My hand-me-down wardrobe was threadbare by the time it got to me, the fourth girl in a family of five. How I envied Ken, my only brother: He always managed to get new clothes. There were no faded undershirts or pants with torn knees for him. He got brand new clothing, and I began to realize how unfair it was to be one of four girls.
The only good clothes I ever got were those that were deemed "ugly." These were the ones my sisters had received as gifts and were too "gaggy" to wear.
They were stuffed into a drawer until they no longer fitted, and Mom wondered why she'd never seen Cathy wear that lovely yellow sweater from Aunt Martha - the one with the ducks on it. There were also wide-legged pants when the style was slim. These became my new clothes. Until I was 10, I had the fashion sense of a wart hog: So as long as it fitted, I wore it.
But one day, something changed.
My friend Rena lived next door. She was older, pretty, and fun, and she came from a Ukrainian family. I loved the clothes that she wore - full of color and tradition. One day when I was at her house learning to make pirogies, her mother brought out a bag of clothes bound for Goodwill.
"Would you like to go through these first?" asked Mrs. B. I eagerly dropped my dough and went for the bag. At the top of the pile was the most beautiful shirt I had ever seen. It was red - bright red - and silky.
There were no tears, no stains, and no runs in the shirt. It had seven gold buttons on the front and one on each silky sleeve. I was in love. I crushed it to my stained T-shirt, said "thank you," and quickly ran home to show my mom.
The new shirt had a magic to it. For the first time, I began to look in the mirror before I left for school. I combed my hair more than once a day, and I brushed my teeth more than twice. I put my dirty clothes in the laundry pile. I started to notice what other people wore and even sneaked looks at my sister's fashion magazine. I showed an interest in sewing, and soon I was making my own clothes out of castoffs.
They were not always successes, and some my mother wouldn't let me wear out of the house, but I eventually learned to create a passable wardrobe.
I wore the beautiful red shirt at least three times a week. I wore it for special occasions and to school on the days we had assembly. I polished the gold buttons, and I hung it up after every washing.
At 12, I had blossomed into a young lady with style, all because of that wonderful red shirt.
One day my mother watched as I struggled to get the buttons done up. I had grown, and unfortunately my shirt had not. I cried and tried to figure out a way to make it bigger without hurting it, but I could not bring myself to change it. It was perfect and could not be altered to fit the person I was becoming.
Mother had just prepared a basket of things to take over to a new family. They were Portuguese and had recently moved into our small town. There was not much money to go around, especially after their move. The father had just begun a new job and the mother did not know much English, so she could not find work in any of the shops.
I remembered seeing their youngest girl in school with her threadbare clothes and worn shoes, her hair mussed up and dirt on her face. It hurt me to see how much she looked the way I had two years ago.
I placed the red shirt on the top of the basket, and my mom nodded and said, "Now you have grown in more ways than one."
I smiled and took one last look at my favorite shirt. It had changed my life, and I hoped it would do the same for her, too.
The next week in school, I saw the little girl, whose name was Marta. She was busy making friends and playing games. Her smile seemed a little brighter, her hair was combed and tied with a scarlet ribbon to match her new red shirt with the shiny gold buttons that someone had handed down.