Kathleen Groll Connolly



Kathleen Groll Connolly

I was wondering aloud last night about whether or not to darn a pair of socks. Socks are not frequent topic of my conversations, but the sock story I was telling came from a recent incident that bridged three periods in my life. My listeners were a circle of 20-something women and I wouldn’t have noticed their ages except for a question that surfaced.

“Can I ask something stupid?” one of them said. “What is sock-darning?”

Immediately, another 20-something chimed in with agreement and relief, saying, “I’m glad someone asked.”

“It means to mend a sock,” I replied.

“You mean you can fix a sock?” a young woman asked.

“I didn’t know that,” said another.

The reason I was even contemplating the repair of socks was, in fact, because I was struggling with the “stupid question” of whether or not it was worth my time. As a child in the 1950s, I learned sock-darning from my grandmother liked I learned the articles of faith at Catholic school. In my family, you always tried to extend the lives of socks. But it is a skill that I have increasingly neglected as my adult responsibilities multiplied over the years and the cost of new pairs seemed negligible.

The socks under discussion weren’t just any socks. They had come to mind recently, partly because they were favorites and partly because I had just learned that DiCarlo’s, the store where I purchased them for $3.95 ten years ago, had closed after 134 years in business. It was the newspaper picture of the shopkeeper, Vince, that caught my eye and made me remember the day back in 1997, when my son and I went in search of his first Cub Scout uniform—a bright orange T-shirt and hat for the Tiger Cubs. The scoutmaster told us we needed to visit an establishment called DiCarlo’s, because it was the only place for miles around that carried the regulation merchandise. It was a simple assignment, but as the day unfolded it took on a different look and caused me to fill two pages in my journal.

DiCarlo’s stood on a main street lined with newly planted trees and quaint lamp posts and a whole host of ornate storefront facades that looked like they were dressed up for a tea party. Each shop had the old-fashioned shadowbox-type of window display. Collectively, their demeanor was demure, even dainty compared to the blaring windows at more flatly contemporary, modern-day chain stores.

Passing at ten miles per hour on my search for a parking space, DiCarlo’s façade stood out as one of the finest. Inscribed over the entrance were the words “Established in 1873.” After we finally parked, I took my seven-year-old son’s hand, despite his attempt at resistance, to cross the busy street. To enter DiCarlo’s was to enter a sedate forest of dark, deeply grained oak shelves filled with neatly folded sweaters. We walked on thick, wide wooden floorboards past classic brands like Woolrich, Wigwam, Fruit of the Loom, and Carhartt—merchandise as solid as the wood beneath our feet. I thought I smelled fallen leaves.

No gaudy signs, no discounts, no blue-light specials here. No shoppers, either. The shopkeeper, a slightly balding man of about 50, was doing paperwork at a table. I grasped that I was the sole prospect for this sole proprietor, and I prepared to defend myself from any attempts by him to sell me the entire store.

He simply looked up, however, and smiled to say “Hello.” The name “Vince” was embroidered on the flap of his neatly pressed blue denim shirt pocket.

“My son Jason here is joining Tiger Scouts. He needs the outfit for Tuesday night,” I said. “He wears a size eight.”

Vince led me to the dark oak display case, where the blue and gold of Scouting showed through the solid glass front, and said, “That may be a problem. I think I just sold the last one in that size. Maybe he could use one in a ten-twelve?” He smiled at Jason and added, “He looks like a growing boy.”

Jason pressed close to my side and tugged at my jacket. He whispered, “Mom, just get it.”

He was in a hurry to get to a friend’s birthday party. I made him try it on.

“It fits, Mom. It fits,” he said, insistent.

I agreed to buy the shirt and hat. Vince turned to ring up the sale. Where was the "hard sell," I wondered.

“Wait a minute,” I said. “I’m going to look around.”

What stopped me was an assortment of sturdy-looking socks. Now I have to admit that I have a “thing” for socks. When I have the right pair on my feet, my whole day goes better. Maybe here, I thought, in this secret cache of the built-to-last, I’d find my old favorites, or even a new favorite.

Vince said, “If you’d like to look, don’t let me rush you.” I wondered if he was a descendant of the founder.

“Okay,” I said. “I’m picky about socks. I’m looking for a certain kind. I can’t remember the brand name, but I’ll know them if I see them.”

