In the ‘90s, after my son, Sky, died in a motorcycle accident, while I was in the depths of my worse dreaminess, I began to order as many catalogs as I could. At least thirty mail order catalogues came into the house each month and sometimes I’d have to throw a box of them away to allow room for more. During that time, I spent at least one night a week sitting in the breakfast nook leafing through the colorful pages, making Magic Marker checks for the things I wanted, dogearing pages, filling out order blanks with my bankcard numbers (most of which I never mailed) and jotting down important toll-free numbers for when I might want to call.
I had animal-call catalogs, which brought a recording of a dying baby squirrel. Dog-collar catalogs. Catalogs for canvas luggage that would hold up in the Sahara Desert. Catalogs for expeditions to foreign lands with handsome men. Catalogs for every conceivable type of underwear and outerwear; French-laced bras and panties, short and long skirts with collegiate tops, high-fashion dresses, sequin evening gowns, and bathing suits for a tropical vacation to a variety of luxurious port cities in Spain and Mexico. I had rare book catalogs, record catalogs, lawn ornament catalogs from Italy, flower-seed and garden tool catalogs, catalogs for weathervanes, barbecue accessories, exotic animals, and women’s Olympic wear catalogs. I had all the catalogs you could wish for, and if I found out about another one, I’d write or call up and request it.
I came to believe for a while, that satisfying all my purchasing needs from catalogs was the very way of life that suited me and my circumstances. I had become the type of person where catalog-buying was better than going out into the world and wasting time in shopping malls, or flying to California or New York, or even going out to shopping malls.
Lots of people in my neighborhood did the very same thing and believed that was where the best and most unusual merchandise came from. You could spot the UPS truck on my street daily, dropping off hammocks and neatly framed posters and God knows what else—barbecue grills and custom mailboxes and entire gazebos.
Larger than Life
For me, though, there was something other than the mere purchase in all this, in the hours spent going through pages seeking the most durable lettuce spinner and beginner’s tool chest. The joy that came from my obsession stemmed from the irresistible life portrayed in these catalogs. Something about my frame of mind after losing my son made me love the abundance of the purely ordinary and pseudo-exotic (which always turns out to be ordinary when I received it). I loved the idea of merchandise and I loved the ordinary good American faces pictured there, people wearing their wedding gowns with white veils and long white gloves, people wearing their warm plaid pajamas, men in their flannel shirts and lumberjack jackets, children sitting up and reading in their comfortable canopy beds, month after month, season after season.
We all take our solace where we can. And there seemed like a life—though I couldn’t just send to Atlanta, Vermont or Seattle for it, but a life just the same—that was better than my solitude, dreaminess, and silence in a small California bungalow set back in a Phoenix historic neighborhood. An old house where unprovoked death had taken its toll.