Unfolding Inheritance

Buying Time

This is Unfolding Inheritance, a column by Kristen Gentry exploring mother-daughter relationships, the impact of parental addiction, and the journey of finding and loving yourself through it all.


I love to shop.

I get it from my mama.

So much of my childhood was me and Mama at the mall, wrapped in the warm, chocolate chip smell of Great American Cookies and the chemical clean of the fountain’s chlorine. With the citrus froth of Orange Julius on my tongue, I watched the endless bubble of stumpy white geysers and gathered calm in the sound of the water’s gentle slap as it returned to the clear, shallow pool. I asked Mama for coins so I could throw them into the water to join other nickels, dimes, and pennies, shimmering on the fountain’s turquoise-painted bottom like fish scales. I wanted to make a wish. 

I was always making wishes, but as an adult, I can’t imagine what I would have wished for then. I was already with my favorite person doing what we loved to do. I couldn’t foresee a time when this wouldn’t be my life, when Mama wouldn’t be there and I would wish for her. I couldn’t imagine the days to come when she would be around, but only faintly, her presence as flimsy as the coins’ glint. I’d be staring right into her face, close enough to touch her, yet wishing for her as if she were as distant as a star because the truth is, she was. 

But I would discover Mama’s depression and opioid addiction later.  

Before then, there was lots of shopping! 

Whatever I may have wanted–a new Barbie doll, denim skirt, or book–was no more than a few steps away, and, likely, bought within minutes of the coin sinking to the fountain’s floor. 

I grew up in the eighties and nineties, when the mall was queen, so we went often, but we didn’t always go to the mall. Sometimes we went to department stores like Value City (R.I.P.) and Bacon’s (gone too soon) where we spent days flitting through the girls’ clothing and shoe departments gathering outfits and underclothes for summer and back-to-school wardrobes. We’d pull up to the lay-away counter with a full cart, and I’d eagerly anticipate the day when we’d retrieve my stuff and I could race my cousins in my new short set or sashay in the line at school in my new boots and jacket. Sometimes we went to the bookstore (you were a real one, Waldenbooks) and I’d leave with short stacks of Baby-Sitters Club titles and Archie comics. Sometimes we went to the record store (much love to all of them), and I got Prince, Michael Jackson, and Whitney Houston singles. Sometimes we went to Zayre (I don’t need to tell y’all that’s closed, right?), which was kind of like Wal-Mart. There, Mama bought household supplies and a bubble bath that I still recall fondly to this day. It was pink, candy-scented, and came in a large, clown-shaped bottle. 

Basically, spending time with Mama was mostly us shopping. 


People said I was spoiled, but I disagree.

Maybe when I was a younger kid. I recall being about five years old on a trip with Mama to Toys R’Us (another one bites the dust) that wasn’t about me. Maybe we were getting a birthday present for a cousin. I don’t remember. I vaguely remember Mama telling me not to go in the store asking for stuff before the double doors opened, smacking me with the heady, plastic smell of new toys. When I turned a corner and the aisle glowed Barbie pink as far as my eye could see, I asked for everything. All the things. I fell out begging and lost my mind. Mama helped me find it once we were back in the car, me teary-eyed and empty-handed, though I don’t remember what she did.

When I asked Mama if she remembered giving me a whooping at Toys R’ Us, she asked, “Why would I do that?”  

“Because you told me not to ask for anything and I did,” I answered. 

“Why would I do that?” she repeated. “Whenever we went somewhere, you usually got something, no matter how small it was. I don’t remember this,” she said.

But I do. And though I don’t remember if I got a whooping or a stern talking to in that car (likely the latter because I rarely got whoopings), I remember that it was the first time Mama’s warnings through gritted teeth didn’t work; the Barbie force was too strong. I remember that I upset and embarrassed Mama. I disappointed her. I realized other people could be negatively affected by my unchecked wants and greed. My shame about this incident kept me mindful during future shopping trips.

My younger brother, on the other hand, was a privileged, spoiled little brat with no chill. I can say this because he’s my brother and I love him, but I hated shopping with him because he knew no limits, had no shame. Mama would tell him he could get a Lego set, tractor, or truck, and he’d throw it in the cart and go looking for something else to ask for. Every trip, he’d pile on and beg until Mama would be forced to tell him no, and he’d whine and cry and the whole outing would be ruined.  

Yes, I got a lot of stuff. Christmases were ridiculous with Barbie on top of Barbie on top of Barbie on top of remote-controlled Barbie Corvette. I got everything I wanted plus everything Mama wanted me to have, which was essentially the stuff she’d wanted as a kid but never got–a puppy (yeah, I was that kid), literary classics, a gold ID bracelet and Mickey Mouse watch, birthstone ring, white suede fringed ankle boots. 

Mama was born when my grandmother was still in her early teens, soon after she ended her education in middle school. She was the second of nine children and grew up in rural Glasgow, Kentucky with her grandmother. She told me that she’d grown up poor, and I grasped that logically, but I didn’t really understand until we visited relatives in Glasgow and I glimpsed their tiny, cramped homes, the outhouses in the back of yards where Mama said she often ran barefoot to preserve her good shoes.

