Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Things They Hand-Me-Down

Essay submitted to Skirt! but not included in the December issue. Enjoy!

Lamp, microwave, sheets for my new full-sized bed. Before I moved into my first apartment, as a sophomore in college, I made a list of items I would need: “nightstand, lamp, kitchen trashcan.”   

To each item a good friend and future roommate responded, “don’t buy that, I have one.” 

It became such a joke that our third roommate and I began suggesting outrageous items like private planes, sequined gowns, and autographed copies of the first Beatles album following each with, “don’t buy that, Josh has one.”

We carried this couch down the street from mom's house to our old house. It sits in our home to this day, comfortably broken in and a little bit shabby.

We furnished the apartment on hand-me-downs. A couch someone would have tossed out, a halogen lamp that wobbled when the front door closed, a television stand that used to hold a microwave in someone else’s kitchen. My favorite was the kitchen table with the 1970’s-style roller chairs.

As newlyweds, several years later, Charlie and I furnished a rented bungalow in Charlotte’s fashionable Dilworth neighborhood with our collected assortment of hand-me-downs. A stereo cabinet circa 1975, a cherry wood desk with one bad leg, a wooden four-poster double bed that squeaked mercilessly. The few new items we possessed (wedding gifts like ice buckets, coffee bean grinders, and crystal punch bowls) hid in kitchen cabinets.

Charlie played a second-hand set of drums in a rock band and I enrolled in graduate school and read used books; we waited tables in a brewery nearby and tried to make ends meet on tips and student loans.

Our first landlord had given us the old washer and dryer in the home we rented before we married. When we left for Charlotte he sent those appliances with us. But by the time we arrived the washer had been through enough and called it quits before we could ever employ it in Charlotte. 

We made do until we could save up for a new washer. Charlie took a few baskets of work clothes to the Laundromat and brought them back, soaking, to toss into the dryer, which still worked. I hung what I could on the rusted clothes line just a foot above the tallest weeds in the backyard of the rental property.

One morning before work the doorbell rang and a delivery driver from Lowe’s stood on the porch. He confirmed my name and said he had a delivery for us: a shiny new washing machine.

Standing in that dingy bungalow kitchen, having no idea how such an item would just show up one day, I explained to the man from Lowe’s that I couldn’t pay him for a new washer.

“No, ma’am,” he said, “it’s already paid for.”

I hugged him.

Conversation chairs, also a mom hand-me-down. It's still strange to see these in my living room. These were "fancy" furniture in my parents' house.
A year later our income would level out and we’d buy an $800 couch and finance a new car. We had full time jobs, health insurance, and in two more years we would buy our own 1400 square foot home. 
Back in 2001, Charlie’s Aunt Carolyn Sue had relocated, too, and had lost need of her old washing machine. She’d graciously offered it to us and then, without the resources to get it from her apartment in Uptown Charlotte to our home in Southend, she simply sold it to the new tenant and took that money to Lowe’s.

That she didn’t call to tell us the item was en route was in keeping with what my in-laws termed Carolyn Sue’s “eccentricity.”

Barefoot, holding my wait staff apron in one hand, the half-read text of some American Realism novel in the other, I admitted the Lowe’s delivery staff and watched as they shimmied the broken washer out of its nook in the kitchen and rolled it through the doorway.

It seemed like a dream as they hoisted in the new one in, connected it to the wall, and handed me a clipboard to sign. There it was, my name, on the top of the list for deliveries.

A surprise, new, hand-me-down washing machine.

Eleven years later, Charlie would get promoted; I would finish graduate school and start my own business. It's nearly December and we’ve moved into our second home. 

With so much square footage and so few items to fill it, we’ll again rely on hand-me-downs to furnish a new home. My mother’s cherry dining room suite that my aunt has had for the last eight years, a bedroom set for our daughter’s room that used to be in Charlie’s room when he was a boy, the green couch we hate but has served us well since we inherited it nine years ago.

We’ll again wonder if the risks we’re taking are the right ones and we’ll again cross our fingers against the bad luck that tends to find those with the least amount of extra funds.

