My mother should have been an economist, not simply a stay-at-home housewife in suburban Alabama. She could stretch a dollar farther than that mysterious stuff in an egg of Silly Putty. Of course, being thrifty can be a good trait, but when you are a kid, and your mom is making you homemade clothes and forcing you to carry soggy, brown-bag lunches to school because a hot lunch “costs an arm and a leg” frugality becomes the bane of your existence.
My mom was born the year before the great crash, the depression where men were “diving from the 14th floor” as Steely Dan so aptly puts it. Hers was a life of severe, debilitating poverty. Raised in a large, southern family, my mother’s world was one of cotton farms, shared clothes and sleeping quarters, work and very few demonstrations of affection from her austere parents. Her sense of worth was tightly bound to the material world and she never felt safe from the idea of poverty, even when married to an affluent attorney and living in a 5 bedroom, 3 ½ bath house. To this day, she hoards goods, squirrels things away, like food, clothes, books, which I guess provides her some sense of security. Protesting that she “has nothing to wear”, an all-too-common lament she will tell to anyone who will listen, her closet is home to dozens of articles of clothing still sporting their department store tags. “Depression-era Mentality” the text books call it; someone who has lived through great depravation will never feel there is enough.
My mother sewed most of my clothes when I was young. At one point in time, this was a wonderful thing as she was quite a skilled seamstress and also did an assortment of needlework techniques: crewel, cross-stitch, smocking, embroidery. The pictures of my sisters and me, especially at holidays, usually show us all dressed in clothing my mother had sewn. Our Christmas and Easter cards are classics. My mother would select our outfits, curl our hair the night before the shoot using Dippity Doo and rags, and then stage us somewhere in the house or on a porch for my father to capture in a Polaroid image. These pictures would be copied and mounted on stiff, photo-ready cards and sent to aunts, cousins and business associates of my father, evidence of our family’s normalcy and my mother’s success as a homemaker.
Homemade clothes are fine and look especially cute on babies or small children; however, by the time a child reaches 9 or 10, wearing homemade clothes to school is like signing your own death warrant. “Kick me now!” “Call me a loser!” My mother understood none of this and insisted that my sisters and I wear the dresses and pants she sewed for us, buying us very little at department stores despite our pleas to wear regular clothes, to look like everyone else (the mantra of almost all pre- and pubescent kids). Until we had part-time jobs after school and could buy our own clothes, we were stuck.
At the end of the 5th grade my family made a big move, something my mother had wanted for years. She craved a bigger house, a better address. My father finally indulged her, and we moved miles away from our little wooden house with a bridge into a Georgian brick with a 2 car garage and a bedroom for everyone. With this move, I was forced to leave the only school I had ever known, all my friends, and take the terrifying leap into a new system. The first day of sixth grade is burned into my memory and marks a turning point in my young life. I went from being a pudgy, loud, fairly confident kid with lots of friends to a social misfit simply by my parent’s change of zip code. The new school was nothing like my old, and I found myself alone and awkward and looking like a child wearing the dress my mother had picked out for my first day.
The night before the start of school, I had agonized in my new walk-in closet over what to wear. I sifted through hangers of shirts and dresses, tried on pants and discarded them. I was nervous but did not know how to express what I was feeling. My mom finally chose the outfit I would wear for the first day of sixth grade. It was the famous “duck dress” one of mom’s personal favorites. She had made it a couple of years earlier and somehow, miraculously, it still fit my short and stocky frame. The only exception was I had grown taller, so mom, being the ever thrifty and inventive seamstress, had added a 2-inch strip of matching fabric to the hem to extend the length of the dress. The duck-dress was blue and white gingham-checked, sleeveless, with a scooped neck and small white buttons on each shoulder. That sounds fairly innocuous now but I have yet to add the appliqué.
My mother had decided to enhance this dress with a trio of ducks that marched happily across its border. There was a large, white mother duck slapping her big webbed feet along the hem (the original hem) and trailing behind her were two baby ducks. I cannot recall if they were wearing bonnets or not but each had a ribbon tied around its happy neck. Beneath the duck family, there was now a 2 inch strip of red gingham-checked material to lengthen and extend the life of the dress, a design my mother said “looked perfectly natural.” To complete my outfit for this first day, I wore knee high white socks and my special white, paten-leather Sunday school shoes. Feeling sick to my stomach, I entered the sixth grade classroom and tried to blend in but luck was not on my side.