 I knew I was lucky and didn’t take my blessings for granted. I’ve always held a keen awareness that things cost–time, money. You don’t get something for nothing. 

Maybe I’ve always known this because Mama has always labeled my Christmas presents “From: Mama.” Unlike my brother, whose gifts were from “Santa,” I never believed in a fat, “magical” bearded white guy and, instead, understood that Mama went to work and that’s how she paid for everything. She was a registered nurse and made what I’d heard people call “good money.” That “good money” cost her lots of time at the hospital. Before she married my stepfather and had my little brother when I was seven, when I wasn’t with Mama on those shopping days, I was at my baby-sitter’s house. She had two daughters my age so I didn’t mind spending the night and staying there for days at a time, which I did often. Once we moved to my stepfather’s house in the country, I got a child-free baby-sitter and lost my neighbor friends. Our new home was surrounded by fields and cows. When I wasn’t spending the night with cousins or vice versa, I was often bored and lonely though I had a room full of books, dolls, and games that Mama had worked hard and spent “good money” to purchase. 


Around the time I entered middle school, Mama began a new work schedule–7:00 PM-7:00 AM Saturday, Sunday, and Monday. Every. Single. Weekend. Four days off for three work days seemed like a sweet deal in theory, but it was hellish in practice. I saw Mama less than I had on her previous schedule since she spent Tuesdays and Wednesdays catching up on sleep. On Thursday, she’d still be a little groggy, but she’d cook dinner and let me and my brother climb in the bed with her to watch TV. Friday, she’d be back to normal and we might go shopping after school, but Saturday was right around the corner and it’d be time to start the cycle all over again. I grew to hate the smell of Mama’s White Linen perfume; it was the scent of her leaving for work and it made me sad. 

I wanted time with her. To talk and play games and have her teach me how to plait and tell her about the books I was reading, not just shop. There wasn’t much I wanted besides knowing that I was loved and hearing her tell me everything would be okay. My body was morphing into a smelly, sore, hairy, confusing mess. Boys were an ever unsolvable mystery. I needed her, not stuff. But she was always tired and frustrated or sad. It wasn’t long before her sleep days stretched throughout the week. Mama was no Santa Claus, but depression and the opioids she began taking to help her sleep made her something like magical, able to disappear right before my eyes. 


When Mama’s not buying, it seems like she doesn’t know what to do or what she can offer. She’s never gotten the memo that she is enough, and sometimes I get mad at myself for not making that clear sooner.  Even when she was in rehab, she gave us stuff. She turned the arts and crafts she made during her therapy sessions into gifts. I cherished my change purse and tin art print of a cocker spaniel simply because her hands had made them. When she got out of rehab and had no job, I was diligent about asking for nothing and appreciating her presence. Still, she’d make her way to a dollar store and my brother would get some cheap trinket that would have me rolling my eyes and hating him for being such a greedy, ungrateful brat. 

Unfortunately, not much changed for her and my brother once she regained employment. She’d lost her nursing license so she no longer made “good money,” but she made enough money to shop. The stores and purchase totals were different, but the practice was the same. My brother accepted this return enthusiastically, without question, while I insisted that I needed and wanted nothing. Big fat lies. Of course, I wanted stuff. I was a teenager (and, of course, my brother wanted stuff, he was just a kid. I cut him some slack in my retrospection), but I wanted a healthy mother more than all of the stuff I pined over. And I still do. 

Sometimes, I still insist I need and want nothing when I tell Mama I’m stopping by and she asks if I want to go to Wal-Mart or the thrift store. Sometimes, I’m not telling a lie and am perfectly content. Sometimes we do go shopping because sometimes I do want and need stuff and I’m the one paying for my purchases now so my desires create no financial burden for her. However, more often than not, I remember being twelve and awkward and gangly and just wanting my mother, and I take the opportunity to realize a wish that the little girl at the mall, standing before the fountain, didn’t even know she should make. 

I head to Mama’s with a homemade lunch I’ve prepared. We eat, gossip about family, and share our recent days. We play with my niece and nephew, or we watch Youtube and I learn about the weird corners of the internet she strolls. It’s mostly true crime, but she’s introduced me to the oddly calming videos of a thirty-something white woman named Cecelia Blomdahl who lives on a remote island close to the North Pole while I’ve introduced her to badass fashion blogger, Karen Britchick. Mama’s taught me how to make hot water cornbread and dye a wig. I’ve taught her how to make vegan spaghetti and tie a headwrap. We spend real quality time and I love it. I leave with my heart and belly full, my hands empty, and I’d trade it for nothing.  

Filed under: Unfolding Inheritance


Kristen Gentry is the author of Mama Said. She received her MFA from Indiana University. Her award-winning fiction has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and appeared in Crab Orchard Review, Jabberwock Review, and other journals. She is a VONA and Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference alumna, former Director of Creative Writing at SUNY Geneseo, and a member of the inaugural Poets & Writers publicity incubator for debut writers. She lives and writes in her hometown of Louisville, Kentucky.