As a little girl in the 1960s and 70s, I would best describe my life as humble. My favorite television show back then was The Brady Bunch. I can accurately say that our family life was the exact opposite of the Brady family. I lived in a very rural setting for the first 11 years of my life. I could not imagine a big, modern brick home with an upstairs and wall to wall carpet. I had seen nothing close to that with my own eyes. Not to mention the beautiful modern clothes that the Brady sisters wore daily. I could only assume that the show was based on a fairy tale. Looking back, I think it was healthier for me to not know what I was missing and remain content in my world.
Being a mother of three daughters myself, I can understand how my mama must have felt when it came to the needs of her 2 little girls. She rarely had the money for anything brand new for us to wear. Usually, new clothes were bought once a year, at the beginning of the new school year. And yes, these outfits lasted the entire school year. That being said, many times did my mama buy a dress that was too long so it could grow with me. She would hem it and let it out and re-hem as needed. The same with pants. I did not mind the dresses being hemmed so much, but it was much more noticeable on the pants. I hated that and felt some embarrassment wearing them.
I remember one pair of new pants that I had in third grade. They were lime green, my favorite color, and stretch polyester. Very much in style at that time. They fit well and were extremely comfortable. One day after school, I boarded the school bus and when I sat down, I sat in someone’s used bubble gum. It horrified me. I tried and tried to remove the gum, but it was stuck to the weave of that polyester material like glue. That gum and polyester had become one! I remember telling my mama. Her reaction was that they are brand new pants and still must do me for the rest of the school year. Yes, that meant I had to wear them anyway. Gum spot and all. And I did. Many times, until I either outgrew them, or I wore them out. I admit, I felt embarrassed each time. I never forgot that gum was there. I did however learn a valuable lesson, to look before I sit down!
I guess some would think my mother was mean for making me wear those lime green pants with a gum stain, and I probably felt it was unfair every time I wore them. But now, after raising my own children, and struggling to clothe them, I am a lot more understanding of my mother’s choices.
I remember in the summer; new clothes were even more rare. It did not really matter if we wore clothes from the previous Summer, my sister and I spent 95% of our time playing at home on our spacious 11 acres. No one cared if our shorts were too short or too tight. Or that I was wearing my big sister’s hand-me-downs. But sometimes we just needed Summer clothes. I remember a couple Summers when the Salvation Army moved into a vacant warehouse downtown. They filled the immense space with racks and racks of clothes. There were hundreds of items.
Now my mother had a lot of pride. She did not mind wearing a hand-me-down, but she did not want anyone to know it was a hand-me-down. She would walk down the street where the warehouse was located and check out every customer in the store across the street, in the warehouse, walking down that street, to check if she saw anyone she knew. When she felt sure the coast was clear, she would say “Come on!” We knew to run as fast as we could up the ramp and through the doors of the warehouse.
I can still remember the smell of that Salvation Army warehouse. It was a mixture of mothballs, and a musty old house smell. It was dark because they did not have electricity for lights. It made it difficult to look through the racks of clothes. My mama always went into a smaller room where children’s clothes were piled up in bins. She was never interested in the hanging clothes. I assume they were all adult. Usually, she might find one item for either me or my sister. I remember vaguely a pair of shorts.
Shoes were a whole other problem growing up. And you guessed it, we would buy them with extra room in the toes so my feet could grow into them. I would stuff tissue paper in the toe until then. When I was in elementary school, there were several charities that would treat needy children to a new pair of shoes once a year. They chose me about 3 times for this. I felt embarrassed at first, but once I got those new shoes in my hands, it melted away.
I do not remember my Dad ever voicing an opinion on these charities or Mama’s thrifting. I wonder now if he was even aware. I can see where maybe he would not have been okay with it all. And my mama was superb at keeping things a secret. Not meaning any harm, but just to keep the boat steady. I can look back now, 50 years later, and see the many things that Mama did to make things “work”. The sacrifices she often made, just so me or my sister could have more of what she thought we deserved. Whether it was school clothes and Christmas gifts being put on layaway or ducking into the old Salvation Army thrift store.
Later in life, thrift stores became popular. My mama thoroughly enjoyed that. I took after her and have always loved thrift shopping. Not always so much for need anymore, but for the fun of it. Finding a huge bargain is fun! And now in 2020, you are just downright wasteful if you do not re-use items to avoid them being thrown into a dump somewhere. I think my mother would be in her element if she were alive today. Thanks for all the school clothes Mama.