My family didn’t have a lot of money when I was growing up. We always had a clean place to live, even if it wasn’t in the best of neighborhoods. We always had a car, although never a new one. My mom was a frugal cook, so there was food on the table and while you might feel a bit hungry, you never starved.
When we got our first television when I was twelve, I was exposed to commercials for the first time. That’s when I became aware of all that I was missing. There were dolls and soldiers, board games and sports equipment. Sweets of all kinds and varieties of cold cereals that made my mouth water just dreaming about that first bite.
We watched about an hour of television a day, but it was enough for me to notice what people wore and didn’t wear. They didn’t dress like me in hand-me-down threadbare clothes. They didn’t wear conservative clothes that covered a body from head to foot.
When a commercial came on for a Barbie doll, I salivated. Oh, how I wanted one! The girl across the street who sometimes played with me had one. It was so beautiful! So fashionable! So desirable!
One time when we were going to the local five-and-dime, I brought my saved allowance. The store sold Barbie dolls! But they were too expensive. There was a cheap replica which I could afford, so I bought that one. I understood that it was a fake, but it looked enough like a Barbie that I could use the patterns for the real thing to make clothes for this one.
Every afternoon I carried my sewing supplies out to the backyard where there was a shady place along the back fence. I made my doll skirts, blouses, pants and dresses. When I had what could have been considered an ensemble, I worked up the courage to carry it across the street to the girl’s house.
I was pretty proud of what I had done. She destroyed me when she laughed at my cheap plastic replica.
When Christmas rolled around a few months later, all I asked for was a real Barbie. I didn’t get one. But my younger sister did. My parents explained, as I wiped away the tears of disappointment that streamed down my cheeks, that I was too old for a doll.
I didn’t dream of owning anything else again for a long time.
A television program came on with a doctor in the lead role. It was a good show, one that was popular with not just my parents, but with my peers.
One time when we went shopping, a “doctor” blouse hung on a rack. Oh, how I wanted one! School had started by now and many of my peers had them. I knew that I had almost enough saved up to buy one for myself. My mom wouldn’t buy it then even though I promised to pay her back when we returned home. Instead she made me wait until the next trip to the store.
I don’t recall how much time passed between trips, but when we did return to the store, the blouses had been marked down. I was so happy! I finally got my “doctor” blouse.
Imagine how proud I was to wear it to school! I pictured my peers recognizing that I was finally wearing something that was popular. But, oh, that did not happen. You see, styles had changed. The other girls had moved on to whatever the newest fad was. That’s when I discovered that things on a clearance rack were there for a reason.
Around that same time my dad learned of a bargain store a good hour’s drive from home. I had little expectations of finding anything there of interest. I was right. There were car and bike tires, car parts, miscellaneous household goods and clothing that a worker would wear, such as overalls and jumpsuits.
We returned several weeks later. I remember that it had snowed but the roads were clear. Mounds of snow were piled along the sides of roads and along the perimeter of the store’s parking lot. Once again I knew there would be nothing there that I would want.
Imagine my surprise when just inside the doors of the store was a circular rack holding a variety of white and black “leather” coats. When I touched the sleeve of one, it felt so soft that I found myself salivating at the thought of wearing it.
When I showed them to my mom, she informed me that they were not made of real leather. They were fakes. I didn’t care. I still wanted one.
She told me that I’d only get it dirty, that I’d ruin it by spilling something on it and it was be a complete and total waste of money.
I didn’t care. I still wanted one.
My mom refused to buy it for me even when I begged. I promised to work jobs around the house to earn enough money to reimburse her if she bought it right then. She refused.
I cried all the way home.
I had never had a new coat or one that mirrored what other girls wore. I had seen girls wearing similar coats, so in my mind I pictured myself walking the halls of my high school wearing that jacket, feeling proud as all eyes smiled with appreciation.
No matter how much I begged or tried to finagle a way to pay for it, my parents refused to take me back to the store.
Dreams of that coat haunted me. It was all that I cold think of, all I wanted. My hopes for popularity depended upon having that coat. I sensed its power deep inside.
The next time we went to the store, the coats were still on the same circular rack, but there were none left in my size. I walked about the store with tear-filled eyes.
Christmas arrived a few weeks later. My gifts were needed, but boring: underwear, socks, a toothbrush and toothpaste, a new comb and other necessities. Nothing frivolous. Nothing fun.
After all gifts had been unwrapped, my family gathered around the television to watch a Christmas show. I don’t recall what it was because I was heartbroken.
We ate dinner. Don’t ask me what it was.
It was time for bed. I changed into my pajamas, brushed my teeth and came out to tell my parents goodnight.
My parents demanded hugs, which by then I felt too old for. I hated being wrapped in my mother’s arms, but it was even worse being hugged by my dad. He had a way of giving me the creeps.
This time, when I approached my dad, he pulled a large present out from behind his chair. He said he’d found it in his closet.
I sat on the floor, wishing upon wish that it was that which I most wanted. I wanted to rip the paper to shreds, but that would have been a sin. Every bow, every piece of ribbon and paper had to be saved for the next Christmas.
I carefully slid my fingers under the ribbon until it came undone. I rolled the ribbon up into a ball, an expected action that had to happen before moving on. I used a pair of scissors to cut the tape on the paper. When it fell off the plain white box, I folded the paper along its creases.
The box was taped shut. Once again the scissors broke the tape.
I slowly removed the lid. Pulled aside the tissue paper.
It was there! The coat of my dreams was inside that box. I didn’t believe my eyes at first, thinking it was a mirage.
When reality hit, I pulled the coat out of the box and put it on. It fit over my fat body! I could button it all the way from top to bottom. The sleeves were the right length. It was as soft as I remembered. I was speechless.
I wore that coat until bedtime. When it was time to take it off, I hung it in my half of the closet.
Every day I wore that coat, even if we never left the house. I stood taller, held my shoulders squarer and my head higher. I knew that when school began, people would see me for the first time. Instead of being the fat girl who wore hand-me-downs and homemade clothes, I’d be the girl in the white leather (fake leather) coat.
When school began in January, I wore that coat even though it was well below zero and too cold for a thin jacket. I didn’t care even though I was shivering when the school bus finally arrived.
I smiled as I climbed the three steps into the bus. I nodded to the students already on board. No one returned my smile.
At school when I walked the halls, I was still smiling. Not a single student or teacher acknowledged my new coat. As each class ended with no change in my status, I seemed to shrink a little bit more.
By the time I boarded the bus to go home, my new-found confidence was shattered.
To make things worse, sometime during the course of the day I had encountered something that left a mark on the sleeve of my coat. My mom was right: I wouldn’t be able to keep it clean.
I had learned important lessons: don’t ask for things, don’t dream of having things, don’t think that owning something would improve my social status.