Why Sears Closing Makes Me Miss My Mom

For this writer, mourning the end of the famed department store is about much more than nostalgia for sensible slacks and sales ladies with perms.

Sears department storePhoto: JHVEPhoto/Shutterstock

Me, My Mom and Sears

I had heard the rumours, but I didn’t think it would really happen. Yet, while sipping coffee one morning last October, I saw the headline that proved otherwise. Sears, the unsinkable department store, had hit an iceberg.

Initially, I felt embarrassed that the news made me emotional. If I’m being honest, Sears hasn’t been a staple in my life for a couple of decades, so I feel a little culpable for its permanent closing this past January. I should’ve bought more appliances and comforter sets, just to support it. But it’s Sears. Isn’t it always supposed to be there? In this fast-paced, virtual world, it was a bricks-and-mortar constant that promised overhead fluorescent lighting, sensible slacks and sales ladies with perms.

Sears was, arguably, the preferred store of every 1980s mother, which is really why I miss it—because I miss mine. My mom was a Sears mom. You know the type: practical, strong-willed and understands the value of a dollar. She had a Sears card that she paid off with an actual cheque on the first of every month. On those days, Mom would pull up to the secret back lot of the store in Peterborough, Ont., by the “Women’s Wear” door. She would then tell me or one of my sisters to run in with the bill and “make sure you get it stamped.” I felt very grown up, and when I got back, she’d remind me, “Never buy something unless you have the cash to pay for it.”

My mom has been gone for five years now. It’s true what they say: it gets easier. But when this past Christmas neared, I still missed her terribly. So on one particularly cold and snowy December night, I drove myself to the Sears of my youth, just to be near some essence of her. Pulling open the heavy double doors, I was instantly transported back to my childhood. (Read about a mother’s and son’s memories of family, friends and food.)

Sears was my family’s go-to store for everything, from washing machines and vacuums to perfume and clothes. I’m the second of three girls, so most things I wore were hand-me-downs—except in September. That’s when we’d make our annual family pilgrimage to pick out a new outfit and supplies for the first day of school. On one of those trips, before the start of Grade 7, I got the blue and yellow L.L. Bean backpack that saw me through elementary school, high school and Europe. I still use it today.

Once there, my mom would also shop for herself. As a part-time nurse, full-time mom and overtime extrovert, her sense of style was wholesome but a bit fancy. I was allowed to sit on the floor of the change room while she tried things on for what seemed like hours. My mom was notably fond of sweaters with collars already sewn into them, which she called “cheaters.” She liked to look presentable but only spend 10 minutes getting ready, and these gave the illusion that she had gone to the extra effort of layering. The best part was when she’d ask for my opinion, a habit she maintained as I moved into adulthood; it never failed to boost my confidence.

As for my clothes, when high-end brands not carried at Sears became popular—such as Vuarnet and Chip & Pepper—my mom was immune to the social pressure.

“If all your friends jumped off a bridge, would you jump, too?” she would ask.

“Yes, I would,” I’d say.

“Then at least you’ll be wearing something sensible when we come to identify your body.”

Shopping at Sears began long before we pulled into the parking lot. When the store’s catalogue arrived in the mail, I’d flip through it and circle things I wanted for Christmas—an Easy-Bake Oven or a Snoopy Sno-Cone Machine. I would tear the page out and carry it with me, the original Pinterest board. When our order finally came in, we’d head to a special area upstairs, where the lady behind the counter would fetch it from a mysterious place called “the back.”

When I was 10, I had the privilege of staying up late to accompany my mom to a midnight madness sale. As we hopped into the station wagon, I was bleary-eyed but excited to have her all to myself. I got to sit next to her in the front seat, feeling more like her friend than her daughter.

That night the store was bustling with Sears moms, and it was like spying on a secret society of womanhood. My mom ran into people she knew, made small talk and joked with the sales staff. I noticed how she did all this with such ease and began to see her as not just my mom but as a woman. She was interesting and funny, and I was proud of her. I knew that, with her as a role model, someday I’d have these qualities, too.

A few years later, Sears played an integral part in my coming of age. It’s where I learned the term “intimates.” I remember blushing as I wandered through the sea of undergarments, red-faced and terrified that someone I knew might spot me. But it’s not because there were any provocative bras or underwear there. Thongs? No way! Just your run-of-the-mill, full-bottomed nude briefs. Sensible, utilitarian and suitably Catholic.

When my mom suggested buying me my first training bra, I caused a scene—I wanted to deny the very existence of puberty. So we compromised and she took me to Sears to get a sports bra—after which we agreed to never mention my unmentionables again. My mom was witty and feisty but also a fan of modesty and strictness. When my sisters and I were teenagers, she enforced a “no boys on the second floor” rule and an 11 p.m. curfew because “nothing good happens after midnight.” She taught us to respect ourselves and to expect the same from others, a lesson that filtered down to our clothing choices: “There’s no need to put it all on a silver platter; leave a little something to the imagination.”

My mother couldn’t make the rules forever, though. In my third year of university, I decided to get my first double bed. My mom disapproved—it might encourage a second person to join me—but since I was well into my voting years, she reluctantly took me to Sears to buy a “bed in a bag”: matching sheets, comforter and two pillowcases in one practical satchel. Then she took me to church. (Mother’s Day can be painful after losing your mom. Here’s how to survive—from women who have been there.)

When I graduated from university, my professors were on strike. The whole event felt anticlimactic, and I didn’t bother to have any pictures taken. My mom was furious and marched me down to the Sears portrait studio, where they supplied us with a cap and gown. When she died a decade later, that photograph was still in her wallet.

I’m scared that the shuttering of Sears erases my mom a little bit more. Just one more time, I’d like to sit on the floor of a fitting room next to a pile of discarded sweater-blouses and dig out a scotch mint from the bottom of a purse. Sears was more than just a dependable department store; it was a place to spend time with my mom, one where she taught me lessons on how to be a woman.

Looking for more heartwarming stories about parents? Try these three odes to dad!

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest Canada