My friend EB is an over-indulgent grandmother and an over-indulgent friend and I adore her. Her grandson is a year or two older than Sean. About once a month she shows up at my front door with bags (yes plural – bags) of clothes and toys that her grandson Preston has outgrown. Preston must have a closet the size of Old Navy. We have started calling her EB Claus because when she comes over it’s like Christmas. I remember the day EB gingerly asked me if I would be offended if she brought over some “gently worn” things for Sean. My response was “Would I? How fast can you get here?”
I love hand-me-downs because they come with a history. And they remind me of a simpler time. When I was growing up, I thought the only store in the whole world was K-Mart and that was where the rich people shopped. To get a brand-new store “boughten” (I thought this was a word until I moved out of the mid-west) dress was a very rare thing. I grew up wearing hand-me-downs that came with the history of an entire neighborhood. It was always exciting to see Mom come home from down the street with a brown grocery bag packed with “new” things. With no sisters, it always made me feel cool to wear a dress that I had seen one of the older girls in the neighborhood wear.
A bag of clothes would travel from house to house, season after season as kids grew. A dress that originated down the street would next year go across the street. The following year I would get it and the year after that it would go back across the street. If all the kids in the neighborhood put all their class pictures in a box you would probably see the same dress on a different girl a number of times.
There were many things besides the hand-me-downs that glued this neighborhood together. Like my parents, most of the couples moved into the neighborhood in the 1950s when they were first married. All of them were blue collar. Most of them were Catholic and second generation Italian immigrants. My family is not Italian, although I didn’t know this until I was about seven. I often thought we should buy a few vowels for our last name to keep up. Most of them had at least three kids but some had more. And all of those baby boomin’ kids grew up going from kindergarten through high school together. It was like having 25 brothers and sisters. There was no such thing as a “play group.” If you wanted to “play” then you went outside where there was a “group” of kids playing Freeze Tag or some made up game. Everyone was united in a common struggle to raise decent kids and to get by. Fifty years later, most of those post-WWII couples, including my parents, are still married and still live there on the same street in the same houses.
While my parents could not afford to give me “store-boughten” clothes, they did provide me an environment of stability and steadiness that can only be bought with time. Now as I struggle to figure out how to create a sense of community for Sean, I realize what a rare and tremendous blessing that was and how hard it is to do these days.
Sean really enjoys his hand-me-downs from EB Claus. Next year when he has outgrown them, we will pass them along, but probably not to anyone who lives across the street or down the block. I love my neighborhood and care deeply for our many friends here, but there is not the glue of common ethnicity or faith or circumstance. There is no real common struggle. And part of me holds something back because I know that there will be no history to be built over the course of Sean’s childhood, because by this time next year, many of my neighbors will live some place else.