The teacher placed me at a desk in the front row, near hers, and decided to make me stand as she introduced me to the rest of the class. I could feel my chubby face grow hot and flushed; I stood and felt 20 pairs of eyes on me….and my ducks and white shoes and the obscene amount of skin I was showing as the extended hemline was in need of another swath of material. Embarrassment enveloped me and I sunk back in my chair quickly, hoping to become invisible. I was a stranger in a strange land, a child being thrown into a nest of hip, cool, department-store clothed kids who all seemed so much more self-assured than I. At this school I was a nobody…and a nobody who dressed like a toddler instead of wearing the “new” uniform of the sixth grade: Levi jeans and corduroys, Adidas tennis shoes and button-down Oxford cloth shirts or Lacoste polo shirts.
Secretively, from my horrible perch on the front row, I looked around at all the people I would spend the next several years with in class. Almost all of them had been friends since first grade, tight little cliques of boys and girls; almost everyone was wearing “cool” clothes, clothes made by a company and bought at a store. I looked at them; I looked down at myself…I tried to pull the duck dress down a little further to cover my shame but the cotton was stiff and unyielding. At home that night I cried and swore “I’d never go back…I had nothing to wear!” and hot tears burned my round cheeks just as I wanted to burn the insipid gingham duck dress. In my closet I searched desperately for something to wear the next day, even begging one of my older sisters to help me find something that could pass as cool. Nothing. I was alone in a vast array of my mom’s handiwork, sinking every deeper into despair and wondering how I would make it through another day at school.
But I did survive and somehow even finessed my father a few weeks later into taking me to the mall to buy some pants at the County Seat store. I was dying for some Levis, some corduroys like everyone else was wearing. Slowly I was “outgrowing” all the articles in my closet, ever hopeful that I might be able to replace homemade goods with mass manufactured ones. I could live with the faux Polo shirts (Mom even sewed on imitation alligators in an attempt to brand us) if I could just get my legs inside some real Levi pants and maybe, if I was really lucky, a pair of red Adidas tennis shoes: this was the uniform of sixth grade. Dad was usually a softer sale than Mom and didn’t seem to mind buying me two pair of Levi cords. He waited patiently as I tried on an assortment to locate the ones that fit perfectly, 28 X 30. But he was not going to spring for the shoes. They were pricey and my current tennis shoes were almost new.
I wore those Levis almost every day, desperate to fit in with the popular crowd, desperate to make my classmates forget my first day at their school. And my plan was working because I was beginning to make friends and feel somewhat less freakish. I was still hungry for more brand-name clothes and still craving my Adidas shoes but I was patient. I had a plan. In a secret effort to force the issue, I began a mass attack to wear out the soles of my no-name shoes and volley in earnest for the Adidas. I knew that if I could convince my father that the new shoes were practical and necessary, then I might have a shot.
For days, I would ride my bike up the slight hill in front of our home and then slowly roll down it, dragging the soles of my hated tennis shoes. I loved the sound they made as rubber hit pavement, the feeling that I was peeling off layer after layer of the shoes keeping me from the object of my affection. After a few days of sole skidding, the rubber began to wear thin and my socks were almost visible. I was quite proud of myself and presented my exhausted shoes to my mom, stating that evidently it was time for a new pair and these off-brand ones were cheap and poorly made. I abandoned the sneakers and waited for the right time to proposition my father about a trip to the mall.
What is it they say about the best laid plans? A week after the bicycle trick, my mother came home with a plastic bag and presented it to me. Inside were my old sneakers, polished up and resoled. “Only a few dollars at the shoe hospital,” she said, and I saw my chance for the red Adidas disappear. Reluctantly, I took the shoes and wore them the rest of the year, trying my best to keep the hem of my pants extra long to cover their ordinariness.
I know. I should be grateful that I had a mother who could sew, who would take the time to create clothing for me. I should be thankful that I had clean clothes to wear, a decent school to attend, parents who provided for me in the best way they knew how. And I am…I was…However, at certain points in life, like when a girl is eleven years old and facing a new environment, a little conformity is not a bad thing. There are times when saying yes to a trend, a fad, an overly priced article of clothing or toy is alright and maybe even good. To always follow the crowd, to always be swayed by peer pressure, is not something to encourage in a child. But sometimes to give in and allow that child to be part of the group is an important step. No one can know how much easier my life became at school simply by putting on a pair of Levis…and if my life was easier, then I was happier. If I felt I fit in at school, I would make better grades, be more social, get involved and feel more confident. It’s a fine balance, when to indulge and when to be strict. As an adult, I now appreciate my mother’s efforts at economizing and that she felt she was caring for us via the homemade clothes. For her, saving money was a religion, a ritualistic action that somehow made her a more successful wife and parent. In retrospect, however, the duck dress should have been retired before mom added the extra two inches of cloth; we should have packed it up and sent it to some poor, younger cousin or dropped it in the Goodwill clothing box. And truly, who in this world retreads cheap tennis shoes? Only my Mom, thank god.