jen groeber: mama art

4 kids in 3 years: reflections on motherhood, art and life.

Hand-Me-Downs, What We Choose to Keep

Dress-up  October 2013

Dress-up
October 2013

The day before school started I dug through the kids’ closet where I’ve been (haphazardly) stocking shoes and clothing to fit my children for the next ten years of their lives.

To understand this closet, you have to know that every time I see a quality collared shirt or a pair of pants in sizes 5T through 10 on sale for a new low-low price, I buy them. Really. And my kids don’t even have a uniform or strict dress code.

I’m the same way about hand-me-downs, but since they’re free, I’m even more so. You have gently used clothes in sizes 5T to size 10? Send them here. (Seriously. Send them.)

My sister and I have markedly different styles, and her girls are teenagers now. Plus they knew how to keep a taffeta dress clean. I mean, they even had white dress shoes. With satin bows! But it doesn’t matter that I am machine-wash-only. It doesn’t matter that my kids are mostly just sneaker-wearers. My sister will mail me her girls’ pristinely packed hand-me-downs and then we will rock that size 5T taffeta dress with bike shorts and Nikes, like Molly Ringwald in Sixteen Candles… or Pretty in Pink, or whatever.

Perhaps you should know that growing up, I dressed in costume every day.

And I don’t mean I was the Chik-fil-a cow or anything, although I think that would be freeing somehow. And I also don’t mean that I dressed in elaborate costumes for Halloween, because I was way too self-conscious for that. But when I’d head to school each day I’d dress a different part.

This is a dirndl dress. It's an Oktoberfest thing.  1976

This is a dirndl dress. It’s an Oktoberfest thing.
1976

In kindergarten I had an actual red dirndl dress I’d wear with my pigtails. My teacher would call me Gretel. All day. For real.

And I had a full-length, calico Holly Hobby dress I wore. With an apron. Did I mention it was full-length? I looked like a sister wife before anyone on the east coast knew sister wives were even a Utah thing.

It was in the newspaper. Which we kept pristine in an archivally sound scrapbook, apparently.  1976

It was in the newspaper. Which we kept pristine in an archivally sound scrapbook, apparently.
1977

In high school it continued. My neighbor still loves to recall that she’d stand on her porch to see what outlandish outfit I’d wear out the door. One day I’d be wearing my field hockey uniform with a french braid and popped collar. The next I’d have laced ankle boots, a long prairie skirt and a brooch at my neck. The following day I’d be full-on Bon-Jovi-New-Jersey sexy secretary, tight leather pencil skirt, padded shoulders, high hair, spiked heels and nylons with a seam up the back.

Sexy secretary or sporty spice. You decide.  On second thought, don't.  Late 80's

Sexy secretary or sporty spice? You decide.
On second thought, don’t.
Late 80’s

Who did I think I was?! Which is exactly the question.

I was a people pleaser, an Every Woman, a chameleon both in dress and in actions. I stuck out for blending in so hard. I thought I didn’t know how to be as “good” as my sisters, and so I wanted to be better instead; as smart and successful, but cooler, with a boyfriend and friends, but not a party-er, but invited to parties, liked by teachers, but not a goody-two-shoes, team captain but in the chamber choir (*see Holly Hobby dress), in the Homecoming court but still a virgin.

That sentence alone makes me shudder. Be happy. Be good. Be her. Be this. Be that. Be better. Be better. Be…

Be Holly Hobby and Gretel and Molly Ringwald, apparently.

Don't be this girl, though.  1978

Don’t be this girl, though. She’s wearing hand-me-downs. 
1978

It seems my goal was to take everything that everyone handed me and to wear it. On my soul. How many of us were doing all that trying on, trying to fit, trying to be?

In our basement here we have a bin of costumes so that my kids can be a fireman with a tiara, Spiderman with a football helmet. One son is especially enamored of wearing the space explorer backpack with the Mulan princess dress, because it’s so-o-o-o-o-o-o soft (and it is.)

So for now, my kids try on hand-me-downs and decide if they want to incorporate them into their wardrobe. They go to the dress-up bin and turn into princess-ninja-space-exploring-chefs.We have fun when we dress.

Pirate sweaters, bedazzled t-shirts, patchwork skirts, taffeta dresses, patterns, patterns, patterns. I’m especially fond of the Hugh Heffner flounced velour pink spaghetti-strap nightgown and matching robe someone passed down to my four-year-old. It’s her favorite. Which will be helpful when Playboy joins up with Highlights magazine to create a new Play-baby-bunny brand, apparently.

Because we’re all getting hand-me-downs, from our siblings and our families, our friends and neighbors. We’re all trying things on. Even me. Even every day. It’s what we choose to keep and what we choose to, well, hand right on down to the next guy, that creates the us we become.

As long as my kids know that they never need to be every  person, but that they are always free to be any person they choose, then it’s all good. (Except a four-year-old Play-baby-bunny. That’s unacceptable.)

