Ways of Seeing: $1 suitcase yields big dividends

When my daughter Heidi was ten, we moved from Cornwall to Middlebury. Our new house needed furniture for its empty rooms and, since we were on a tight budget, we looked for garage sales. One massive sale was on Sperry Road in Cornwall, where the Packs were moving from their large renovated barn house. We had visited the house before and knew the high quality of the furnishings.
What we found were a large modern couch with dark floral cushions, twin beds for Heidi’s bedroom, and a solid mahogany coffee table. I was about to pay when I was drawn to a big, grey, plastic-ripple suitcase with peeling trim. I peeked inside to find it filled with clothes.
“How much for this?” I asked.
“A dollar” came the answer.
Patty Pack added it to the pile. I figured Heidi might use the clothing for dress-up.
As I was cashing out, Patty said, “We had to wear floor-length gowns to meals in boarding school in the fifties. I don’t need them. Well, I couldn’t fit into them now, anyway,” she sighed.
When I got home and pulled them out of the suitcase one-by-one, I could see why. The size was extra, extra small. The fitted waist looked to be about doll-size. I had learned about quality clothing early because my grandmother was a seamstress for New York dignitaries. This handmade clothing was gorgeous. There were silk gowns of various colors, light wool suits, cotton dresses, woolen skirts, and rayon tops. I carefully placed everything back into the suitcase and hid it in my closet.
As December came, I found some fancy paper, wrapped the suitcase, and put it under the tree. The other presents were overshadowed by it. I watched my daughter eye it on Christmas Eve with what looked like hope. I couldn’t imagine what she thought it might be.
When she ripped the paper off, her eyes lost their sparkle. She stared at the battered suitcase, nodded, and said, “Thanks, Mom,” as she pushed the unopened suitcase aside to make space for the next shiny present. She was looking forward to a monogrammed sweater like her friends, new clothes, or jewelry, I guess.
But later on when the hype of opening presents had died down, she went back to the suitcase and touched each soft fabric as she lifted it out. And invited her friends over to play dress-up. She spent many hours on many days over some years with that dollar present.
As she got older, she became clothes-conscious and creative. She had her own unique style, which she claimed as early as middle school. In high school when she got invited to the junior prom, the first year she chose a salmon-colored silk gown from the suitcase, which fit perfectly after I made a few alterations. I think she felt like the rich princess she used to write about when she was younger.
The next year when she went shopping for a gown, she realized that none of the ones she saw were as beautiful or unique as those in the suitcase. She chose one with a square neckline. She didn’t like the cream color so we dyed it blue. The third year we dyed one purple. And in her senior year, Heidi wore a light peach silk sheath. She never bought a prom dress. Even later, when her glitzy childhood presents were long gone and she got a job at the New York Public Library, I sent her one of those perfect wool suits.
Ever since then, I have always thought that there’s a special category of “Thanks Mom” presents. They are the ones that are not showy, requested, or the latest item advertised — the ones that get a mild and unexcited reaction when they are opened. Over the years I have come to learn that “Thanks Mom” presents are the ones that have the most meaning because they have lasting power and are one-of-a-kind.
Sas Carey is the founder and director of Nomadicare of Mongolia (nomadicare.org). She has directed three documentaries—“Gobi Women’s Song,” “Ceremony” and “Migration,” and written “Reindeer Herders in My Heart.” She has been given a writing fellowship to work on her memoirs at Vermont Studio Center for the month of January.

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