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Hand-me-down values teach lifelong lessons

In the Martin household in South Buffalo, we used to say that "the first one up was the best dressed." It was a sardonic reference to the fact that in a large family, there was often a communal use of many items of clothing. The child who arose earliest in the morning would have first access to the fresh laundry. And if he (or she) was swift enough in his ablutions, and made off into the day with some degree of celerity, he had a pretty free rein over what items he could choose to wear that day.

Of course, like most things in life, appropriating property not your own had consequences that invariably followed. The threat of a boxing of the ears from a less-than-forgiving older and bigger sibling had a considerable restraining effect on the practice. The youngest in the line, as the inherent logic implied in William Golding's classic "Lord of the Flies" would dictate, usually had the least amount of real choices for selecting the day's apparel.

The only compensating factor was the steadily increasing supply of "hand-me-downs." As the older siblings grew out of certain items of clothing, they would be passed on down the line to the child who was the next closest in physical proportions to the original wearer.

A particularly durable item of clothing might possibly be worn by several, until it became recognized in the neighborhood by other families as having been worn "by the Martins." We, too, recognized some of the clothes from the other large families.

I don't know that any of us ever resented this natural system of economical resource allocation among the larger families. Most of us were grateful to have a bed to sleep in and food on a regular basis. However humble our circumstances, we knew that there were families in the neighborhood who were worse off than we. Still, the elaborate fiction of one's pride was maintained. When the only thing that you possess in life in quantity is your dignity, it is something that you rather fiercely hold on to.

As a corollary to the inherent respect we afforded the acquisition of highly desirable items of clothing, we treated each item with the proper respect for a commodity that would not often come our way. Such garments were mended, cleaned and stored away, with the intent that they would be used for a considerable period of time. The replacement of such a valued article of clothing was never a certainty.

It was the same with our more exotic possessions. Each had value to us and was treated with the respect necessary to preserve it for future use. It bred in us a dichotomy of values.

On one hand, we learned to establish the proper respect for the value of physical possessions. On the other hand, the lack of a ready supply of items not necessary for survival made us realize that, in and of themselves, the items were not of critical importance to us in the greater scheme of things. It is an often confusing dichotomy that I still struggle with today. I don't know where exactly I learned this, but it has served me well in sorting out the relative merits of things and ideas.

Involuntarily, I still react to the same pressures and concerns that predicated my behavior while I was growing up. And I still take very good care of my clothing, from force of habit so very long ago.

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