Two of these kids are dressed entirely in hand-me downs...  September 2014

Two of these kids are dressed entirely in hand-me downs…
September 2014

(This was written in response to the awesome Daily Post prompt Hand-Me-Downs, which I (ahem) actually submitted… because I just realized that to submit a prompt but not actually join in would be like hosting a costume party but not wearing a costume. Just plain tacky.)

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16 comments on “Hand-Me-Downs, What We Choose to Keep

  1. Stephanie
    September 11, 2014

    I recognize that dirndl! It’s on my wall:)

    • jgroeber
      September 12, 2014

      Ha! Yes, you do. It’s the quintessential little red dress girl. So glad she’s still out there in Philadelphia, doing her thang’.

  2. Jenn Berney
    September 12, 2014

    We have no space in our very small house, so getting a box of gently used clothes is such a joy. (I’m being serious.) I’m brutally selective. I probably keep five items out of twenty and haul the rest off to Goodwill. I like to think that my boys rock the gently-used machine-wash-only fashion, just like your kids in that last shot.

    • jgroeber
      September 12, 2014

      Love the gently-used machine-wash-only garb. You’ll notice a star patch on Mica’s knee. Even the Land’s End “Iron-Knee” pants, gently-used, blow a hole in the knee! And yes, we have a fundraising yard sale at the kids’ pre-school where our leftovers go (and where I can snag the next batch.) When my Mom hankered for hand-me-downs it seemed sort of cheap and embarrassing. Now it’s environmental and for a good cause. Ha!

  3. Burns the Fire
    September 12, 2014

    Have I told you lately how much I love your blog?

    • jgroeber
      September 20, 2014

      You are too kind. And so good. Right back at you, sister soldier.

  4. donofalltrades
    September 13, 2014

    We love hand me downs. The three year old has never owned a new item of clothing. Maybe. We bought a swing set from Craigslist from a family in the posh section of my area and when the woman saw my daughter, she asked if we’d like to take some girl clothes home. She had daughters older than Ace and they’d fit she said. It was a no brainer that we wanted her rich people clothes, and she have us a bunch. She said she mailed them to her sister in California (that had to be costly) and the sister mailed them back with a list of approved brands that she could send in the future! Lol. For real! Who does any if that?? Anyway, that was about three years ago and every now and the. I’ll see Ace in a lacrosse or water polo shirt and be all “where the fuck did you get that?” Rich people hand me downs is where.

    • jgroeber
      September 20, 2014

      Rich people hand-me-downs are the best! I love friends who have ridiculously rich in-laws or aunties who buy all the especially fabulous stuff for the kids (who then hand it down to me.) It’s nice to top off a Target tee and Old Navy pants with a super cool boutique-y sweater, seriously. Although every once in awhile I end up with a dry clean only thing that I wash and shrink to American Girl Doll size and I’m left thinking, “Who-the-WHAT buys dry clean only for a three-year-old?!!!”
      And that you recognize the fancy stuff? Truly impressive!

  5. Kelly L McKenzie
    September 15, 2014

    Wonderful prompt. Smiling at the Hugh Heffner reference. You’ve reminded me that I really must return the ribbon skirt and hand knit sweaters a friend loaned to me. A good ten years ago. Thankfully I still have them. Along with the multitude of costumes assembled over the years. It was marvelous. I miss the days of being suddenly in the presence of Barney and an elephant. Or scarecrow. Or a hooker. I have photographic proof of my son as the latter. Bless you. Another prompt for a post!

    • jgroeber
      September 20, 2014

      Wait, was that ribbon skirt and sweater a Hugh Heffner costume? Because that would be AWE-SOME. Ha! And I love the dress up box. I lament its eventual demise. Although my son dressed up like a prostitute will surely ease my pain. 😉

  6. talesfromthemotherland
    September 21, 2014

    Lovely Jen! I recently realized, with horror, that there is still 5 stack deep collection of hand me downs at the top of Little Man’s closet, from his older brother… only problem, he outgrew all of them AGES ago! So typical of the hoarder I am. I love the costumes though… for years my kids played dress up on old clothes and costumes. Again… still sitting in one of my closets! Time to clean this nest. Wonderful post.

    • jgroeber
      October 1, 2014

      When is it actually time to clean the nest?! Hard to know. Really. Because my closets need cleaning! And I need help letting go of those dear, dear memories. Good luck with those closets.

      • talesfromthemotherland
        October 2, 2014

        It’s clearly time in our house! When you don’t even notice clothes that your kids have outgrown… it’s passed time! I keep thinking that a ginormous yard sale is in order. 😉

  7. Molly Connor
    September 30, 2014

    Another post that made me laugh out loud several times with tears popping out finally. I love how you think and write.

    • jgroeber
      October 1, 2014

      How great to read your comment here?! And you remember those days, which is even better. Thank you so much for commenting and for your kind words.

  8. thehonkinggoose
    October 14, 2014

    My kids love to dress up. We keep a huge laundry sack full of costumes that they can use any time they want. They frequently get brought out during play dates because thankfully they also have friends that like to dress up, too.

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