“Nicholas just opens his drawer and takes whatever shirt!” Christopher is incredulous that his older brother, the one he looks up to, the one who was his first hero and the first person who was able to make him laugh, would be so cavalier about what he would wear.
Nicholas truly does not care much about clothing; his daily uniform of t-shirts and track pants changes only on special occasions, when we might be able to get him into jeans and a sweater. Even when he asserted his independence as a toddler, he truly didn’t fight us in the arena of “what to wear”, even though he was a fierce competitor in every other way. So, as he grew through to the eight-year-old he is today, we decided to take advantage of his not really caring all that much. When we go clothes shopping we have a plan that involves multiples of the basketball shorts, track pants and t-shirts he likes to wear. We hit one store for about an hour and a half every six months. Done and done.
Christopher gets these hand-me-downs, an extensive collection of not really well-thought-out, functional but not fashionable, interchangeable clothes. For a while he seemed to feel okay about them, as they were comfortable and usually were decorated with cartoon characters he liked. Then it wasn’t okay. Then came the showdown.
It was before a gymnastics class in the dead of winter. With polar vortexes and sub-zero temperatures, we would layer up like crazy before heading out somewhere. That particular day he had on thick socks, boots, long track pants, a long-sleeved t-shirt, a hoodie, a double-layered overcoat, a hat, a pair of gloves and a scarf.
Once inside the too-warm gym, (an environment well suited to keeping muscles from cramping and keeping little girls in leotards from getting a chill, but horrible for wearing sweatshirts) he took off his jacket and gloves but would not take off his hoodie. The flow of our morning stalled, and I was not thrilled about the ramifications of his refusal. Christopher can be incredibly stubborn, and we had been having a long winter of uneasy truces. I was picking this battle, and would see it through.
He crossed his arms and just stopped. I began by joking, “Christopher, you need to take your hoodie off, you silly goose, or you’ll roast to death during class!”
“Christopher, you are going to feel too hot and get too sweaty.”
“Christopher Wagner, you are not going in there with that sweatshirt on, I am not going to let you.”
An anguished growl half under his breath.
“That is it! I have had enough! Why in the world won’t you take off your sweatshirt-you do every other class, every other time, what is going on with you today? And we’re not going to just stand to the side the entire class. You have one more minute to take that off or we are going home, young man!”
“Are you taking off that sweatshirt?”
“NO!” He finally answered me in a yell. I grabbed his jacket and started feeding his arms through the sleeves, and silently sat at his feet shoving feet into boots. With a tense, almost whispered, “Get up,” from me, he got up. I zipped him, grabbed his hand and went out the doors. He didn’t protest leaving, and he tends not to. Christopher is fatalistic and grim when he accepts his fate, when he decides that he would rather accept the consequences of his stubbornness than acquiesce. I will say this for him, he has some sort of internal integrity that will not allow him to buckle under threat of missed classes, or no dessert, or zero screen time unless he knows he’s being ridiculous. When he sticks to his guns, I know it is very important to him. Once we got back to the car, I kept quiet and used the silence to cool off and hear myself think. After a few minutes, I ask him more gently, “Why, child, why? What was that all about?”
Finally unclenching he gave me an answer, “I don’t like football.”
What football had to do with anything I could not figure out. Then I realized that in a rush I had grabbed clothes for him that morning. We had little time to quibble about what he might or might not want to wear, so I ran upstairs, grabbed his brown track pants and the only brown shirt that went with them. The brown shirt had orange cleats on it and proudly proclaimed just one word in all caps “FOOTBALL”. And apparently my youngest does not like football.
And apparently he is very, very tired of misrepresenting who he is and what he likes. Because his options are limited to what his older brother liked just well enough to shove into a shopping cart two years ago, Christopher has had to lie about who he was. Our clothes communicate for us, and Christopher couldn’t take this miscommunication any more.
My husband, Greg, was the third of four boys and said, “Yeah, hand-me-downs save a lot of money, but it does stink. I never had new clothes, except for family pictures when Mom wanted us all to match. Let’s take him shopping, let him pick out things for himself.”
I introduced the idea to Christopher, and he was smiled and covered his mouth with his hand and then squeaked out, “Really?”
As we all stepped through the doors of a department store, Greg suddenly remembered, “Oh wait, guys. I need to get a couple of new dress shirts, can we head over there first? Then we’ll go to the kids section?” He looked to Christopher for the okay. Christopher nodded in agreement. The boys and I wandered around racks of leather belts and blazers while Greg held up a windowpane patterned shirt and asked, “Is this too much? Should I get it in a different color? Or the same color but a different pattern?”
Christopher found the tie rack and his eyes widened. He touched the vibrantly colored ties gently and showed me a swirl of color here or polka dot pattern there. Greg’s attempts to pick a shirt were interrupted with, “Daddy, you should get this one!” and “Daddy, you should get that one!” Christopher wanted so much that someone, someone he knew, would get to wear these beautiful, soft pieces of fabric he couldn’t contain himself. When Greg politely skirted the idea of buying ties one too many times, Christopher sighed quietly, “I wish I could use my money to have this.”
Wasn’t that why we were here in the first place? To get for Christopher clothing that he loved, that he wanted, that he felt wonderful in? I bit my lip trying not to smile too broadly and scare him away and said, “Sweetie, do you know that they make ties for little kids? And dress shirts, too? Do you want to go look for those?”
There have only been a handful of times in Christopher’s life that I have seen his face light up the way it did in the midst of the menswear section that day. A new possibility flashed into his consciousness that had seemed remote and unattainable before, and now he was told that not only did these clothes exist, but that he could get them for himself right then. There would be no waiting to see if a better coupon came in next week, no declaration that he probably didn’t need any more clothes because he had enough. I took his hand and guided him to the boys section of clothing, wooshing past the hoodies and track pants and athletic-themed t-shirts and right to the dress clothes put out for Easter. “Here we are!” I declared triumphantly and here we were.
We loaded our arms with multiple colors of dress shirts, a bouquet of clip-on ties and a couple of pairs of slacks and marched right over to the dressing room. I felt nervously excited as I helped button him up, as I tucked his shirt into his pants and clipped on his tie. He stepped back for a moment, looked himself over top to bottom and smiled, a huge, broad, unbelievable smile. He was amazed with himself, with the transformation he had gone through in the space of a minute. He pouted his lips and grabbed the knot of the tie with one hand, the length with his other and straightened it saying, “Men do this.” I covered my mouth with my hands and let my eyes keep smiling at him, “Yes they do, they do that.” A moment later he straightened his shoulders and said proudly, “I look like a scientist.” I suppressed a little laugh because I didn’t want him for a second to believe I was laughing at him, but my heart was jumping out of my chest. I had not realized that he had been quietly studying the clothing of the grown men around him, admiring how they held themselves and what their clothes represented. I hadn’t realized how completely happy he would be to wear that himself.
We left that day with white undershirts, three dress shirts in light blue, burgundy and white, five different ties, a pair of black slacks and a Lego watch, because his new mature look would have been incomplete without a watch. We left the store with a very, very happy five-year-old.