The kind you’re born with, the kind you choose, the kind that teach Catholic school
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Daddy left me his old, red-and-black-checked hunting shirt. The wool is thin now, the red almost orange. I remember how he would stand with me at dusk in the doorway of the woodshed, his arm around my shoulders, watching the sun set. “There’s our woods, girl,” he would say. He seemed so big then. I’m always surprised to put on that shirt now and see how well it fits me.
I used to have his maroon wool bathrobe, too, but I must have given it away to a lover years ago. I can still see Daddy wearing that bathrobe outside in the moonlight, the pockets filled with the rocks he’d hurl (uselessly) at the marauding horses eating his precious apple trees; he’d grafted several kinds of apples onto each tree. About seven at the time, I felt sorry for the horses, and wanted to leap onto their backs and ride off into the night; but later I came to see why Daddy wanted to protect the trees.
He died thirty-five years ago, but sometimes I dream he is alive and waiting for me at a hotel, restaurant, or hospital. I’m overjoyed: I can’t believe I will see him again! I’m guilty: What must he have thought of my silence all these years? I’m devastated: Where was he when I needed him so much? I call, but they say he has moved on and left no forwarding address.
When I’m awake and want to see him, I take out the old newspaper clipping with the picture of him smiling proudly, about to embark on his cruise around the Great Lakes, a prize he won in a bridge tournament, as good as a world tour for a poor boy like him.
In my memories, I see Daddy in an oxygen tent in a Minneapolis hospital, the translucent membrane pulsing. I see him bent reverently over the radio, as if taking in the sounds of Mozart directly through the pores of his skin. I see him kneeling on the ground, hands to bloody face, eyeglasses smashed by a baseball. I see him wiring the attic, how-to-book in hand, his back covered with hornets — which, he maintained, would not sting him if he was not afraid.
When I was very small, he’d ride me to bed on his shoulders, singing “The Erie Canal” and ducking at the doorways with a “low bridge, everybody down.” Then he’d sing me to sleep with one of his old favorites: an Italian workers’ song that went, “Down with the pope and the dirty bourgeoisie.”
Today, I put on his old shirt, go into the forest with an ax, and peer into the darkness. I think I can still see his smile, growing faint behind the trees. I want to stay close to that smile. I start to chop.
New Paltz, New York
“Mom, shouldn’t you get yourself a new nightgown?” my eight-year-old daughter, Sarah, asks as I put on my well-worn flannel one. Examining the holes in the skirt and sleeve as if noticing them for the first time, I remember buying it nine years ago for my mother. She was recovering from a relapse of a condition that had required brain surgery. When she died five months later, I received all her clothes, most of which I gave to friends or the Salvation Army. But the gown I kept. I felt close to my mother when wearing it.
Sarah was born two months after my mother’s death, and many nights my hand-me-down nightgown was soaked with breast milk. I remember thinking my mother’s soul had been reborn in my daughter, who has her grandmother’s smile and stubbornness.
There are times I look in the mirror and see my mother’s face staring back at me: her dark hair, her porous skin, her deep, feeling eyes. Aren’t we all hand-me-downs of a sort?
New Britain, Connecticut
I am the middle child in my family — not the first daughter, nor the hoped-for son (who would come a year later), but the inconveniently timed second girl. I arrived the same year as the first house and the new car, to struggling parents not far from being kids themselves. My mother didn’t want to be pregnant again so soon, with one screaming infant already at home. Although she didn’t say so when I was growing up, my mother never fails to tell me now — especially on my birthday — that I was not welcomed.
Being the second daughter meant that I’d live in the same pink room as my sister, play with the same pink toys, and wear the same pink clothes. Each year I’d have my school picture taken in the same dress that my sister had worn a year or two before. For special occasions, like Christmas or family portraits, Mom would sew us both matching outfits. My sister would outgrow hers in no time, but I’d wear that dress for years to come; when mine finally got too short, her larger one still awaited me.
