“Hand-me-downs,” New Era, Feb. 1978, 15
Even as I lay on my bed staring at the cobweb on the ceiling (my cobweb, because it was my turn to dust), I could think of two reasons why I should be happy. First, it was my birthday. At our house a birthday means a special dinner. The birthday celebrity picks the menu and sits at the head of the table. Dessert is a big homemade cake. Second, in just two and a half hours, my neighbor and good friend Scott would pick me up for the dance. It was my first date with him. For that matter, it was my first date with anybody. So why wasn’t I excited? So why wasn’t I jubilant? The reason was not a good one.
I turned my head and looked at the pictures on my wall. I call it my wall because my two sisters and I have shared the rest of the room in the attic for as long as I can remember. My bed is adjacent to the wall where the ceiling doesn’t slope. There, framed in velvet, are the pictures I have had copied of many of my relatives for generations back. I looked at my favorite, the picture of my grandmother Agatha Robertson, which was larger than the rest. I always like to look at Grandmother Agatha. She’s wearing a lace dress and her hair is piled high. Her eyes seem to be dark brown like mine, and although she isn’t smiling in the picture, I’m sure smiling is something she often did.
I had read her journal many times. Agatha Robertson, my mother’s great-great-grandmother, had been an only child and had been given beautiful things by her wealthy parents. Yet, she had grown lovely and serene and had done many benevolent acts in her lifetime, therefore disproving the theory that all only children of wealthy parents grow up to be selfish and spoiled. Later in life Agatha had married Captain Conrad Robertson, who adored her and brought her gifts from faraway lands. Unlike my pioneer grandmothers, unlike my grandmothers from Scotland and Holland, Agatha had lived a life of luxury. “I get to be Grandma Agatha!” I had often shouted when my sisters and I played dress-ups. Even then her picture had fascinated me.
Now, as I looked at her again, I envied the life she had led—so different from mine. I had to struggle just to buy the fabric to make a dress for myself. It was either sew or wear hand-me-downs, and I wasn’t much of a seamstress yet.
“Oh, Grandmother Agatha,” I said aloud, “you wouldn’t understand this because you always had the best before it wasn’t the best anymore. But, if I have to wear a hand-me-down to the dance tonight, I just won’t go. I won’t! It’s awful to be third girl!” Agatha Robertson’s expression didn’t change. But then, I hadn’t expected it to.
“Honestly, Janet, I wish you’d quit talking to your pictures.” The inside of me jumped. I hadn’t heard Joani climb the stairs, but there she was, standing in the doorway studying herself in the blue dress she was making. She turned sideways, then completely around, always keeping her eyes on the mirror.
“Well, it isn’t as bad as talking to yourself,” I said defending myself, “and I’ve heard you do that before. It’s pretty,” I added in a mumble, looking at her dress. It was beautiful. Joani was an expert. Maybe that was my trouble. I always tried to sew quickly and energetically like she did. Joani took some pins out of her mouth and smiled at me.
“Thanks,” she said, “I’m almost finished. You can have the machine back in just a few minutes.” She began hemming the sleeves with the pins. “Are you about finished with yours?”
“Uh-huh.” I didn’t tell her about the yellow dress because I knew what she would say. She would lecture me on beginning at the beginning and picking easier patterns. I was finished with the dress all right. It wasn’t a lie. It was hanging in my closet with at least four more hours of work to do on it. It didn’t fit right at all. The bodice was all wrong, and the sleeves were crooked. Now there wasn’t time to fix it, not with dinner and everything. That meant that tonight of all nights I’d have to wear a hand-me-down. And there was Joani—quick, clever little Joani—admiring herself in a beautiful creation she’d designed herself. I didn’t want to look at her, so I turned my head. Why should she care? She had her dress. Why should she care that I’d have to wear one of the ancient dresses in the basement? Why should anyone care? Erma, my oldest sister, obviously didn’t. She had taken all her bridesmaid dresses to college with her.
Joani headed back downstairs to the sewing room, a few pins still in her mouth, and I looked at Grandmother Agatha and sighed. Then I pulled myself off my bed and shuffled downstairs as if I were carrying a 300-pound pack on my back. Mother was bustling busily in the kitchen, preparing my birthday dinner. She smiled at me with an “Aren’t you elated it’s your birthday?” look on her face. “Your special dinner will be ready in about five minutes,” she said excitedly. “Go tell everyone.”
“Okay.” I began passing the word around. First, I called out back where Jack and Alex were playing. Then I called into the family-sewing room to Dad and Joani. In ten minutes we were all seated around the dining room table. Dad gave the prayer, and then Jack, Alex, and Joani each passed me a little gift. Alex gave me another bottle of “Forever Yours” cologne. He gave me that every year. Jack had made me a pencil holder out of a cutoff milk carton. Joani gave me a jeweled comb and brush set. I oohed and aahed and tried to act excited as I opened each of the gifts. Then Mom passed me the gift from her and Dad. Maybe I had hoped somewhere in the back of my mind that it would be a dress, a yellow dress, because I felt a tinge of disappointment when the package they sent me was too small. Besides, it rattled.