That morning in 2001 I drove to work with the glint of the shiny white metal still bright in my eyes. I told my coworkers a washing machine had been delivered to my house that morning and that I had no idea why or how such a thing had come to pass.

For a minute we all wondered at a universe that simply provides.

Then we strapped on our aprons, started the tea, pulled down the chairs, and opened the restaurant.

Have you been surprised by an item you desperately needed but couldn't afford to purchase? Tell me about it in the comments.


  1. When my husband and I first got married, we lived on hand me downs too. He was in med school, I taught. I remember dining room chairs with rollers too! I've never experienced a "WOW" miracle like yours, but I can look back and say that we always had what we needed. And that having to use hand me downs builds character, and a marriage!

    1. Thanks, Julia. I definitely feel my character being built!

  2. To misquote Miss Blanche DuBois, "I've always relied on the kindness of angels." I try to make smart decisions, but life seems to love the curve balls and then has the compassion and humor of sending in the help when necessary. I love the fact that she forgot to mention it to you. How fun is that?

    1. So great! It's a family favorite story. We have been so blessed in so many ways. Having what we need is only one of them. Then again, working at the restaurant was part of our long habit of earning things, too.

  3. I just got my first apartment on my own in August and found myself extremely strapped for cash ... I couldn't afford lamps or chairs! I wound up actually making it until October without either, ha-ha, and the only reason I got chairs was because of a major deal at an online store that helped me afford them and a pathetic little lamp :) But there's something still so fulfilling about finding the perfect pieces to help make a space into a home!

    1. I agree! We had to decide whether to finance furniture and fill this new house right away, or keep our hand-me-down collection and save up to pay cash for new items one at a time. I think the cash route is one we've grown into. Limit your debt and sit on an old couch a little while longer! It may take ten years to fill this new house. We're okay with that :-)

  4. Funny thing about hand-me-downs...sometimes it is hard to divest yourself of them. Or maybe it is just me.
    I get attached to things...a bit of a hoarder, I guess. Anyway this month we will celebrate our 42nd anniversary and we are still living with hand-me-downs! We really need to get rid of some stuff! Want some?

    1. Got an extra couch? Some office furniture? A suitable second-guest-room bed?

      Glad to see you, as always, my friend :-)

  5. Kasie, What wonderful memories! And I think some of those college apartment hand me downs might have come from me :) I struggle to find just one story of a "needed item" that showed up in nick of time ... there have been many, but I think the most precious were the arrival of a friend when I most need one. Love you, Sheila

    1. Thanks, Sheila. I am pretty sure the table and the rolling chairs were from your basement :-)

      Songs and stories show up when I need them, too. Gentle reminders of what I should be focused on.

  6. Looking back over the years, I remember your dad and I living in military base housing, awaiting the birth of your sister and wondering how we were ever going be able to afford all of the furnishings which went with having a baby. I filled out a coupon in the doctor's office for a "free baby gift" from a baby furniture company. In order to receive the "free baby gift" we had to listen to a salesman tell us all about this new baby furniture which was "absolutely the safest furniture around" for baby. There were numerous pieces to it and the man convinced your Dad it was what every Marine Corps pilot would deem the safest equipment to use for his child. I remember saying to your dad, "how are we going to afford this furniture?" to which he replied, "I don't know but we have to figure out a way because it is the best furniture and the safest." I am pretty sure your dad was just tired of being dragged to every furniture store in Pensacola. Anyway, we put down a deposit and signed the order form. The next day when I called your Nana and told her about it she told me your PaPa had done the same thing when she was pregnant with your uncle and me. I asked her how they paid for it and all she would say was "you will have the money when the time comes." She was right because when the time came to pay for the furniture your dad had earned his flight wings and we were receiving flight pay plus my MaMa and PaPa gave us money for their first great granddaughter(your sister). This reminds us that when all is said and done, family and friends are there and ready to help. I love the piece and you and Charlie continue to make wise decisions! I am so proud of you both!

    1. Thanks, mom. We are making decisions based on our principles, always, and we find they are good guideposts.


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