Around the time I stopped growing into my sister’s clothes, our school lifted its ban on girls’ wearing pants, and Mom started taking me to the boys’ department and buying me clothes with my younger brother in mind. Nothing I wore was ever really mine.
The summer I was eight, we spent a day running around town looking for a bathing suit for my sister. While she and Mom went back and forth between rack and dressing room, unable to agree upon anything, I found the most beautiful bathing suit I’d ever seen: navy blue with white anchors printed all over it, the sides cut out so that it came to a point at the belly. I dreamed of wearing it. When my mother and sister returned empty-handed, I showed them the blue bathing suit, saying I wished we could find one in my sister’s size so that I could wear it one day. This broke my mother’s heart.
The following Saturday, I returned home from playing to find a package wrapped in tissue paper at the foot of my bed. It was the blue, anchor-pattern bathing suit — in my size.
Charlotte, North Carolina
“What I really hated,” my cousin says as she leans across the crowded brunch table, “was when we had to come to your house and take your old clothes.” She’s forty-seven; I’m fifty-one. We’re talking about something that happened at least thirty-five years ago, yet both of us are on the edge of crying, still feeling what we felt back then.
A dress manufacturer, my father was the successful businessman in his family. My mother, my sister, and I always wore the latest styles, whether we liked them or not. Our fashionable wardrobes were a sign of his success, and we discarded them for new ones each season.
My uncle, on the other hand, was a high-school music teacher. This was before teachers were unionized, and he and his family were barely middle-class. Their situation was even more precarious than most because my uncle had once been in the Communist Party. His fears of being blacklisted fed his increasing bouts of manic depression. My cousins grew up in a world of music, art, politics — and instability.
Twice a year they would come from the housing project where they lived to our suburban house (“with those big white pillars,” my cousin remembers) to pick up our discarded clothing. To make sure we realized how fortunate we were, my parents insisted that my sister and I be there to “help” our cousins. We sat and watched while they stripped down to their underwear and combed through the piles of scarcely worn clothes, trying them on and packing the ones that fit into grocery bags. We tried to forget those visits as soon as they were over.
Over the years, I’ve happily shared clothes, especially my children’s, with many people. But when my cousins came to our house, it wasn’t really about sharing; it was about power and success. It was about our wealth and their neediness. One winter night, following such a visit, my uncle tried to kill himself. After that, he never taught again.
Willseyville, New York
In 1956, the year I turned nine, my father agreed to coach a baseball team for boys my age. Although I don’t recall being asked, I was suddenly a right-fielder. I was the smallest kid on the team, and the only thing I lacked more than size was athletic prowess. To make matters worse, the baseball glove my father gave me was one he had used as a kid in the thirties. (I doubt it had been new even then. ) Flat, hardened by age, and much too big for my hand, it had no hint of a pocket in which to catch a ball. I remember feeling sorry for him that he couldn’t afford to give me a new one.
Although my father taught me how to treat the glove with saddle soap to make it soft and pliable, without a pocket it was of no use. He assured me that fly balls to right field would be few and far between.
The three-month season seemed endless. Whether due to an unusually high percentage of left-handed batters, or just to bad luck, a series of burly nine-year-olds drilled fly ball after fly ball in my direction. The balls usually sailed by me, or — on a good day — ricocheted off my glove. By season’s end, I hadn’t caught a single one. In later years, as my father continued to coach, I became the scorekeeper.
Looking back, I could easily feel bitter about that hand-me-down glove — particularly since my younger, more athletic brothers received wonderful new ones when they joined teams. But I know that, in 1956, my struggling family had other, better uses for a limited income. More importantly, my father never once made me feel I had failed, and my mother sat in the stands at every game, cheering me on. The worse I did, the more encouraging they were.
That glove, like my father, is a memory now. I regret its loss, and know it would make me laugh if it turned up one day in an old trunk. It would also make me cry.