“Careful,” Mom said.
“Yes, careful,” Joani said. She was smiling widely.
“I wonder what this could be?”
“You might say it’s a hand-me-down from all of us.” Mom laughed.
“Oh?” I took off the yellow ribbon and opened the package carefully. Inside the box was … no, it couldn’t be … “Is this? It is! It’s Grandmother Agatha’s locket! But, Mom, you inherited this from Aunt Louise. She gave it to you!”
“Oh, I never wear falderal like lockets, and—”
“But, Erma’s the oldest. She should have it. Or Joani. I’m only third.” Joani smiled again.
“I asked them if it was all right and they insisted you have it,” Mother answered patiently. “Both said you knew Grandmother Robertson the best and deserved it.”
“But, I …”
The phone rang and Alex jumped up. “I’ll get it! I hate mushy stuff like this.”
“Oh, thank you, thank you so much! I can’t wait to show Scott.” I laid the locket carefully by my plate on the tablecloth where I could look at it more closely. It was gold, with tiny roses, and inside, I knew, was the only picture we had of Captain Robertson. It was too small and faded to have it copied. On the back of the locket were the initials A.R.W.L. I guessed they stood for “Agatha Robertson, with love.”
Everyone had begun eating chicken, mashed potatoes, corn, and rolls, but I wasn’t hungry. I was too happy.
“It’s Erma,” Alex announced. “From Provo. She called to wish you a happy birthday.”
“Erma!” I jumped up and ran to the phone. “Erma, thanks. Thanks for the locket. I’m so excited! But, it should rightfully belong to you. You’re the oldest.”
“It’s yours,” Erma said. “You’re the one who deserves it. We all wanted you to have it. Besides, you can wear it tonight with your new yellow dress. How did it turn out?”
“I won’t be wearing the yellow dress. I didn’t get it finished, but I don’t mind. I’ll wear something from the basement. Anything will look beautiful with this locket.”
Erma was silent for a moment. “Oh, but it’s your first date. You just can’t. Why was I so stupid to take all my bridesmaid dresses with me? I just want to kick myself. If there was only time to drive home I would, I … hey! Wait! I did leave home my velvet skirt. Wear that. It’s in the sewing room and just needs the seam fixed. You’ll probably have to lengthen it, but it shouldn’t take you long. Find a pretty blouse, and you’ll look fantastic.”
“Hooray!” I said. “Thanks, Sis, thanks!”
After chocolate cake with lemon frosting and strawberry sherbet (all my favorites), I hurried to the sewing room and found the skirt in the closet. Joani followed me.
“What are you doing?”
“Erma said I could wear her skirt because I didn’t finish my yellow dress.”
Joani looked confused, then hurt. “You should have told me. Why didn’t you? I would have helped you finish it. We have to stick together, don’t we? It really upsets me you didn’t tell me.” Then she had an idea because her eyes grew wide and her lips parted into a smile. “Then the least you can do is wear my satin and lace blouse.”
I was stunned. “You’re kidding!” I knew the satin and lace blouse was her favorite, her best. She kept it in a special part of her drawer instead of the closet, wrapped in tissue paper. She only wore it on the most special occasions. “I couldn’t.”
“Joani, Joani, you don’t mean it, do you? Your satin and lace blouse? Are you sure?”
Upstairs, Joani unwrapped her blouse with only the slightest hesitation and handed it to me. Then she went back downstairs.
I put the blouse on and stepped into the skirt even though I hadn’t fixed the seam yet. I wanted to get the effect first.
Even before I put the locket on, I knew the blouse was perfect to set it off. And it was. I looked up to see Grandmother Agatha looking at me with an earnest expression on her face. “Who would have guessed I’d be getting a hand-me-down from you for my birthday,” I said with a laugh. I think Agatha Robertson would have smiled in real life. Her eyes would have sparkled. But the picture’s expression didn’t change. Of course, I hadn’t expected it to.
I looked back at myself in Joani’s blouse and Erma’s skirt and the locket I had inherited because of their generosity and unselfishness, and yes, their love for me. I gulped.
I looked again at my perfectly groomed, elegant, great-great-grandmother who had had beautiful things, the finest clothes and jewels, but who had been an only child.
“Grandmother Agatha, you missed out. You really missed out. You just don’t know how wonderful … oh, you wouldn’t know what I mean.” But, even as I said the words, I guessed she knew what I was trying to say. With one last smile, I hurried downstairs. I had a lot to do before the dance.