I don’t know how thieves happen or why my mother became one, but as far as kleptos go, she wasn’t that bad. She isolated her pilfering to stuff like ashtrays and hotel shower curtains and such. Mostly it was things she figured people wouldn’t miss. Restaurants in particular had a lot to lose when it came to her patronage. It seemed as though she could not abide paying the check unless she felt she’d squirreled away inside her purse an equivalent value in coffee cups, silverware, linens, and plates. “It’s not stealing,” she insisted. “It’s collecting.” After she passed away, I remember finding among her effects the saltshaker she’d stolen during her first visit with me here in Atlanta.
She didn’t used to be that way. It wasn’t until later in life that she took a turn. That’s not to say that stealing was her profession. It’s not like she wore full skirts into grocery stores so she could walk out with half the liquor aisle between her thighs. I mention that because once when my mother and I were traveling through France, we witnessed a shoplifter being busted in the parking lot of a market. The thief was with her adolescent son, and she was really indignant at having been apprehended by the security guard, who poked at her with an empty shopping cart. Finally, when she came to realize her offense was no defense, the woman lifted her skirt to pull out two half-gallon bottles of vodka.
My mother and I laughed about that for days afterward. We would have felt sorrier for the shoplifter’s boy if not for the fact that the guard himself seemed to pity him; he simply told the woman to place the stolen items in the cart and then directed the thief and her son to go. At the time, all the kid appeared to suffer was embarrassment over the fact that his mother had literally been caught with a party in her panties.
A few years later, my mother visited Atlanta for the first time since I’d moved here. She had been from Kansas, but my late father had been from the South, and it seemed important to her that I connect with his people now that I was living here myself. So she organized a lunch at Houston’s on Peachtree Road with one such person, a frail-looking belle with a beehive who waited until 11:30 before ordering a double bourbon straight up. I remember thinking that the pearls around her neck were almost as big as lightbulbs. I still don’t understand my father’s distant connection to this woman (widow of a Sigma Chi fraternity brother, maybe?), but I thought it was gracious of her to have lunch with us just the same. Later my mother pressed the woman’s address and phone number in my palm and insisted I keep it at hand. “You’ll never know when you might need this,” she said. Then we drove the woman back to her upscale condominium down the road and made a big flourish in our farewells.
“Call me if you need anything,” she said. “She will,” my mother answered.
Later I dropped her off at the airport, where she waved at me from the other side of security, pilfered salt shaker in her purse and all. “Call her,” she said again. I nodded and walked away.
Today, every single time I drive that stretch of Peachtree, I wonder why I never once did as my mother asked in that regard, because it cannot be said that I never needed anything in the twenty-one years since. But my mother and I were kind of opposites when it came to collecting. Where she hoarded, I divested. Where she was constantly stockpiling items for future needs, I was constantly certain I’d never need anything. I was young and free and unfettered by the concept of finalities. For example, it did not occur to me that my mother’s first visit with me here in Atlanta would also be her last.
But people change. After all, it wasn’t until later in life that my mother herself did. Perhaps I am the same way. Perhaps we are all the same way. Because today I find myself collecting things I never did before—time on my hands, moments in my memory, love in my heart—thinking to myself, “You’ll never know when you might need this.” And today, sometimes, when I drive down that stretch of Peachtree Road, I don’t just wonder about the frail belle with a beehive and rheumy eyes. Sometimes I find myself wanting to take a turn.
Illustration by Peter Arkle