As a kid, a lot of my clothes were hand-me-downs.
There was a family at church with two girls a couple of years older than my sister and me, so every year or so a giant garbage bag filled with slightly-outdated outfits would arrive in our home.
If our clothes were new, they were usually from a place like Walmart or Target (if you’re old enough, you’ll remember when Target was not a cool place to shop). This should not have been a source of shame for me, and it wasn’t until we moved to one of the cheapest places to live in the richest part of town.
In the 5th grade, most of my outfits consisted of leggings and long, baggy t-shirts over my brand-new (Target-bought) bra. I thought I looked pretty cool, usually, but would feel pangs of jealousy and inadequacy when I’d walk through the mall and see the outfits on display in the department stores. They were beautiful and hip and not in our single mother’s budget, so impossibly out of reach that I knew not to ask for them.
One morning that year my mom came home from her night shift at the hospital to find me crying because I “didn’t have anything to wear”. I did, but everything seemed too ugly, too old, too out of style. After the divorce, we’d moved to an apartment that would put my sister and me in the best school district in the city, and many of my classmates lived in what I considered to be, practically, mansions. It was in Waco’s main suburb, Hewitt, where the population was almost entirely white and the median income was at least twenty thousand dollars more than the rest of the city.
I felt that difference keenly.
Many of the girls prided themselves on never repeating the same outfit during the entire school year. Meanwhile, I’d wear the same ensemble on repeat every week. I had a closet full of clothes, but they were all hopelessly unfashionable or “not my style”, and there was no way I was wearing them to school.
When you’re a girl on the precipice of puberty in a school where everyone is richer than you, these things matter.
My mom felt terrible, and rocked and hugged me until I calmed down. She loved me so much, and I miss her so much, and now that she’s dead, I often imagine myself being rocked and held by her while she threaded her index and middle fingers through my hair until I was calm like she did when I was a kid.
I have a child myself now, and I know exactly the feeling of heartbreak that comes with seeing your daughter crying from real hurt or shame.
Thinking back on that day now makes me feel horribly guilty, but it’s simply the nature of children to not realize the emotional effect we have on the people that raise us and love us, the way their hearts bleed when their children’s are bumped or pinched even slightly.
Mom didn’t take me to school, but instead took me to Walmart (or was it K-Mart?) and bought me some new jeans, and maybe a couple of shirts — I don’t remember the details of the purchases now. What I do remember is that money was tight, and there was always a quick, tight inhale of breath during the last few days before payday came.
Before the divorce, she’d gone back to school to become a respiratory therapist so that she could support us, and she was doing a damned good job of it. She knew that “cool” clothes were not that important in the grand scheme of things. She also knew that they were important to me, and did her best to make sure I had what, at the time, I felt I needed.
Later, she married my step-dad, Richard. Several years went by in which we were solidly middle-class (though the sudden closing of the hospital where they both worked and my mother’s snowballing illnesses would soon put a painful stop to it, I’m sad to report).
But before their simultaneous job loss, we suddenly did things like go out to restaurants regularly, and Richard paid for my prom dress, which I was so proud to wear. Suddenly if there was a school t-shirt to be bought, there was money for it. I’m embarrassed to say what a difference it made in feeling that I belonged.
My little sister, who will forever be cooler than I, didn’t seem to care about clothes at all, and I often wonder where that difference between us came from since we’re so much alike in other ways. She’d gleefully wear a hat with a feather in it to the grocery store, and impatiently tap her foot as she waited for me to change outfits for the third time before leaving the house. I longed (and long) for her blasé attitude towards clothes.
As an adult, I have complete control over my wardrobe. I tend to be a boring but intentional dresser, wearing jeans with fitted t-shirts or blouses and sandals when it’s warm, and jeans with long-sleeved solid-colored t-shirts and sweaters with boots when it’s cold. Like everyone, I have many more clothes than I wear regularly. Now, I mostly wear the same clothes on repeat, almost always in demure colors, and I like the way I look.
I no longer spend my days with hundreds of people that are obviously richer than me, which surely makes a difference. And when I see people in the kinds of clothes I was embarrassed to wear as a kid, I make a point of paying special attention to the quality of their character, something I was always afraid no one would do for me.
Now that I have a daughter of my own, my own trauma when it comes to clothes shines through every time I open her closet. Does she have enough clothes? Are they stylish? Does she like them? My level of obsession about her clothes is that of a Depression-era grandmother saving every piece of moldy bread for later, “just in case.”
She’s five, and like her aunt before her, really does not care. Her (hopefully minor) traumas will be ones that have yet to occur to me, but, well…at least she’ll be well-dressed as she endures them.
Two of my mom’s favorite shirts — the ones she wore over and over for decades — hang in my closet. They’re nice to have, but I’d rather have her and that great, sweet love that drove her to take me shopping after an exhausting all-night shift.