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Hanging on to Babyhood by Threads

It had made its way, this time, into the box of children’s clothes I had neatly packed.

The box--taped shut and labeled “girls’ clothes, sizes 2 thru 8"--was headed for a local shelter in hopes that the things my kids had outgrown might help children in need.

But I stopped before I handed it over and went pawing through it, searching for the one thing I needed to retrieve.

Because among the old fleece sleepers, the denim overalls, the knit dresses edged with embroidery, there is one single item I cannot bear to actually give away.

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It is a small, pink, fluffy hooded sweater with a plush fleece lining and a knitted teddy bear motif. It is nice, but inexpensive, off-the-rack. Yet it has outlasted the hand-knit booties, the knitted afghan, the expensive dresses with the big-name labels all worn until outgrown, then given up for donation.

For years, it hung in my daughters’ closet . . . long past the time that any arms in our family could squeeze through those tiny, toddler-size sleeves. Finally, I boxed it up and stored it away.

Now, it is unpacked--then repacked--whenever I go through my recurring “it’s time to clean out the attic” phase. I haul it out, examine it and contemplate giving it away . . . replaying this inner conversation:

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“What are you keeping this for? It’s not like you’ll ever have a baby again to wear it. Just think of all the little children who could use a sweater this nice and warm.”

Then I recall bundling my own children in it, and my memories of them hold sway. And the sweater stays.

I’m not sure why I can’t let it go. Each time I fail, it feels like I’ve lost a battle with my conscience, when I think of little children without sweaters and this garment uselessly packed in a box.

But giving it up would feel like a different kind of betrayal . . . one that might loosen my grip on memories that link me to my children--and them to each other--in a tangible sort of way.

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My eldest first wore the sweater as a toddler. I--her inexperienced mother--would struggle with its zipper so . . . I’d nick her chin each time I fastened it on.

She passed it along to her sister, who never sat still long enough for me to get the zipper up. And then it was handed down to the baby, who tolerated the zipper--but refused to let me tie on the hood.

I can conjure up pictures of them in my mind, a kind of time-lapse photography, these mental images of three little girls swathed in pink as they made their way on unsteady legs out into the cold.

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There is no more pink in their wardrobe these days. When they go out now, they bundle up in denim jackets, Spice Girls sweatshirts, black pullovers emblazoned with slogans like No Fear.

My littlest giggles when she spies the fuzzy pink sweater folded on the front seat of the car. She holds it up and marvels at how small it seems.

“Did I really wear this?” she wonders, as she drapes it across her 8-year-old shoulders. “I could fit this on Gabe.” She demonstrates, zipping it onto her favorite doll and wrapping him in her arms.

And I think not of how small the sweater is, but of how large it used to seem.

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It was a baby shower present 14 years ago, and when I opened the box, I was struck by its size. Next to all those other gifts--the tiny booties and newborn nightgowns--this size 2 sweater looked suited for a giant, and I couldn’t imagine it ever fitting the unborn baby I carried inside.

But before I knew it, that tiny baby had turned into a toddler, size 2. And then she learned to zip her own sweater, and her baby sister grew into a toddler and took her place. And then along behind her came another, who wore the pink sweater until her arms grew too long and the hood was too tight around her face.

And it wasn’t until there was no one else to wear the sweater that I realized how quickly they’d moved through time, how relentless the march . . . how you can think things are so far away that they will never come, only to see them materialize suddenly, right before your eyes.

I suppose that’s what the sweater represents, and why I find it so hard to let it go . . . even though the baby I thought would never grow into it is a teenager now. And wearing her mother’s sweaters as she heads for the mall.

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Sandy Banks’ column is published on Sundays and Tuesdays. Her e-mail address is sandy.banks@latimes.com.


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