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Learning by Giving

By Joan Leotta

Being someone whose appearance was often considered sketchy at best, (hair never behaving, being too shy to smile), feeling beautiful in something was rare.

As a child, I never cared about clothes – until a certain pale blue sleeveless organza with a blue satin sash appeared in my closet one day, the summer I was seven. It was a hand-me-down from my older cousin Diane.

Perhaps it was the shade of blue and the wide satin belt that my Mom worked into a wonderful bow. Perhaps it was the way the skirt drifted out on the air when I twirled while wearing it. Perhaps it was just the way my long dark hair contrasted with the blue. I felt beautiful in that dress. Being someone whose appearance was often considered sketchy at best, (hair never behaving, being too shy to smile), feeling beautiful in something was rare.

That summer, I begged to wear it on any and all occasions when a special dress was called for.

When leaves grew red with a warning that colder days were coming, I still begged to wear the dress. A long-sleeved white wool sweater extended its “wear-ability” until November when my mother refused to bow to my desire to wear that dress.Over the winter, as children often do, I grew. When spring came, my mother pulled clothing out of the closet and had me try on the outfits that were still pristine. The blue dress was one of them. It still looked wonderful. There was only one problem. I had grown out of it. It was too short, and the shoulders pinched.

“Mommy, can we fix the shoulders? I don’t mind if it’s a little short.”

My mother took it out of my hands and shook her head. “No, you grew too much. But this dress is still perfect. You really took good care of it. In fact, it is so lovely, I think we can pass it on to Patti.”

Patti lived at Pittsburgh’s Children’s Hospital. She was two years older than I, but small because of her lifelong struggle with polio. My grandmother was one of the volunteers who spent time with Patti. Passing on the best of my outgrown things to Patti was a regular occurrence. Something I had never minded – until the blue dress.

“Blue is Patti’s favorite color,” my mother continued.

“It’s my favorite color too! Why don’t we buy her a new one?”

My Grandma often bought new toys and clothing for Patti. I was about to offer my allowance toward such a project when my mother spoke again.

“You have a closet full of dresses that we buy you, that Grandma buys you and that your cousin gives you. You do not need this one. I’m surprised you want to keep this from Patti. You usually love to give her things from your closet or help shop for her at the store.”

“But if you fix the shoulders, I can still twirl around the house in this one,” I whined, ignoring her logic.

My mother’s tone grew very stern. “Patti can’t twirl at all.”

Ouch. My mother’s words stung. I handed over the dress.

In those days children under age sixteen were not allowed to visit in hospitals. I called Grandma the next day to ask her to tell Patti that the blue dress was a very special one and it could make her feel beautiful. A few months later, the hospital had a fund-raising telethon on a local television show. They chose Patti to be the face of the campaign.

We all watched it together on television. Even though the show was in black and white in the 1950s and Patti was sitting in a wheelchair, I could tell she was wearing the blue dress.

She smiled into the camera. My Grandma never told me if she passed my message on to Patti, but I could tell that Patti, smiling into that camera, wearing the blue dress, felt beautiful. And I was sure she was directing her smile right at me.

Postscript: While I admit there are a few old items in my closet that have more sentimental than fashion value, I regularly sift through, giving away even favorites, thinking of the pleasure the new owner will have when wearing them. Patti died when she was sixteen but has continued to influence my life. When putting clothing aside now, I rotate giving my items among local thrift shops whose profits support community residents, including children in schools and battered women.

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