Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Sewing Patches

I don't remember where I got that pair of pants, but I'm sure they were secondhand. They were made of a black cotton that had been worn down to absolute softness, and the elastic waistband had been stretched to just the point that it wouldn't pinch my slightly chubby waistline. I was never one of those willowy, doe-eyed youths, but instead leaned a little more toward the pudgy side. This fact fit nicely into a bucket of facts about me that, when combined, made me less than popular with other kids. 

We were poor, a fact that I'm almost grateful for now since it has filled my toolbox with skills I use every day, along with a sense of creativity and freedom from seeing things just one way. Nothing breaks, I think now, it just gives itself over to a new use, a new form, one that you can shape as you see fit. Nothing breaks, except cars, hearts and homes. Necklaces can be refashioned into bracelets, torn books can become the backdrop of a collage, and pants can be patched. 

I wore those black pants down to the bone, down to the threads. A tomboy, I spent almost every day stuck high up in a tree with a book. The tree in the front yard of our falling-down house out in the sticks in Granite Shoals had two long diagonal limbs that left about a foot of space in between them, the perfect seat with the perfect footrest. The school bus would spit out my sister and me everyday and I'd let us in with the house key I kept on a piece of yarn, often around my neck. The house would be quiet, with both of my still-married but always-warring parents out chasing the paychecks that provided our basic necessities. I'd grab my book and head straight out to the tree, losing myself in a world much prettier than my own, existing not as the chubby ten-year-old I saw when I looked in the mirror, the one with the crooked bangs that my dad had cut himself - and butchered - because it was cheaper, but whoever it was that I found in the pages. It didn't even matter if the protagonist was male or female. I'd be a boy as easily as a girl, if it meant being somewhere else. 

All that climbing trees, traipsing through the trails behind our house looking for deer tracks and cast-off antlers, and rolling around in the shaky treehouse out back that my dad had built took its toll on my favorite pair of pants. They began first to thin at the knees, then to open just a snag, then finally gave in to the pressure and split open in several places, leaving openings like scars that showed the damage I'd done to them. I couldn't keep them going much longer, but couldn't give them up either. Something about them, their downy softness, the black and white stripes that ran only down the sides of them, the elastic at the bottom that kept them hugged to my legs and out of my way as I romped about, made it impossible for me to give them up. My mom looked them over, said we couldn't sew them, they were too thin and would just tear right back open, but we could patch them. 

We used the cheapest form of patching available, of course. Those thin, white rectangles that you could iron on. The kind that was meant to patch the inside of denim pants to support the sturdier patch that mirrored it on the outside. As we sat down to repair my favorite pants, my mom had the brilliant idea to cut out shapes from the patching and put them not just over the places that needed repair, but all over the pants. We traced out stars and crescent moons and ironed them on at intervals all up and down the legs. I thought it looked amazing, and was ecstatic that I not only had my old pants back again, but that I had a new, celestial theme to go with them. We agreed that they looked even better than they had before, and that the white patches stood out nicely against their black background, and echoed the theme of the black and white stripes on the sides. I remember being happy, having fun with my mom as we got down on those pants and made something new out of something that seemed beyond fixing. I remember delight and a sense of accomplishment. I loved those damn pants more than ever before. 

I attended school in Marble Falls, a town we'd moved to when I was in the second grade. When I began third grade, and moved to the elementary school that had once been a high school, I was put in the 'smart class.' There they referred to it as the 'gifted and talented' program, or GT. The GT class would move through the grades together, in the same group, rather than being randomly assigned to teachers in the 4th and 5th grades, as the rest of the school was. The purpose was to provide those who tested appropriately into the class with a more challenging curriculum and a broader span of opportunities than the average student. In the small town that we lived in, every single kid in that class was rich except for me. I know now that some of them were only middle class, and not the billionaires they all seemed to me at the time, but some of them really were wealthy. One kid had a tennis court, one kid had African masks on the wall that had actually been brought back from Africa, and several others lived in the well-to-do Horseshoe Bay area or on prime real estate spots on the lake. 

My family lived farther out, side by side with white trash and poorer elderly couples. My mom drove the hour and fifteen minutes into Austin every day to her job and my dad worked in the shop at the Horseshoe Bay golf course. We ate cheerios with water sometimes, used clear Karo syrup on our pancakes, made homemade chocolate syrup, and had a ringer washer and clothesline. I didn't know until I was much older that ringer washers were antiques, and I often wonder where my parents found that thing. I was always afraid of it, of the way it shook violently in its spin cycle all around the bathroom floor, of losing a digit as I fed clothing into the ringer. For my birthday party one year, we made invitations out of construction paper and yarn. We often shopped in that one aisle of the grocery store where every single label was white with black letters and said simply, Corn or Spinach. We washed our hair with bars of soap, and we patched pants that were torn rather than throwing them away or buying new ones. 

