My mother would buy us school clothes in August and again for Christmas. Never in between nor after the holiday, and certainly not because a growth spurt had sent the hem lines soaring above our ankles like a plane above the horizon. Mamma would simply remove the stitching and let the hem hang low -- if she did anything at all. Most of the time, she didn't seem to notice, though other people did.
There was once the school counselor who offered me a bag of someone's second hand donations. She called me into the office and closed the door tightly behind me.
Softly, gently, she began, "Someone gave me a bag of clothes, and I was trying to determine who to give them to." She said this while slowly opening the black trash bag treasure trove of woolen skirts, ruffled blouses, and 4 inch wide belts.
I had hoped my face did not betray me and give away my revulsion to the old faded linens.
"I hope you don't mind me asking you," she continued. "You don't have to take these if you don't like them."
Yes, I thought,... I was off the hook.
"Do you want them?" she plied.
Ever so slowly I shook my head left and then right, while squeaking out an embarrassed, "No thank You."
Once home I was immediately greeted at the door by my mother.
"Where are the clothes they gave you?"
You see, Mrs. Marlie had called my mom early in the day to get permission to give them to me, so I really did not have the choice that I thought I did. My mother, livid, went on a rampage about me being inconsiderate. I was to never turn down anything offered to us. "Money don't grow on trees!"
I was ashamed for the second time that day.
A week later, I saw my best friend wearing one of the skirts.
After that incident, I had become rather adept at accepting these gifts and was learning to pair them quite stylishly, or so I thought.
About a year later, Mrs. Sharpley's daughter gave me some thick beige leather square-toe boots. I never owned leather before, so I could not wait to wear them. And though they were a little big, I happily stuffed the toes. Next I paired it with a beautiful burgundy 3/4 leather coat with buttons as big as fifty cent pieces and lapels that stretched all the way to the middle of my shoulders. I was finally in style and was wearing designer quality gear. I dreamed of the compliments that would be hurled my way.
However, instead of shout-outs and compliments, I began to notice smiles behind hands and hushed toned whispering. Instead of fighting the usual crowded hallway to get to my locker, the kids seemed to part before me like the red sea. I did understand quality clothing, but I had no concept of the term "out of style." Though it was close to 1980, my boots were from the early 70's, and my coat looked like something from the Black Panther era of the late 1960's.
By the time I had made it to 10th grade, I was working every summer and used my money to buy the appropriate gear -- clothes that coincided with my era. But even that was not enough to save me from being the center -- think bullseye-- of attraction.
I spotted the suede belted boots from aisles away and could not believe my luck. The one inch crepe sole boots that were filled with beige faux shirling (crushed pile) would be perfect to keep my feet warm while walking around the school's campus. My favorite part was the belt that kinda half tightened them around my calf yet was loose enough to leave the top part flopping down just below the knee. I loved those boots.... Until that day when I realized the chanting I had been hearing coming from every window of the male dorm was aimed at me in a tone and rhythm much like a cow mooing, "Boots! Boots!"
You see, I was by then attending a boarding school and the only thing remotely stylish had to come from a magazine called L.L. Bean (which I had never heard of, and once I caught a glimpse of, I realized that I could have never afforded it anyway.) It was the magazine of the rich filled with preppy gear. and since I was attending a prepatory boarding school (on a scholarship of course) everyone else was wearing those hideous rubber and leather duck shoes and boots. Not faux suede from Zayres.
Needless to say, from that day forward I rode out the rest of the harsh Ohio winter in weathered beat down penny loafers. Even those were black, with a nickel in the slot instead the customary burgundy, with a penny, because I thought silver looked better in my pleather knock-offs.
I suppose this is why I was so upset with my son this morning. Unlike my mother, I buy clothes at the first sight of ankle or tight thighs. I watch the male students to see how they dress making note of the cool outfits. I buy Addidas, Nike, and elite socks. I make sure each shirt has matching shorts. Yet, at 6:30 in the morning after I have spent time digging out the correct pant to match the colored coded shirt, and ironed and hung them on his door, my son arrived downstairs wearing wrinkled clothing with odd patterns of mismatched colors: lime green and black striped shorts with a red and blue crumpled top.
So, yes I was frustrated. I demanded that he switch back because he clashed. He, on the other hand was angry that I would not let him pick his own clothing. He actually claimed that he hated to match because matching was "not cool." He wanted nothing more than to trade his color coded outfit for one that vaguely resembled a brightly colored rainbow after a storm. But our storm had not passed, it was raging right there in our living room. And I knew in my heart that I needed to let him win. So, I did.
In hindsight, I suppose the real conflict was not in mismatched clothing, nor was it in his fight for independence. It was in me wanting to protect my son from the harsh words and taunts of his peers. Mean words of a childhood long passed -- that still haunt me to this day.