All last evening, I sat in the bar at the Williamsburg Lodge, steeped in a dream of colonial times, while the rain beat upon the windows, and the wind roared. From time to time I dipped into my volume of stories of 18th-century Williamsburg, until my daughter interrupted with a recitation of the next day’s itinerary.
This year’s back-to school shopping trip would be in Williamsburg…
We started into town early this morning, where we found the shops surprisingly busy, given that court was not in session.
Alex insisted that the first stop should be at the Millinery, where she likes to stop by and chat with the ladies, and plan elaborate wardrobes. I found out soon enough why.
Before we could even exchange a proper greeting, as the milliner reached behind the counter without a word, pulling out a length of fabric for her–ahem, our–examination. Wouldn’t this make a lovely dress for school? I’ve grown taller this summer…
I said we’ll consult with Mom about this.
Alex didn’t move from the counter. I also need a new basket to hold my school supplies, she said. What’s wrong with the old one? I ask.
Bigger paper and notebooks.
Bet I could make them fit, I say. Nonetheless, we purchased the basket. I still think the old one is perfectly adequate.
Next, a container for pencils, ink, and other supplies. We passed on the large box presented to us. Why couldn’t there be a case just for pencils? In any case, it definitely wouldn’t fit in the basket.
That’s about all the damage we could do there, so after settling our account we headed across the street to Tarpley’s, where my wife loves to shop for dishes and other items for the home. They must have some items on Alex’s list, I thought.
Alas, not what we needed. Alex proposed buying some flavored candies so the shopkeeper wouldn’t feel bad. It seemed like a good time to talk about the difference between wants and needs. We left empty-handed.
On the next block we spied the William Pitt Store, with a wealth of goods for young people. I’m not sure why a shopkeeper would depend so much on such a frivolous trade, but it proved useful today.
We selected a few quills and some ink so Alex could work on her handwriting, and a large slate for her to practice her ciphering.
I was starting to wonder if we had purchased a large enough basket. Alex wondered if she should have picked a different color. Maybe I would like the tan one more than this sandy color, she said. Such are the decisions we face in today’s complicated world.
Can I play the fife this year? she asked, holding one up.
No, I explained, that’s really not a ladylike instrument. You need to stick with the keyboard, and practice more, at that. Here’s a fine book that will help you learn to play the songs played in London. Now let’s wrap this up and get home for supper.
My young shopper wasn’t finished yet, though. She spotted a display of inkwells in the window of the Post Office. You said I could get one! she reminded me. I sighed, and we went in.
So are we done? I asked as Alex finally selected a stack of writing paper and the “best” inkwell, which would soon enough probably be unrecognizable.
I need some commonplace books, she said, examining a lovely journal. Where is the gilding? I thought after seeing what the shop charged for them.
Don’t you have anything… cheaper? Sold out, I was told.
Apparently we were among the last to do our back-to-school shopping. Again. Getting the told-you-so look, I agreed to purchase one. Two, and she would have known the hold she has over me.
I told her it was only because I trusted her to take care of nice things.
Right? Right? I repeated, nodding, waiting for her to join me.
After paying for this final purchase, which now included a pamphlet of Poor Richard’s wisdom, Alex posed with her haul of goods. Do you suppose I’m going to hire an artist to capture the moment? Time to go!
We headed back down Duke of Gloucester Street toward home. If we passed on the street and I seemed at all grumpy, the fault was my own. I was swimming in a sea of conflicted feelings as I helped my daughter take the steps that will too-soon lead to her making her own way in the world.
My thanks to Mr. Chowning (Alex Morse) and his daughter, Alex (one of our fine young Junior Interpreters), for taking the time to go back to school shopping with me! And to Mark Twain, from whose A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court I adapted the opening lines. Seemed appropriate.