I am a thrift store junkie. My favorite is the Salvation Army Store. In fact, recently while my best friend was visiting a few weeks ago, we patronized multiple Salvation Army Stores for three full days. Piles and piles of other people’s cast-offs were over-flowing from my cart. Yoga pants with tags still in them, name brand hoodies, barely worn sweaters and broken in denim were some of the great finds. It was like playing dress-up again.
It struck me at some point that someone, somewhere had stood in their closet and said to themselves:
“It’s really about time I got rid of this.”
I couldn’t help but wonder if someone was gushing over my red and black plaid wool riding jacket from Laura Ashley, with the oh so sassy shoulder pads, like I was gushing over the many warm winter fleeces. I was continually in disbelief when I would come across expensive items in mint-condition. Who gives away practically brand new clothes?
But then that morbid side of me started wondering if maybe I wasn’t modeling someone’s cast-offs but clothes that had never been worn. It reminded me of cleaning out my grandfather’s closet after he passed away. There was a row of unworn dress slacks, still with tags. He had obviously just ordered himself a new collection to replace his well-worn wardrobe. But he had never had the chance to wear them. Not one.
I started day dreaming about being someone else in these clothes. What did they look like? Did they have any children? Were they a child themselves? What kind of life did they have and was it everything they had hoped it would be?
There was a time in my life that I was a married single mom and then just a single mom. I don’t know which was worse. Being a married single mom meant that no one could enforce child support. My name had been stripped from our bank account maliciously so that I had no access to funds, and since I worked part-time while finishing school, there wasn’t much in my account. At least 50% of The Tortoise’s clothes came from thrift stores and the other 50% were gifted to me by a dear friend who worked at a children’s consignment store. I don’t know what I would have done without her generosity on many accounts. Clothes that The Tortoise out grew I sold back to the consignment store to help pay bills. Beautiful dresses that my grandfather had bought her, adorable outfits from my mother and even gifts from aunts and uncles. It pained me to see so many memories be exchanged for only a few dollars. And I wondered if the next person would appreciate them as much.
Yesterday, DW and I took some time to go cross-country skiing. Just the two of us. The girls were content to stay snuggled up on the couch in their pajamas, eating popcorn and watching movies all afternoon. But the 31 degree weather felt warm for a change, and not a gust of wind drifted through the trees. It was perfect weather to click on some skis and hit the trails. At first we started out close together, but DW is much more proficient and agile on the snow. Soon he was several paces ahead of me. A gentle snow started speckling the sky, tiny flakes caught in my eyelashes. The only sounds I really heard were my skis swishing rhythmically back and forth like an elliptical machine, keeping time with my quick breaths and steady heartbeat. My body became warm, sweat trickled down my back and I had to unzip my jacket. My black snow bibs and pink gloves caught me off guard for a moment. They were my Aunt’s at one time. She gave them to me years ago when she found out I was moving to Michigan. They were high-end purchases for a weekend ski trip she had taken, but never worn since. Living in Texas, unless you traveled to ski resorts often, there just wasn’t a need for such quality snow items.
“Everytime you wear these, just think of me, ” she said.
My aunt passed away in August of 2009. She was only 53. It is always devastating when people die, but there is something even more empty when they leave behind such an unfinished life. She struggled with mental illness for years, and we will never really know if some of her physical ailments could have been avoided had she been mentally well. After she passed away, my mom and I tried to help clean out some of her clothes to donate. Part of her mental illness prompted her to be a compulsive spender and hoarder. Boxes and boxes of unopened purchases flooded her hallways, bedrooms and closets. It was overwhelming. Buried in a guest bedroom closet was an unworn, raspberry pink, full-length down coat with a matching faux fir trimmed hat. Everything was still in plastic. Everything still had tags. Definitely not something a person homebound and in Texas would ever wear. My mom and I were stunned, teary-eyed.
“I think you should take this home with you, ” suggested my mom.
“But we might be able to return it or something.”
“Maybe. Or you could wear it and think of it as a gift from your Aunt.”
I’ve worn that coat almost everyday these last two winters, and I do think of her every time I put it on. Sometimes I even peer at myself in the mirror and whisper “thank you” in hopes that my aunt has finally found some peace.
So now, when I pillage racks and racks of clothes at the thrift store, or pull out a gently worn hoodie from my closet, I will see them not as cast-off’s but as someone else’s history, moments passed but not forgotten.
I will be their memory keeper while spending a day in someone else’s clothes.