I was eight or nine, and my mom was in the basement cutting my hair with her father watching. She would have been mid-40’s, younger than I am now. I always think of Grandpa as 95 but he was probably early 70s, still working part-time as a foot messenger for Cannonball. I know he was retired from the CTA by then, because I’d only been three or four when Mom put me on her lap for his last L ride, flashes of light speeding past and someone’s shoulders blocking the view ahead.
On this day Grandpa was at the height of his bargain-gathering phase, hardy enough to haul multiple shopping bags full of discount socks and skates and egg timers from Montgomery Wards and the Marshall Fields bargain basement around the Loop and back to his and Grandma’s apartment on Oakdale. He’d then organize the stuff and take it on the bus to deliver to his kids every weekend, using the free pass given to retired CTA conductors and drivers.
One of the bargains was a home hair-cutting kit—scissors and shaver and blades organized in a hinged, red metal case with a rattling handle. It came from Sears Roebuck and Company, where Uncle George worked in the Fire Safety Department. Either he was keeping Sears safe from fire or servicing some kind of product customers could buy like an insurance policy, and it gave him an employee discount card that Grandpa borrowed on Wednesdays to combine with the senior discount.
Mom complained privately that her sister Marie always got the better stuff. Grandpa always went there first on Saturday mornings, taking the Austin bus south to Jackson, walking west to Marie’s, offering up the week’s haul of costume jewelry, small appliances, saucepans, and then stopping at ours on his way back north. Mom prided herself on never appearing to need anything in Grandpa’s bags but after he left she’d say, “Marie’s kids get skates that fit and we get a bunch that are too small or too big.” On some bargains, like the Brooke Shields clock or the hair-cutting kit, Grandpa got multiples so she and Marie got the exact same thing.
I sat on a high stool in the basement, pink plastic cape fastened around me and Mom trying to cut my hair. Grandpa stood watching. Mom muttered, “Damn this thing,” when she couldn’t get my bangs even all the way across and had to keep making them shorter. Grandpa proclaimed, “It’s a bad carpenter who blames his own tools.” Mom retorted—a verb you could never apply to Marie, who accepted all things with a quiet, uncluttered smile, while retort should have Mom’s picture beside it in the dictionary, hand on hip and half-turning away, “That’s because a good carpenter doesn’t buy crappy tools.”
In that answer is possibly the kernel of my entire adult personality. Don’t ask, don’t appear to need, know that someone else is getting a better version of whatever it is than you are, and passive-aggressively blame the benefactor you really should, for all sorts of reasons, be thanking.
Of course Mom also got the fun of sparring with Grandpa, a man who silenced many including Marie with his unrelenting moral code: Life is an obstacle course comprised of venial sins and mortal sins, and the only safe activities are bible-quoting, bargain-hunting, and occasional practical jokes. Maybe Mom felt it was worth getting second-choice merchandise for the pleasure of reminding him she didn’t subscribe.
When she and Maria were still living at home Grandpa wouldn’t let them go out at night, some bible logic about wise virgins keeping their oil lamps full. One night Mom rebelled and got herself dressed up for the Riviera ballroom. When Grandpa asked what she thought she was doing she said, “I need an oil change.”
Marie used her Sears hair-cutting kit for years to cut all her children’s hair, plus Grandpa’s and Grandma’s. Mom’s lived in our linen closet unused for years, lid latched and metal handle rattling whenever you opened the closet door, until they moved and I never saw it again.