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Happy With Our Hand-Me-Downs

When I saw a Navajo blanket exhibition in a London art gallery, suddenly I wasn't homesick anymore. The blankets brought something of the big, wide-open West with them. It was because they had been worn. You could see how the bold-colored stripes and diamonds had bent around someone's arms, and could imagine them beaming across sandy, red-rock landscapes. Those blankets had been places and done things.

Since then, I have spent a lot more time looking at used snowsuits than at Navajo blankets. I think I see a similarity. Hand-me-downs are clothes that already have a life. They give a sense of richness that goes beyond the thrill of being able to clothe your children and pay the mortgage. They may not be as noble as Navajo weavings, but they can still tell you a story.

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I didn't appreciate this particular sort of wealth when, as a child, I was presented with my cousin's outgrown dresses. They were in nice colors with full skirts that swooshed. Well, on her they swooshed. On me they draggled. It was my attitude. I didn't see why she got to be the first one to wear everything. I wore them, not with the grace and gratitude they called for, but with a certain frumpy jealousy all my own.

My children, on the other hand, like their cousins' clothes better than the ones I buy them. They revere their cousins as cool and feel that some of this coolness rubs off on the clothes. They also trust their aunt's taste more than mine. Thanks to her, and because the cousins are twins, my sons can offer after-school visitors a choice between Spiderman and Superman pajamas to dress up in, with capes that Velcro to the shoulders. From me, they get paisley.

The cousins' clothes are saturated with messages. "Cape Overhead Door," it says on a soccer-team shirt. This evokes superimposed images: triumphs on the playing field and doting parents tirelessly garnering local business support.

The most historical hand-me-down in our family, though, is a fuzzy, golden-retriever-colored dog suit made by another aunt for her son's Halloween. No cousin since has ever been able to confine himself to one evening's wear. A twin wore it grocery shopping, and my oldest son wore it all one winter. It's perfect lounge wear for three-year-olds. It has warmth, hand-tailoring, and a nice long tail. The suit will graduate to heirloom status when we send it back to the boy it was made for - for his son to wear.

Not all hand-me-downs run in the family. Rummage sales offer, for a minimal fee, clothes with the allure of mystery. Hand-me-downs Anonymous. There is one sale, at a local private school, of which I am a devotee.

This sale features clothes I would never buy first time around. But send them through the washing machine a hundred times, spread them out in the gym, and mark them down about 95 percent, and I snap them up. Some are not even shabby. There was a perfect pair of overalls in executive gray flannel - just the thing for toddling the deck of the family yacht, possibly accessorized with a yellow or red silk "power bib." I snorted derisively at the idea - and was at least as gratified as the original buyer by all the fuss they generated for my own little Lord Fauntleroy at a family dinner and photo opportunity.

Every mother imagines her baby at the top. The mothers who can afford to be the first buyers of these outfits just have more range for their dreams. Or do they?

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A rummager has the pick of the dreams. And they're usually more preposterous, and therefore more fun, when you get them out of context. I'm still wondering why the yellow rugby shirt with an embroidered kangaroo and kiwi on the left breast, inscribed "Australia," was made in New Zealand. Did its original owner actually play rugby at age 5, and was the team mascot a marsupial? And who lovingly applied such a wealth of star grommets and a space shuttle patch to the denim overalls my kindergartner is just outgrowing? Someone with good skills and plenty of time. Someone waiting for a loved one to touch down at Cape Canaveral, perhaps.

The tables turned quite suddenly last fall. Our son's nursery school had a rummage sale just as our attic needed cleaning. Out came garbage bags of clothes ready to do fourth- or fifth-hand service. The sale was held on the school playground. Cafeteria tables were heaped with old baby clothes.

I was on duty at the gate, helping to stuff shopping bags with pajamas and overalls, when a woman with a baby on her back dangled a small brown moccasin at me. "I couldn't find the other one of these," she said.

I hesitated a moment. Did she expect me to search through all that used flannel, denim, and Polar Fleece like Prince Charming's assistant, looking for the matching glass slipper?

"Is this your first child?" I said. She nodded. No one is casual about her first child. She probably thought he deserved at least a prince's assistant to look for the lost moccasin, and not just some volunteer mom. Thinking of first children, I did a double take. I knew that moccasin. "Wait! That's in our attic in a box," I said. "Give me your address and I'll send it to you."

When I mailed her the other one, I briefly considered writing a note about how my husband did a rather remarkable U-turn on Route 1 in Maine so I could buy them for our own first child to celebrate that he was going to be a brother. Then I thought, no need. She has her own stories. I do wonder if her baby actually wears them, or just chews on them and throws them over the side of the playpen as mine did. But I am content to wonder. My moment of hand-me-down grace and gratitude came, finally, from having found the moccasin's match, and from having met mine.

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