is Bonnie Adler, a veteran reporter and freelance writer in Westport, Connecticut. She is currently working on a book about people whose lives have been altered irrevocably by long-held secrets.

(CNN)My mother, well-tempered but suffering from ever-worsening confusion, needed supervision. Her caretaker was ill, and I told my sisters, much to their relief, that I would be the first line of defense.

Off I went the next day -- a frigid one at that -- armed with good intentions and a plan. I'd bundle her up and take her to the mall. It's an outing I typically eschew, but she desperately needed a new winter coat. Hers was 15 years old, a down affair that seemed to grow ever puffier and strain mightily at the bottom button as her already diminutive stature shrank. She, who had once given no quarter to anyone sporting a few too many pounds, now needed at least a size up.
When I arrived, she greeted me joyfully, all dolled up in ancient pants and a wildly patterned animal print T-shirt. She had completed the ensemble with a zippered Members Only golf jacket of my father's that I hadn't seen since well before he died in 1999. When I pointed out a hole in one of the seams, she shrugged. Normally meticulous, she didn't care. The jacket was not coming off.
    I had plotted my strategy for our shopping expedition. I decided in advance that I would take advantage of valet parking, a $10 extravagance that can really change the entire experience of shopping in a perpetually overcrowded mall that feels as large as a galaxy. And looking for a parking space with my mother offering running commentary would surely convert me into a spitting cat.
    We went to this gigantic merry-go-round of a mall because I wanted to go to Uniqlo, a store my mother had clearly never heard of, and one where the ultralight down jackets, vests and sweaters hung en masse in every color of the rainbow. As we looked in awe at all the colors and styles, I felt as if I had whisked my mother from her quiet, controlled pastel-colored old folks home to the land of Oz. I would have told her we weren't in Kansas anymore if I thought she could have possibly gotten the joke. Her dementia had all but stolen her bright and funny attitude, creating in its place an ever-simmering cauldron of anxiety.
    But, as it turned out, the joke was on me. Now just about 5 feet tall and rounder than she had ever been, my once gorgeous mother, always radiant and well-dressed, was not a customer for Uniqlo. Too short, and honestly, too rotund. So we left Oz, me carrying her heavy coat and my father's jacket, my temper growing shorter with every step.
    We went next to Lord & Taylor. I knew Neiman Marcus was not going to cut it -- she might be confused, but she could still ask the price and had embedded in me a reluctance to buy her an expensive coat that would betray her lifelong commitment to thriftiness.
    She was sweet, though, and game for the hunt, as long as I took charge and led her.
    She was no different from a child. She stopped at every distraction -- a baby in a stroller, an eye-catching purse, any person walking in her direction. When we reached the escalator, I sensed terror in my heart, but we climbed aboard, my mother still nimble enough to manage.
    Burdened with her belongings, I remembered as a child I hated shopping with her. We were always lugging coats and bags, tormented by her never-ending indecision, her outspoken denunciation of high prices and her endless search for a bargain. I would find something I wanted, and she would inspect it, invariably finding a defect that would justify her refusal to buy me what I coveted. Decades later, there we were, suffocating in the dreary coat department, where one after the other, the coats I plucked from the picked-over racks were too long and too tight, too heavy and too ugly, until like Goldilocks, I found one that was just right.
    All zipped in, she stood straight and proud, suddenly beautiful, made taller by the lean line of the coat and tilt of her head and the brightness of her smile. I told her we had found it and she looked gorgeous. The coat, silver-gray and sleek, was as light and warm as I had hoped. Plus, it was on sale and a bargain. I insisted that we cut off the tags at the cash register, and she put it right back on. "It's so light," she said, as she preened in the mirrors above the escalator. I could see she liked it. Oh, I was happy. I had done well.
    Flush with her success, she admitted she needed lipstick, too. We picked out a bright red one at Lancome, a perfect match for her drug store brand, and when she heard the price, she said, "Never! That's crazy!" I brushed her objections aside, insisted she buy it and hustled her out to the blessedly nearby car, parked by the valet right next to the exit.
    Back in her apartment, she posed for me in her new coat, and I took pictures, glorying in her style. "You look just stunning," I told her, and I meant it.
    She looked at me then, and I saw her mind click and her thoughts zoom back to the person whose compliments always meant the most, the one she loved with all her heart. "Where's Daddy?" she asked, her grief freshly resurfacing as she longed for the only one whose compliments meant everything to her.
    The next day, one of my sisters came to take her out because her caregiver remained in the hospital.
    My sister sent a photo of their outing to a nearby diner. There was my mother, smiling away in her crimson lipstick, surrounded by two grandchildren whose names she has forgotten.
    She was wearing my father's golf jacket, the old down coat tucked into a corner of the booth.