David A. Elliott
New York, New York
One day in kindergarten, we sat in a circle on the floor playing Duck, Duck, Goose. In that game, you walk around the circle tapping each player’s head and saying, “Duck, duck, duck, duck . . . ,” until finally you tap someone and say, “Goose,” and that person chases you around the circle. My best friend, Janet, was the “goose” quite a bit that day, and ran around and around. She ran in circles so much that when she finally sat down, she threw up all over the front of her purple-and-green-plaid Scottish jumper. I remember the teacher sprinkled orange sawdust over the wet spot on the floor.
I was embarrassed for Janet, and walked home with her, even though she still smelled. After all, we were best friends and lived on the same block. She lived in a big house, was tall and blond, and had a lot of wonderful toys and clothes. I envied her.
The following fall, Janet’s mother brought over the annual bag of “good clothes” that she was sure would fit me, as I was much smaller than Janet. I tore open the bag, pulling out the limp, wrinkled clothing. And there it was: the throw-up dress. I held it up, and my mother said, “Oh, how nice. What do you say, Anna?”
Oak Park, Illinois
Leaving home for college wasn’t easy for me. My mother had suffered from multiple sclerosis since I was seven, and though her illness had forced me to be fiercely independent, it had also tied me to her by an invisible cord that jerked my heart whenever I began to head out on my own.
On my first weekend off from school, I went to New York City. I woke at dawn and took the early commuter train along the Hudson River, loving every small detail of the trip: the squeak of the cracked red plastic seat; the smeared window that turned the view into a blurred, dreamy movie; the conductor who let his hand linger a little when he took my ticket. Once in the city, I decided to take my time getting from the train station to the apartment of a family friend, where I’d be spending the weekend. Walking through Central Park seemed the perfect round-about route.
It was a cold, gray November afternoon. My cheeks were glowing pink and my corkscrew hair was flying in the blustery wind. Hungry for the crisp air, I took deep breaths that pushed my chest against the lining of my jacket. A guy cruised by on roller skates. A couple in matching ski parkas cuddled on a bench, looking content. I’m happy, too, I thought. But then I was immediately yanked back by that familiar pull at my heart. I felt awful — my throat tight, my head full of cobwebs. I stopped walking, closed my eyes, and tried to calm down.
When I opened my eyes again, I saw something bright purple flapping in the bare gray branches of a tree. Drawn by the shimmery color to the base of the tree, I leapt and came down holding a nearly new bathing suit that was just my size. I took it as a sign that it was OK for me to be happy.
Early in the morning my mother would stand outside in two feet of snow, wearing only her thin nightie, while I readied myself for school. Even at age five I thought this was peculiar. “Hot flashes, honey,” she explained. “I was just trying to cool off.”
My father had a drinking problem and he and my mother argued viciously and frequently, mostly about his drinking. During the most stressful periods, when I was about six or seven, my mother would tell me, “I’ll kill myself! I’m going to kill myself!” She repeated this threat often over the years, whenever she seemed sad or upset, though she hasn’t said it for quite some time.
I, too, have suffered the brutal pain of depression, and have wanted to kill myself (although I’ve never told my children, knowing all too well how much it would hurt and scare them). I’ve even planned how to do it, and sometimes just having a plan was a relief.
About a month ago, I awoke severely depressed for no apparent reason. Crying uncontrollably, I crouched in a corner of my bedroom closet and stayed there. I couldn’t get it together, couldn’t even concentrate enough to orchestrate my carefully laid suicide plans. Luckily, a friend called and, hearing my uncontrollable sobs, instructed me to call a doctor — now.
I’d been to doctors before. They’d prescribed hormone suppositories or mild tranquilizers. But this time I went to a psychiatrist. She told me that I had all the symptoms of manic depression. Until then I hadn’t known that what I’d felt for most of my thirty-four years was not normal. More importantly, I learned there is strong clinical evidence that manic depression is hereditary. Now it was all making sense.
