She shopped differently for her daughter. Mary would get two dresses, one for Easter that would become her Sunday dress, the other to be worn to school. A pair of Easter shoes would supplement her summer sneakers. Frankie, Billy, and I would fidget as Mary tried on one outfit after another. We wore our sneakers home; our old shoes had typically been tossed into Mr. O'Malley's trash can.
Mr. O'Malley, who had gone to Sacred Heart elementary school with my mother, worked in a small shoe store. He knew our circumstances and never charged us full price. Once, when the soles had separated from Frankie's shoes and mine and been taped up by my father, he charged us nothing. "He is a good soul," my mother said as we walked home.
At Christmas, we got things we needed: socks, a sweater to grow into. When Frankie got a paper route and hired me to help, we put aside money to buy gifts for our parents.
The Friday before Christmas, we'd walk by the shops, assuring each other that we'd find perfect presents, ones they needed and wanted, too. But they needed everything, and what they wanted we couldn't afford and they never would have mentioned anyway. We'd stroll to the top of South Main, gazing through each window as we walked back down. Then we turned east toward home.
Last year, I watched news coverage of Black Friday. I heard about lines hundreds of people long. Women in a Pennsylvania Victoria's Secret physically fought over yoga pants. In South Carolina, a customer collapsed and died as shoppers stepped over him. In California, a woman pepper-sprayed some 20 fellow shoppers.
The shoppers surging through stores reminded me of boxers before the opening bell, throbbing with adrenaline, focused, menacing. When I considered that most Americans are spending money we haven't earned, it occurred to me that they were looting the coffers of their descendants.
I hated shopping. It was filled with anxiety, embarrassment, and guilt. It required that I deny myself: that I sit down, not fidget, stop complaining, say thank you, shut up, stop staring at my brother, and subdue the desire stimulated by the new and shiny to my meager paper-route profits.
As an adult, though, I understand that neither the quantity nor the quality of the gifts mattered. It was the social rituals I reluctantly shared with my family that remain a fundamental source of meaning. Like a shared meal or religious service, it reminded us that we were together, as a family, congregation, and neighborhood. We were embedded in a web of interdependence, a reality greater than ourselves in which we had to sacrifice our individual whims and desires.
John Hearn is a coauthor of "Shade It Black: Death and After in Iraq." He wrote this for the Washington Post.