When I have no time to write, I turn to Natalie Goldberg. Her prompts are simple, direct, and often followed by the directive, “Go. Ten minutes.” That tells me where to begin, and when to stop, to move on to the busy day ahead. Today, from Old Friend from Far Away, page #124 offers this:
How poor were you? Go. Ten minutes.
If we were poor when I was growing up, and we were, I didn’t know it. We were careful. We didn’t get everything we asked for, and we didn’t ask for much. Brenda and I were allowed to go through the fat fall catalogues when they came in the mail: J.C.Penney, Sears & Roebuck and – later – Montgomery Ward, to pick out our school clothes. Five dresses each, for five school days. It was glorious! First, we picked out the child models who looked most like each of us. We’d argue about the choices.We’d nit-pick about the characteristics.
“Sure, you want to be her because she’s so pretty, but she doesn’t look anything like you!”
“Hair’s too curly.”
“Too much freckles.”
“That one can’t be Cheryl, I picked her to be Robin. It looks exactly like her!”
Then, we’d go through the same process, picking out the adult models that we’d look like when we grew up. Cajoling and arguments continued.
“Okay, I’ll let you be that one [a stretch, by any standards!] if you will let me be this one.”
We gladly picked the most beautiful blondes for our fair-haired little sisters to grow into, and there was usually one auburn-haired model with a light sprinkling of freckles to be Nita. After all of our identities and future identities were firmly in place, we could get a better grasp of what styles and colors we should go for. We’d pick out five dresses, circle them, write our names under them, fold the corners of the pages down…and dream.
Eventually, Mom – who was paying attention – would order some of our choices. One of Brenda’s selections, one of mine…sometimes something for the boys or the little girls. Then, she’d come home from shopping, with other things. Sometimes it was a cheap dress from McCrory’s Dime Store that was, “almost identical to the one you picked out from Sears, Honey, look!” Other times it was with Simplicity patterns and yards of fabric to make something similar.
Always, it was just a little bit of a let-down. Every year, I imagined those actual packages showing up with all five dresses, perfect and ready to wear, with matching socks and brand new shoes. It wasn’t a big disappointment, though. Mom was good at this part. “This color will look so pretty with your eyes,” she would say or, “When I saw that ruffle, I knew we just had to have that for you!” The year she sewed shifts for all of us, with bias tape machine sewed around the necks and armholes…and sometimes a little tuck in the fabric where it didn’t belong…and sometimes a machine-sewed hem just to get the job done, she actually pulled out the Life magazine, to show us photos of Jacqueline Kennedy wearing similar shifts with piping around the edges, and sent us on our way with confidence.
I don’t remember anything new for Mom in any of the packages that arrived in the mail, or any of the shopping bags carried home. I do remember – folding clothes was my main childhood job – that Mom’s underpants were shoddy. The silky fabric was stretched and worn, and was often only attached to the elastic in three or four places around the whole waist. I have been poor in my adult life; I’ve had to scrimp, even on necessities. I have never had to hold on to things that were in such bad shape! How poor? We were poor enough that my Mom could not buy new underwear.