The other day, I asked my mother (who is having difficulty accepting the possibility that there is something wrong with me, especially something inherited) whether our family had any history of mental illness. After a moment she replied, “No. But my grandfather was committed to an insane asylum after he murdered my grandmother. He used to write me beautiful letters.”
In the seventies, my parents were true believers in the back-to-the-land movement. They abandoned their lives in Milwaukee and became farmers in rural Wisconsin, where, with spiritual dedication, they chopped wood, grew their own vegetables, milked goats, baked bread, and raised pigs, chickens, and geese.
TV was strictly banned (though I illicitly caught a few programs at friends’ houses), so I entertained myself by digging in the sand pit, fashioning sunbaked cookies out of mud, and taking daring leaps from the swing in the cottonwood tree. And I paid daily visits to the animals in the barn. Sometimes I’d spend hours with my shepherd’s staff guarding a mother hen and her brood of baby chicks from the attacks of roosters. Every once in a while, I’d kidnap a chick myself and stuff it into the driver’s seat of my toy truck or force it to run a homemade maze of bricks and wood planks. I loved the animals desperately, but I played hard, and didn’t always consider how my games might affect them.
One day, I took an armful of my old clothes out to the barnyard. One of my favorite pastimes was dressing up my dolls, but today I had a bigger game of dress-up in mind. A few months before, our Nubian goat Signa had given birth to two babies, whom I had named Pebbles and Bam Bam. Pebbles and Bam Bam had grown to trust me, and now let me slip polka-dot skirts, tank tops, and socks on them. They were a little freaked out, however, by all the restricting material, and as I stepped back to admire their colorful ensembles, they ran to their mother for sanctuary. Signa, who didn’t recognize her babies in their pink, blue, and green costumes, turned tail and ran away. Poor Pebbles and Bam Bam chased after her, bleating and slipping in their socks. But Signa kept running in circles around the barnyard, and they couldn’t catch her. Witnessing the chaos I had unleashed, I cried, every bit as scared as the baby goats.
When I was a child I never got new clothes. I had to wait until my sister outgrew hers, and I hated her feminine, flowery outfits. The only way I got new clothes was to wet myself on the way to the store. Then my mother had to buy me something new.
Now I’m a compulsive shopper.
Bella Vista, Arkansas
My Italian immigrant grandmother was a seamstress and loved to sew clothing for her grandchildren. She always said stores in America were outrageously overpriced, and that she could make a thirty-dollar dress herself for five dollars. My older sister had many of our grandmother’s handmade clothes and, after outgrowing them, passed them on to me. Between my grandmother’s thriftiness and my sister’s hand-me-downs, I somehow got the message that if it was new, shiny, and cost money, it wasn’t for me.
Now, thirty years later, I still feel guilty about buying clothes. I only feel good if I go to a thrift shop and get a deal. I wonder what it would be like to buy something new, something no one else ever owned, and feel OK about it.
Los Angeles, California
My mother-in-law just called. When I answered the phone she said, “Hi, Diana!” in a cheerful voice. Then she apologized: “Oh, I’m sorry. I was just looking at her name.”
Diana was my husband’s first wife.
My mother-in-law continued, “I was just sitting here making out my Christmas cards, and saw that Diana’s new address would be effective January 1. I wanted to let you know.”
Shit, I thought. She’s sending her a Christmas card.
After I hung up, I sat motionless for a long time, feeling new pain in old wounds.
Later, while cleaning, I came across a book a friend had dropped off for me while I was sick. I had been too ill to read it then, and felt guilty for not having opened it before now. Inside, I found a note. Apparently, my friend had lent the book to another friend first. The note began: “Dear Sharon . . .”
My name is Linda.
L. C. F. Shaw
A man walks through the market wearing a T-shirt that reads: “Don’t mess with me — I’ve got PMS.” Another man rests in the shade beneath a satin jacket bearing the name of a cheerleading squad from the Midwest.
