I can say it today without self pity: When I was growing up as the oldest of 11 children, new clothes were as scarce as unicorns. I couldn't be matter-of-fact about it then. At one time I would have sold my brothers and sisters to the Russians for a new dress. There was going to be a special program at church Saturday night, and Dan the Dreamboat was taking me. I wanted to look as beautiful on the outside as I felt on the inside when he looked at me. I was convinced I needed a special dress to bring out how beautiful the real me was.
I talked to my mother. "I won't collect my allowance for the next year. I'll scrub floors and do dishes for six months without complaining. I'll make all of the beds."
My mother wouldn't look at me, so I knew the news wasn't good. "Couldn't you get a baby sitting job for tonight or tomorrow night?" she asked. "Joe needs new shoes and I had to buy Ruth's special medicine again this week. We just can't afford a new dress right now."
I ran to my bedroom and threw myself on the bed. It was too late to get a baby sitting job. I knew that nice, decent, mature teenage girls shouldn't feel soppingly sorry for themselves, but I couldn't help it. I wanted that dress so badly that I could its soft blue folds gliding over my hips and the spidery white lace prickling my neck and wrists. I even saw the dress the next evening at the shopping center. My friend Jeanette and I had walked over after school and were thumbing through the racks, when suddenly, there it was, shimmering into my vision like a fairy godmother. But there was no magic wand to make it materialize on my body.
On the way home, visions of giving my uncle or grandparents a lifetime I.O.U. danced through my head. Or maybe Dad could put a second mortgage on the house. When I got home, Mom needed some dinner help. I have to admit that I set the plates down on the table a little harder than necessary, but I figured I had good reason. Then I walked into my bedroom. There, spread out on the bed, was not the blue dress I had loved so much, but one almost as pretty. This dress was a soft pink with a contrasting deeper pink skirt and a wide white collar and white cuffs that were so stylish then. I ran out to the kitchen and hugged my Mom. "I don't know how you did it, but thank you - a million times!"
I even kissed her, something I hadn't done for awhile. I thought I sensed a sadness in her return hug and kiss, but I was too busy to think about it for long. I had to finish my dinner chores and work on my hair and nails. Time was getting short, and instant beauty takes time.
On Saturday afternoon I began getting ready, and by the time evening came there was a line of six kids outside the bathroom door, pacing the floor and demanding to be let in. I didn't care. I was having a long, leisurely soak, polishing my nails, and curling my hair. After all, Dan was coming at 7 and it was 5:30 already. I had to take extra pains with my beauty routine because Dan's sister Gail and her date were coming with us, and she was known in our gang as a very sharp dresser. Finally, my overhaul was finished, and I swept into the living room. Dad was reading the paper and Mom was watching T.V. "How do I look?" I asked. I knew the answer, but I wanted proof.
"You look beautiful," my Dad said.
"You look very nice," Mom said. Her eyes lingered on my dress and I thought I saw a frown pucker her forehead.
"I stared at my hemline in alarm. "Is my slip showing?"
"Nothing's showing. You look fine," she said.
The doorbell rang, and like a princess I eased it open, the cheers of my invisible subjects ringing in my ears. Dan thought I looked like a princess. I could tell by the dazzled look in his eyes. Behind him were Gail and her date. I invited them inside.
"That's a pretty dress," Dan said.
Gail's glance scratched over me like a garden rake through dry soil. "That is a pretty dress," she said. "Too bad I didn't like the color or I would have kept it for myself."
"What do you mean?" I asked her.
"I mean that I put that dress and lots of other things in the church "Clothes Tree." You know, where everyone puts clothes that they don't need any more and the church gives them away or sells them cheap. I hope you wear the dress a lot."
My mind groped for someone to blame. I hated Gail. I hated Dan because I wanted to look beautiful for him, but most of all I hated my Mom. How could she buy a dress from the church "Clothes Tree," for me, especially this particular dress?
Gail's smirk told me I'd never be able to forget that my dress had been her dress, and my date was her brother. Then Mom hurried up to me. She thrust a small, beaded purse in my hands that had belonged to my grandmother. "Here, you forgot your purse," she said.
I gulped. This was her most prized purse; the one she saved for special occasions. The bitter words and the resentment melted away. "Thanks for everything, Mom," I said, managing a wobbly smile.
I held my head high, swept over to Dan, and put my arm through his. "Let's go," I said, as my imaginary subjects gave me a standing ovation.