“Hand-Me-Down Box,” Friend, Nov. 1987, 31
When Leigh got home from school, she found her mother carefully going through a big cardboard box of clothes. “What’s that?” she asked her mother.
“Another box of things from the Ellers.” Her mother held up a green corduroy jumper and asked, “Do you like this one?”
Leigh nodded her head, but after rummaging through the box, she held up a red velveteen party dress with lace ruffles and said, “I like this one better.”
“That’s lovely, Leigh!” her mother exclaimed. “It hardly shows any wear at all.”
“Why do the Ellers give us their clothes?” Leigh asked, examining a white silk blouse.
Her mother looked up and reached out to stroke Leigh’s copper hair, then turned away and sighed, “Because we need them, Leigh, and the Ellers are kind enough to share with us.”
Leigh didn’t mind wearing the Ellers’ pretty clothing, even if it was used. Since the Eller girls went to a different school, no one in Leigh’s school recognized her “new clothes.” Leigh never told anyone about the hand-me-down box.
One day in school Mrs. Kratz, Leigh’s fourth-grade teacher, announced, “I want each of you to think about what you want to be when you grow up.”
All the children moaned—all except Leigh. Leigh had wanted to be a writer ever since she had first learned how to read.
“And,” Mrs. Kratz continued, “I want each of you to be prepared to tell us what you’ve decided in a little speech next Wednesday.”
“A speech!” Leigh gasped quietly. She had never spoken in front of a class before. What will I say? she wondered. What will I wear?
When Leigh got home from school that day, she tore through the house, frantically calling her mother.
“What’s the matter, Leigh?” her mother cried. “Are you hurt?”
Leigh explained breathlessly, “I have to give a speech in class next Wednesday.”
“I have to talk about what I want to be when I grow up, and I have to do it in front of the whole class! I have to look my best so no one will laugh at me, and I don’t have anything to wear!”
Mother came down from the ladder where she’d been hanging some curtains that she had washed. “What about one of the dresses that the Ellers gave us?”
“Not hand-me-downs,” Leigh protested. “Not this time. For once can’t I have a new dress?” she pleaded.
“Well, perhaps we can afford to buy fabric to make you one,” offered her mother.
Looking at her feet, Leigh barely whispered, “Not a homemade dress. A new store-bought dress—like the Ellers wear. Just this once. Please.”
Mrs. Baugh knelt before her daughter, placed her hands on Leigh’s shoulders, and looked straight into her troubled eyes. “We can’t spend very much on a new dress, but we’ll go look Saturday.”
Leigh was ecstatic as she hugged her mother. Later that night Leigh lay awake in bed, thinking about a store-bought dress. She said “look,” Leigh reminded herself, not “buy.” But I have twelve dollars saved from babysitting, and with what Mother has, I should be able to buy a dress as nice as the Ellers wear. She drifted off to sleep, dreaming about her first trip to one of the fine dress shops in town.
But when Saturday came, they didn’t go to a fancy shop. They went to a factory outlet store that didn’t look much different from the local grocery store. Leigh tried to conceal her disappointment as her mother led her to a rack full of dresses her size. One by one, they pulled the dresses off the rack and held them up to Leigh, looking for the perfect one for her first speech. The dresses were nice but not special—just plain cotton-polyester dresses like Leigh had worn before the Ellers started sending their clothes. Leigh hesitated, then asked, “Where are the fancier dresses, Mother?”
“Oh, Leigh,” her mother sighed good-naturedly. “There aren’t any fancy dresses in here, and if there were, we couldn’t afford them.”
Leigh wandered to the front of the store and peered out the big plate-glass window. Across the street a little girl in a beautiful blue coat and hat was just leaving an expensive dress shop with her mother, who was laden with ribbon-tied boxes. Leigh turned toward the check-out counter in the factory outlet and watched the cashier stuff purchases into plain brown paper sacks.
Mrs. Baugh came up and put an arm around her daughter, then looked out the window at the store across the street. “Maybe someday, Leigh,” she murmured.
“Let’s go home and see if we can find something in the hand-me-down box,” Leigh offered, trying to smile. “The red velveteen dress with the ruffles is much prettier than any of these dresses.”
Back home, Leigh tried on the red dress and was as pleased with how it felt as with how it looked. The velveteen was wonderfully soft, and the red brought out the natural rosiness in her cheeks and the highlights in her hair. Her mother pinned a new hem while Leigh twirled about in her slip, planning her speech.
On Wednesday Leigh practiced her speech aloud one last time while her mother carefully pressed the velveteen dress. Leigh had never felt more confident in her life.
When she got to school, Leigh noticed Linnie Lubette staring at her.
“Is that a new dress, Leigh?” Linnie asked with a sneer.
“Yes,” Leigh answered. “I got it for my speech today. Are you all ready?”
“Of course,” Linnie answered. Then she took Leigh’s arm and jeered, “Didn’t I see that dress at my ward’s Christmas party?”
Stunned, Leigh pulled away and sat down as Linnie started snickering. Then Leigh remembered that the Ellers and the Lubettes belonged to the same ward. Cindy had probably worn the dress to their ward’s Christmas party. If Linnie had admired it, she would remember it. Leigh was embarrassed and wished that she had worn any of her other dresses.
Suddenly she heard her name called.
“Why don’t you go first, Leigh?” her teacher asked. “We’re anxious to hear about your career choice.”
Leigh slipped out of her seat and walked slowly to the front of the room. Before she even had a chance to gather her thoughts, her teacher spoke again. “My, don’t you look lovely today, Leigh. Is that a new dress?”
Before Leigh could respond, Linnie chirped, “It’s not new. It’s a hand-me-down from Cindy Eller.”
Leigh was mortified. Now everyone would know that she wore hand-me-downs! She hung her head to hide the tears that were welling up in her eyes.
The room fell silent.
Leigh felt her teacher’s arm around her shoulders, pulling her close. “We’re both fortunate, Leigh. See this dress that I’m wearing? It’s a hand-me-down too.”
Leigh looked up for the first time and stared through tear-filled eyes at her teacher’s pretty blue dress. “You see”—her teacher turned to explain to the class—“I can’t afford many nice dresses like this. But my sister, who is a doctor, has many beautiful clothes. She shares them with me because she loves me.”
Leigh slowly turned her gaze from her teacher to Linnie, who was shrinking into her seat.
“I’m glad, Leigh,” her teacher continued, “that you have a friend who is kind enough to share her nice things with you. Now,” she said, going back to her desk, “tell us what you want to be when you grow up.”
Leigh cleared her throat. “I want to be like your sister.”
“No,” Leigh replied, smiling. “Someone kind enough to share with others.”