Aunt Jean’s Barrel

When I was growing up, my mother had a blue barrel that she kept in the basement. It was full of clothes. Some of these clothes were hand-me-downs from friends and family, but most of them came from our own closets. How they got there was usually the result of the mandatory closet-cleaning before school started. With four sisters (and no brothers) in the house, that barrel was never empty.

But just as often, the barrel would be given its own cleaning, but one we enjoyed much more. A rainy Sunday was excuse enough for all of us girls to trample down the stairs. Mom would roll it out along the grey painted concrete floor and, in quick succession, unveil one colorful garment at a time. It was like opening a time capsule.  Then the mayhem would start.

“Oh my god. Did I wear that thing?!”

“This might fit you, Judy”

“I wore that to the eighth grade dance!”

We would have so much fun going through that barrel. Time just stood still. There was suspense, anticipation, hope as well as reminiscing. We would try on skirts, coats, tops and dresses; some for laughs, some with a specific future event in mind. Eventually a pile of garments would form beside of each of us. Some of us, of course, fared better than others but before we knew it, all of our wardrobes were refreshed. And so the cycle would begin again.

Mom also shared the wealth of the barrel with her sister, my Aunt Mary, and her three daughters about the same age. Doreen, the youngest of the three, reaped the benefits of the barrel year after year. She was especially lucky. Those clothes told no stories from her own family and she was free from the concern that they would be recognized as her sisters’ hand-me-downs.

In school, Doreen began getting compliments on her unique and varied wardrobe. Of course, the question that inevitably came after the complement was, “Where did you get that?” Doreen wasn’t quite sure what to say, but eventually she’d answer, “My Aunt Jean’s barrel.” Bewildered, they would respond, “Where’s that?”

Mom once told me that if she ever opened a thrift shop, she would name it Aunt Jean’s Barrel. I think she understood, as we all did, the magic feeling that was created when we went through her blue barrel. Besides the obvious material gain of “new” clothes without spending any money and the practicality of keeping them out of the landfill, there was the sense of discovery, the fun, the camaraderie and the memories. Nowadays, I find all these attributes by shopping at thrift stores.

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