Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The Closet

Growing up, we were quite poor.  Not 'poor' as in we never had food and were homeless, but 'poor' in the sense that after taking care of food and a place to live, we didn't have a lot of money for clothes...and fashion was usually out of the question.  Due to my Mom's strong belief in her religion, she struggled and saved to send my sister and I to their denominations' private church schools, and it was when I left Alaska to attend boarding school in Washington State that I remember feeling the difference between me and the other girls in my dorm.  My mom sacrificed to send me to this school and I received a wonderful education.  We all sacrificed.  Hard as it was to essentially leave home at the age of 13 and live in a different state surrounded by strangers who almost all lived within hours of their own home and could visit when they got homesick, I value that experience as one of the touchstones of what has made me the fiercely independent woman that I am today.  But at the time, I was shy, extremely quiet, and probably appeared nigh on antisocial.  I was dark-haired among the blonde girls.  I lacked self-confidence among the doctors kids.  I was from this weird place up north and everyone assumed I lived in an igloo.  No, really.  They did.  :)

Private church school is really heavy on the "church".  Not only was there the weekend-day church-going, there was also "vespers" in the mornings and evenings, Wednesday night prayer meetings, and a couple of times, whole weeks devoted to multiple forays into the pews for days on end.  During these 'Weeks of Prayer',  the girls in the dorm would take the opportune (mandatory) change in our usual dress code to break out their new clothes, sometimes purchased specifically with that particular week in mind:  a new dress for every day of that week with an extra-special one for the weekend services, new shoes for each outfit, sometimes long matching overcoats in camel or black, with different colored stockings for each ensemble.   I remember walking into church and thinking that the girls side of the sanctuary looked like a box of See's Candy pastels: all muted pinks, blues, and mints.  

I had a dress that I loved.  It was a dark grey with white pinstripes, fitted through the waist, with buttons.  I adored that dress.  But it was my only one.  

Teenagers being teenagers (religious school or not), I was the butt of snide comments and feigned pity referring to how poor we must be.  The looks and whispers behind the hands cut, and I retreated into my self with my head up knowing that I looked fine.  And if they got bored looking at me in my one outfit, then they could keep it to themselves and look elsewhere.  But it hurt.  A lot.

There was a girl, Stacey, who I had gotten to know a little bit from one of my classes   She was pretty and funny, and she was everyone's friend; even us uncool kids.  It was Week of Prayer (again), and I was walking down the hallway of my dorm on my way out to the church, when I saw Stacy through the open door of her room rushing around trying to find her stockings.  She hollered into the hall and asked me to wait for her, and so I walked into her room and plopped down on the bed.  I remember she opened her closet and it was chock full of clothes.  Not just clothes, but dresses.  Wall-to-wall dresses.  She struggled to find what she was looking for in this tightly packed space and laughed at how 'disorganized' she was.  Then, without missing a beat, she turned to me and asked if I possibly had any extra room in my closet, and said "I just don't have enough room!  Would you mind if I kept some of my clothes in your closet?  You could wear them whenever you want...I think we're about the same size..."
Little did she know that she changed my life at that moment.  Me: the quiet, painfully shy, usually terrified 'different' girl put on something beautiful and became someone else.  I mean this figuratively of course.  But this was my first actual realization that what we wear, how we perceive our outsides, can affect how we feel on the inside.  Yes, I know the arguments for being 'unique', for not 'sacrificing individuality' or 'going along with the crowd'.    But high school survival is all about fitting in and trying not to draw attention to yourself.    Flying under the radar if you're not one of that group who seem to have been born knowing where they belong in the social order and accepting it as their right.  And 'individuality' sometimes costs money.  

For the rest of that school year, I felt like I belonged.  For the rest of those daily church visits where I was required to wear a dress, I no longer dreaded that part of my day.  I'm not sure if she really realized the complex implications of the kindness she did me that day.  We're now in our 40's, and I found her on Facebook a few years ago and thanked her again for what she did.  But there aren't words to describe the healing that kindness produced in my soul.

Old Navy Pea Coat
As I've mentioned in the past, I was never really into fashion until the last few years when I began working in a professional setting that requires me to dress up every day.  And while I was raising my boys, we didn't generally have a lot of extra money, and being home with them or doing housework didn't require a fashionable uniform.  Though I work hard for the money I have now and can say that I finally have a little surplus with which to have fun, I still shop the second-hand stores and am frugal when it comes to fashion.  But I don't believe I'll ever forget what it was like to have one dress.  
Jones New York red trench coat

At the beginning of the winter, I opened up the downstairs closet to do a little inventory, and realized that I now own more than one coat.  None of them are wildly expensive:  there's a long camel-colored overcoat and a gorgeous red trench that were gifts from my very fashionable mom when she cleaned out her closet during my visit home last spring, a short navy blue pea coat from Old Navy that I got second-hand for $4, a black Jones New York trench coat that I bought at Ross a few years ago for $20 to go over an evening dress at a formal Air Force dinner with Rik...all along those lines.

But I have more than one coat.

I can't imagine a time when I will not find that delightful.