Hand-me Down Dress by Whitney Vale

Hand-me Down Dress

My first trip to a second-hand shop
was in Dalton, Massachusetts. I entered its dim interior
feeling like Nancy Drew.
I knew the word antique from a tale about a clock.
Dust covered everything. Light diffused motes became
fairy wings. Shelves coughed out owls, thingamajigs, books.
Given a quarter, I bought a doll sized piece of Indian pottery.

I careened around the neighborhood on my brother’s old bike
long missing a kick-stand. I would swing my legs to one side,
jump, and stick-it strong to ground,
while the bike flopped over like a rusted fish.

My first purse was olive green, worn and empty
‘cept for hope that one day I’d wear the shoes that matched.
Mom let me stumble in them from time to time.

Jean sent a box of hand-me-downs to the Berkshires.
I held my breath when I saw dresses,
my cousin’s—brand-new to me,
I felt something in my gut move, a hunger.
Mom possessed by anger when she opened the box—

Witched-eyed, she blew her Salem mentholated smoke
around the kitchen, paced and swore,
shook her head “we’re not poor.”
I didn’t understand. I would dance
in old lace curtains, collect used stories, and conversations,
I’d stroke the surface of worn
and taste the pleasure of torn pages from a fairy tale.
Life was all a story to me, make-believe—with props.

One dress, grey stripes and white,
Peter Pan collar and red fruit on the pockets
sang softly from the jumble. I fingered the stitches,
maybe marveled out loud at the swell of cherries on the bodice.
It was the one I was allowed to keep.

The grey had faded to the color of a dim shadow,
the cotton soft as pussy willow.
I thought of my cousin when I wore it,
breathed in a little of her flair.
I braided an old velvet ribbon and wore it in my hair.

by Whitney Vale

Editor’s Note: The last three lines of this poem ground the entire story within the narrator’s youthful sensibility. There is no “poor” for her. There is only “cotton soft” and “flair.” The unexpected end rhyme of the last two lines is lovely.

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