My dad was a carpenter by trade. That old joke about mechanics, that they always drive shitty cars because they buy fixer-uppers and then never get around to fixing them up, or how plumbers never have a toilet that works right, that applies to carpenters, too. Our little rental house was cheap, with no central heating and the bare minimum of insulation. Once, I went into the kitchen to get a snack and as I opened the cabinets above the kitchen counter, pulling back just a bit too hard, the entire row of cabinets detached from the wall and fell toward me, canned vegetables sliding out fast before them, heralding their descent. My mom sprinted across the room and propped them up just before they hit my face, and had to stand there holding them up until my dad came home. We did not have a tennis court. 

Added to all this was the fact that my parents were barely functional as a unit. We had moved to Granite Shoals after leaving Arlington, where my parents had separated for a time and had now decided to get back together, but had also silently decided to hate each other with a visceral passion. Their top-of-the-lungs, cutthroat, no holds barred screaming matches scared the shit out of my little sister and me, and it made no difference if they waited until we went to bed to get down to business, as the walls were paper thin, the house was too small, and their voices were too many decibels above discreet to conceal anything from us. By the time they divorced when i was 12, the only thing I had left to feel about it was relief. All four of us wanted for it just to be over. 

At the time of my favorite black pants, I was less able to relate to other people my age than any kid I knew. I often had stubborn outbursts of anger on the playground, felt most comfortable sitting alone by myself daydreaming, and read more than any other kid in my class. I was the classic picture of the poor, socially awkward, angry loner. 

The day after we put those stars and moons on my pants, I eagerly put them on before going to school. I locked the empty house behind me as my sister and I went out front to wait for our bus in the early morning cold. I got a few sideways glances, but no one said anything about my pants until the middle of the day, when we were all in gym for P.E., an unorganized group of kids running around after being pent up in a classroom all morning. It might have been this roaming pack mentality that encouraged the other kids to say out loud whatever cruel thing popped into their head. It could have been that I was so strange compared to them that it felt more acceptable to them to target me. It could be that kids really are just cruel. 

It started subtly but quickly became an avalanche of insults. One girl pointed at my pants and laughed. She had perfect, shiny hair. She whispered into the ear next to her, an ear with shiny earrings. The girls next to her all began to laugh along with her, bright tinkling voices that seemed to echo across the wooden floors of the old gym. They all had perfectly matched outfits with no rips or tears. The boys joined in next, laughing as I stood there, and one boy said, 'I bet she put all those patches on there to hide the fact that she had to fix her pants!' That boy was cute, with nice brown hair. They all fell into fits of giggles and pointed, standing together as a unit, an army that stood against me. I don't remember if I cried just then or waited until later, and the rest of the day is dissolved into haze in my mind, like sugar in water that gets boiled down to a syrup: thick. 

The tears came readily enough later as I told my mom about my day. 'But I wasn't trying to hide the holes, I just like the shapes!' I said. 'I don't care if they know I patched my pants.'

'I know,' she said. 'Kids are just mean. And I really do like your pants. I think they look really cool.' The great thing about my mom is, she really meant it. She did like those pants, just like I did. 

I managed to survive that day, and all the others. I didn't keel over every time someone laughed at my clothes or my haircut or my chubby physique or the ungainly way I struggled to relate to people. I didn't break down sobbing when, in Mr. Kosewicz's class, I was the only one not to wear my costume to school on Halloween and a girl came up to me, unbidden, to say, 'Don't cry, don't cry because your family can't afford to get you a costume.' I didn't explain that actually, I had a beautiful hand-sewn costume my mother had labored over for a week, which I chose not to wear to school because it was a Star Trek: The Next Generation uniform, and there was enough on the table already for people to mock me for. 

My childhood didn't kill me, and I only became slightly bitter about the reactions I got to my poor and dysfunctional upbringing. But when I ran into my first punk rocker, saw all those patches and inch pins, all those holes and tears and smiling, snarling faces, it triggered something in me. I'd found a shortcut over the bridge between me and them, and there was no need to rush to say, 'I'm here, finally, I'm fucked up and angry, too!' I fit, if only because there were a bunch of us that didn't fit at all, and it felt like we were missing pieces from a myriad of puzzles, happy to just lay around together not fitting into any big picture. It was enough to keep flipping over the cassettes that were basically saying it for us, and sit around on a dirty floor in someone's shitty apartment, poor, sewing patches. 

No comments:

Post a Comment