Welcome to Malawi, the “warm heart of Africa,” final destination for Europe and North America’s discards. The markets are filled with used clothing that has made its way here via Goodwill and other relief organizations. Bales of clothes are broken open and arranged in piles on tarps — men’s trousers here, dresses there, lingerie a bit further down. A little adventurous digging can turn up just about anything, from Ann Taylor silk blouses to what look like whalebone corsets. I’ve even seen down comforters and wool scarves — not very useful items in this tropical climate.
It’s not just clothing that ends up here. The few libraries are stocked with donated books; as a result, there are more books about English history than African history. Much of the equipment in government offices was first used in offices in Japan or North America. Surplus rice arrives from Japan, surplus corn from the U.S. Even some of the wildlife isn’t native; South Africa has donated two black rhinos to help replace the herds that were poached to extinction several years ago. This is a nation of hand-me-downs.
It’s a late summer afternoon, and my mother, my sister, and I are standing on the lawn outside our big white farmhouse. The grass is prickly under my bare feet. Calves graze under the apple trees in the orchard, and roosters crow from the chicken coop.
My mom has her Brownie camera out and is taking pictures of Judy, my sister, who’s all dressed up in her pink satin ballerina outfit for her dance recital. She has on pink tights, pink pointe shoes, and a pink hat made to look like a flower. Her face shines like an apple beneath her curly blond hair and blue eyes.
I’m wearing jeans and a plaid shirt, and have cap guns in holsters at my hips. Calamine lotion is dotted on mosquito bites all over my face. My braids are a mess, and I’m dirty from playing in the sandbox. I want to be like Judy in her pretty pink satin, holding ballet poses for Mommy in front of the camera.
Then, to my surprise, Mommy lets me try on Judy’s pink outfit so she can take pictures of me, too! I pull off my clothes and slip on that dainty satin dress two years too big for me. The little satin underpants hang down halfway to my skinny, scratched knees. The straps fall to reveal my sleeveless undershirt. The hat sits awkwardly atop my dark braids. But I am proud of myself as Mommy aims the Brownie at me. I attempt one of Judy’s ballet positions, looking more ready to swing a baseball bat than execute an arabesque.
I’m fifty now. My sister wears Armani dresses, Ferragamo shoes, and Chanel suits. I buy my clothes at Goodwill. My sister is a self-made millionaire, and I am a crazy artist. I still have the photos our mom took that day: Judy, all pink and blond and blue-eyed and perfect; and me, all wild and dark, trying to be like my big sister.
Saint Augustine, Florida
Sixteen years ago, when I became pregnant with my son, I inherited a fine collection of maternity clothes from friends who had all recently had babies. There were slacks, shirts, dresses, skirts, shorts, and even a bathing suit — all for various stages of pregnancy. The clothes were well-worn and very comfortable: no binding elastic or crotches that rode up, no shorts short enough to show bulging veins, and no tight-fitting dresses.
When I was eight months pregnant, my mother died suddenly from a stroke. I hadn’t had much contact with her for several months before her death, so my grief was compounded by guilt. I felt compelled to buy a new dress for the funeral — something special. It was a horrible experience. I felt like an elephant, trying on dress after dress in front of unforgiving mirrors, with spotlights all around highlighting my swollen state. I finally settled on a teal dress that snugly covered my expanding body. I also bought a pair of pantyhose that promised to fit women in the final stages of pregnancy.
The morning of the funeral I tried to pull on the pantyhose, but the crotch came only to my knees. Instead of abandoning the hose and going without, I wore it as well as I could, with the waistband rolled up under my belly. The dress that had been snug a few days before now barely allowed me to move. Sitting at the funeral in a state of extreme discomfort, wracked with grief, clothes strangling every part of me, I longed for two things: my mother and my hand-me-downs.