"Hand me Downs"
In the Martin household in South Buffalo, New York we used to say that "The first one up was the best dressed." It was a sardonic reference to the fact that amidst twelve children, there was often a communal use of many items of clothing. The child who arose earliest in the morning would have first access to the fresh laundry. And if he/she was swift enough in their ablutions and made off into the day with some degree of celerity, he/she had a pretty free reign over what items they could choose to wear that day.
Of course, like most things in life, the consequences of appropriating property not your own had consequences that invariably followed. "Mom, he/she is wearing my(fill in the blank). "Tell him/her to give it back to me!" The threat of a boxing between the ears, from a less than forgiving older (and bigger) sibling, also had a considerable restraining effect on the practice. The youngest in the line, as the inherent logic implied in William Golding's classic "Lord of the Flies" would dictate, usually had the least amount of choices for selecting the day's apparel.
The only compensating factor to the younger ones was the steadily increasing supply of "hand me downs." As the older siblings grew out of certain items of clothing, they would be passed on down the line to the child who was the next closest in physical proportions to the original wearer. A particularly durable item of clothing might possibly be worn by several of the line of siblings in succession until it became recognized in the neighborhood by other families as having been worn "by the Martin's." We too recognized some of the clothes from the other large families as well. Most of the neighborhood was blue collar, working class. Our clothing was, for the most part, utilitarian in nature.
Surprisingly, several of the Nuns and teachers in our local grade school of St.John the Evangelist,who were usually fairly sensitive in dealing with the elaborate manners and semi fictions of the working class, never realized how unfairly they were treating us. They would make a big production of complimenting classmates on the "fresh white shirt" that they were wearing. They never realized that most of the rest of us didn't even own such a respectable piece of clothing, unless it had been passed on down the line from older siblings. And if we did indeed own such a garment, it was part of our "good clothes" to be reserved for church or special occasions when the top layer of grime was scraped from us and we were rendered temporarily presentable for visits by relatives or to attend religious ceremonies.
I don't know that any of us ever resented this natural system of economical resource allocation among the larger families. Most of us were just plain grateful to have a bed to sleep in and food on a regular basis. However humble our circumstances, we knew that there were other families in the neighborhood who were worse off than we. Some,unfortunately, had to literally struggle for the basic necessities of life. Still, the elaborate fiction of their pride was maintained among all of us. When the only thing that you possess in life in quantity is your dignity, it is something that you rather fiercely hold on to.
As a corollary to the inherent respect that we afforded our acquisition of highly desirable and/or fashionable items of clothing, we treated each item with the proper respect for a commodity that would not often come our way. Such garments were mended, cleaned,and stored away with the intent that they would be used for a considerable period of time. And the replacement of such a valued article of clothing was never a certainty.
Indeed the loss of a valued article of clothing could be calamitous.One year my mother saved religiously, for a lengthy time, to buy me a new winter coat. It was my Christmas present for that year and I was immensely proud of the way it looked and felt. A new coat like this was something that we got infrequently during our childhood. It was a treasured posession that we took special care of.
Unfortunately for me, I innocently wore the coat to a weekly dance at my high school. Some unscrupulous rascal stole the coat from me. I don't think that person ever knew, or could imagine, how much the loss of that coat meant to me.I remember it to this day and can still experience some of the same regret that I felt at the time.
It was the same with our more exotic possessions, like bicycles, ice skates and other sports equipment.Each had value to us and was treated with the proper respect necessary to preserve it for future use. It bred in us a dichotomy of values. On one hand we learned to establish the proper respect for the cost of physical possessions. On the other hand, curiously, the lack of a ready supply of these items not necessary for survival, made us realize that in and of themselves the items were transitory in nature and not of critical importance to us in the greater scheme of things.
It is an often confusing dichotomy that I still struggle with today."Things" have value, but only of a momentary importance. It is ideas that I have been taught to hold onto and fight for above all else. I don't know where exactly I learned this, but I know it is a perspicacity that I feel has served me well in sorting out the relative merits of things and ideas along the way.
Like most creatures in nature, we are the sum and substance of the many environmental influences and genetic predispositions that went into our development. Involuntarily, I still react to the same pressures and concerns that predicated my behavior while I was growing up. And I still take very good care of my clothing, from force of habit so very long ago. I suppose we all carry our childhoods with us no matter what advanced age that we attain, until we get old enough to become children once again.
Joseph Xavier Martin