December 2004

The virtues of thrift

By David Feela

At the risk of exposing myself to ridicule, I want to get this off my chest: For the past 30 years all my clothing has come from thrift stores. With the exception of the occasional gift and the bulk of my underwear and socks, I use used.

If my mother were alive, she’d shudder. To my knowledge, she entered a thrift store only once, but even then she stood near the door with a glazed expression while I rummaged through a barrel of scarves, mittens, and hats. Glancing toward her, I could imagine the spasm that coursed down her spine each time I sized an old ski hat with my head. Who last wore that? I heard her think. Goodness, the previous owner could have died!

To her relief, I didn’t find a hat that day, and as we left to continue our Christmas shopping, the unspoken rattled like wire hangers in the air above our heads. That Christmas I found three new hats under the tree; not one of them addressed to my brother or sister: all three were for me. Mother, if you’re listening, let me explain this habit of junking my way through life. It’s not anyone’s fault, especially not yours. You gave me everything I needed and my selfesteem has never been completely worn out. I’m just at home with what has been in other people’s homes. I’m a treasure hunter of the lower order, a pirate who asks the bloke on the plank what he intends to do with his boots before stepping into the unknown.

Do you remember when we’d visit Grandma’s house, how I’d disappear for an hour or so, and when you’d finally notice I had been gone, you’d ask what I’d been up to? Well, here’s an answer you never heard: I was upstairs searching through Grandma’s closets and dressers in an attic that might well have served as her memory, an enormous room where she’d stored a thousand articles she couldn’t quite bring herself to toss. Grandpa’s thick suspenders, a collection of fountain pens, overalls so religiously starched they couldn’t have genuflected had they been unfolded in front of God. Stacks of yellowed napkins, a box full of pictures, bundles of letters, dried flowers, a fragile veil folded carefully beside a stack of women’s hats.

Grandma’s house piqued my interest in old things, the acrid smell of mothballs nearly knocking me over as I mounted the stairs, but the longer I stayed in that dusty atmosphere, the more I believed that time would sit down in a chair and wait for my curiosity to wane. After Grandma died, you prayed for her soul to be saved; I had no doubt she’d already tucked it away somewhere this side of the grave.

In this world thrift is not synonymous with pride. In a life where weddings and funerals are main courses, just getting by implies some failure, some lack of stamina or drive that defines secondhand as second best. It’s hardly, as Hamlet said, to be or not to be; rather, it’s the gray area in between, the give and take fabric endures until it tears. It’s the seams along the underside that still need to be tight. Seams, Mother, you know what I mean. The places where we come together, the little tuck and fold stitched flat to keep hold of our dreams.

I never guessed how much of the world gets discarded. Everything new suddenly turns less than new, less than perfect. Blue jeans and even babies. Winter coats and a portion of the old folks. Once upon a time thrift shops were havens of the poor, the destitute, those down on their luck or just plain downtown, looking for a drink. The Salvation Army, The Goodwill, New Horizons.

Names flying like flags where we pledge our sympathy. I see people in the aisles, holding a shirt up against a shadow, fitting a foot into a shoe they’d like to fill. Some of them just hanging on, some of them. Others remind me of me, of us, mothers with children in tow, furiously shopping so they might fill an empty bag. College kids laughing outrageously at what looks outrageous. Then buying it.

Whoever said “Time waits for no man” had little regard for thrift stores. Time waits. The people move on. And you, Mother, I like to think you are waiting somewhere for me, but probably not in a thrift store. At least that’s what you wanted me to think.

If this obsession with old things could be explained in Freudian terms, a Grandmother Complex might make us laugh, as if at an old joke. Or we could be Buddhist about it and write the entire habit off as a search for my former life. Maybe. However I explain it, I know you’ll never understand completely. I don’t fully understand myself. Maybe it’s not something that requires analysis, only faith. Faith that somehow the past will help me more comfortably into the future. A belief that whatever gets used hardly ever gets used up.

I’m in what I hope is the middle of my life now, and there are a lot of thrift shops I’ve never been in. Hang on, Mother. I’m still looking for a good used hat.

Dave Feela teaches at Montezuma- Cortez High School.