“Do you want low cut, ankle height, or calf height?” he asked. The choices continued: cotton, synthetic, wool, or blend? White, gray, or black? Were they for running, walking, or work? Thick soles? Elastic instep? Vince, it seemed, knew socks.

When he pulled out my favorites, I got that little rush of satisfaction that comes from finding something special in an unexpected place. I added one pair to the Scouting items.

“You might want to get two pairs,” he suggested.

They were $3.95 each. The price seemed high, and I was still poised to defend myself from sales pitches, so I said, “No, one pair will do.” He replaced the other five pairs he had laid out for my inspection.

My total merchandise bill came to $21.30.

A half-hour later, after dropping my son at his friend’s birthday party, I found myself passing the grand opening of the Centreville Crossing Premium Outlet Stores. The highly publicized sales had been quite the topic of conversation earlier in the week among the elementary school moms.

Curious, I turned right into the mall and found a parking lot resembling the bumper car concession at the amusement park. Cars at cross angles burned fuel while they waited for parking spots underneath an array of colorful pennants and a giant banner screaming in primary colors: SHOP TIL YOU DROP!

There was a traffic island ahead where two tour buses were dispersing lines of senior women who, I speculated in my journal on that date, September 15, 1997, were heading straight for the ladies’ room before their afternoon of outlet shopping. I noted that several of the women seemed to be in poor health. One wheeled an oxygen tank. Another was on a walker. In my journal, I wrote:

“I wonder if these women shopped at DiCarlo’s when they were girls. Maybe they grew up with Vince’s father.”

A merry jingle played on the loudspeakers, so ironic that I noted it in my journal: Pop Goes the Weasel!

So, when I saw Vince’s picture in the paper last week and read the story of his family’s long history at that location, I felt compelled to go upstairs and search in the mending baskets for that pair of socks. I wanted to find what I wrote that day.

And I wanted to find my grandmother’s beautiful sock-darning ball, an item that had been given to her by her grandmother. It’s a dark-green, egg-shaped wooden ball with an ornate Victorian handle on the narrow end that enables it to be lowered perfectly into toes or heels, spreading the weave of the sock just enough to facilitate the healing stitches that will extend its use and life. But on retrieving it, my inner voices erupted in dispute:

Busy Me: The socks might sit here for a year before I finally get around to mending them. I can’t stand anymore clutter.

Sentimental me: Grandma would have repaired them.

Unsentimental me: Grandma couldn’t afford new socks.

Save-the-Earth Me: Reduce, reuse, and recycle!

Disposable Me: It’s just a couple of dollars.

No-nonsense Me: Just do it.

But it was my inner observer of irony who got the greatest amount of air time: We extend the lives of people and dispose of serviceable socks. We fight for parking spots in garish malls and shutter stores where merchants know their merchandise. We buy bus tickets to buy stuff.

Nonetheless, I still hadn’t darned the socks when I found myself in that circle of young women who were surprised to learn that the lives of well-made socks could be extended, who were mildly amused at my attention to this seemingly minuscule decision.

I gave a short tutorial. “You simply drop the ball into the sock …,” I told them, making motions in the air. They listened politely but when I finished, the story felt oddly incomplete.

At home last night, meditating over a glass of wine, I realized what was missing. I hadn’t told them about Vince. “Let me tell you about a simple retail transaction that I remember like it was a minute ago,” I should have started. “Let me tell you about a warm, quiet shop full of utilitarian quality … about someone who knew his merchandise … about how the parking spot has come to rule your life.”

I could have gone on: “Let me tell you about my last meeting with one of the old ways.”

Unfortunately, I never think of my best lines until a day later. I did, however, pick up the needle and darning ball and settled my private question. The socks felt familiar and substantial in my hands. Grandma’s darning ball, probably as old as DiCarlo’s, was as functional as it had been in 1873. As I stitched, I wished I had listened to Vince. I wished I had bought another pair.


Author’s notes: The names of the retail operations in this article have been changed.
This article was published in The MacGuffin, a literary publication of Schoolcraft College, Livonia, MI, in the Summer 2008 edition.

Author’s notes: The names of the retail operations in this article have been changed.

This article was published in The MacGuffin, a literary publication of Schoolcraft College, Livonia, MI, in the Summer 2008 edition.

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