October 30, 2009

My life of crime

When I was a child, Mama Fresh liked to sew many of our clothes. One outfit that vividly stands out was when Mama must have gotten a deal on many yards of olive green extremely wide-waled arctic thickness corduroy. My brothers and I had matching pants and vests constructed of this immovable fabric. We resembled miniature soldiers walking stiffly, not in khaki, but corduroy, needing only a few medals of honor to complete our uniforms.

I used to dread those twice-annual trips to the fabric store, looking for patterns and remnants. I just wished for blue jeans (or dungarees as Grandma called them) and a simple t-shirt from the local Sears. The closest we got to jeans were denim elastic-waisted bottoms. The elastic was ingeniously recycled from Papa's worn out underpants, so the waistband was always quite wide. I tried not to think too much about the underpants recycling. Movie heroines like Scarlett O’Hara used drapes and Maria in Sound of Music used the curtains. Apparently, we had no spare window treatments. We had dad’s underpants. I still hear Mama’s voice, “Nobody will ever know or see the elastic!”

One afternoon, during a particularly long fabric-searching marathon, there was nothing left for me to look at, like patterns or cute fabric that never was on sale anyway. I thought to play hide and seek in the bolts of fabric but nobody was there to look for me. My brothers never had to go on these trips.

I wandered past a bin of buttons and two big shiny brass buttons caught my eye. I do not know if I had heard the phrase about sewing brass buttons on my underpants and thought maybe that would dress up Dad’s elastic? Or perhaps I was determined to put some medals on our military looking outfits?

I am not sure what was so compelling about these two buttons but I was fascinated. I picked them up and studied my reflection, moving the buttons back and forth like a fun house mirror. My face warped, my eyes grew and shrunk. After entertaining myself with the buttons to help pass the time, I eventually decided to go check if Mama was finished.

I was about to return the card of buttons back to their bin but they seemed magnetized to my hand. Rather than put them back, I slipped them in my pocket without a second thought. I never even considered asking if we could get them. We just knew not to ask for anything at the store. I had no idea what I was going to do with the buttons, but suddenly, nothing was more important in my life than having those two shiny gold buttons.

They seemed to glow from my pocket. I held my hand tightly over the jacket pocket, in case they would escape or someone would notice. We bought our fabric and walked out the door and it was as simple as that; the buttons were mine. Nobody knew… no alarms went off; I was now the proud owner of two shiny brass buttons.

I could not wait to get home and study my prize. I scurried up to my room and hid in my closet, carefully removing the contraband from its hidden place. Then the gravity of my crime hit me. I had stolen those buttons. The face that reflected back at me was one of shame and petty crime. I was horrified. The fabric store was over an hour away, so it was not as if we could go back there, and I knew Mama would not be happy with me. Instead I buried the buttons in the bottom of my toy chest.

Every so often, I would pull the buttons out, but that same face stared back at me. Not the fun house face, the face of guilt. I stopped taking the buttons out and let my prize languish in the darkness.

Years later, that particular fabric store was going out of business. I wondered if my life of crime had been a contributing factor. I confessed my crime to the part time clerk while I was checking out, perhaps hoping for a moment of absolution. She looked at me as if I was crazy and I am sure I heard her say, “So?”

(Yeah, sew brass buttons on your underpants, that’s what started this whole mess in the first place).


  1. You are not alone! When I was a teenager, I stole all kinds of crap. But that's because I had issues. (Don't look at me like that! I can too use the past tense!)

    When I was a wee little one, I stole some candy once from a store. Mama marched me right back there, made me give it back and apologize. The owner looked at me like I was the cutest child alive. Perhaps that loving look registered as positive reinforcement and led to my later wretched behavior as a teenager? Yes, yes. We can blame it all on that candy shop owner!

  2. I am married 36 years to a wonderful woman who sports a very difficult childhood. The very last time she ever laid eyes upon her father was as he dropped her off one morning at kindergarten in a shiny new black car and extracted from her tinyness a promise not to tell her mother about the new car. Things slid down hill from there. People respond to their circumstances in different ways. Early on, this woman child determined NOT to be a victim. She has become the strongest woman I know.
    One day, not long ago, she confessed to me her long standing guilt of having shop lifted one time while still a very young girl.
    By then her mother had turned she and her syblings over to a foster home. Her family was gone. Foster homes in Maine in those years were little more than indentured servitude. In her immense desire for a real mommy and daddy and a once-again family, she stole a little picture in a frame from the local variety store. From that moment, nearly 60 years ago, her guilt has plagued her. She finally, in me, found someone to whom she could come clean. I am still amused that it took her over 30 years of knowing me to trust me enough to share the finite details of this monstrous crime.
    Oh yes, the picture in the little frame? It was a picture of Jesus. She wanted a real daddy and thought he should do nicely. Funny! Isn't it? We truly do each respond to circumstances in such varied and colorful ways.

  3. I was walking home from my ballet lesson in either 3rd or 4th grade in Toledo Ohio and snuck a Choc-o-lite bar in my ballet shoe box. Two years later, I remember crying while watching Nadia Comameci competing in the 1976 Olympics, from the guilt that SO haunted me for SO long; I was sure I was going to hell! I had not yet learned about grace and forgiveness, but knew that "Thou Shalt Not Steal"! How many times I wish I would have not taken, or at least, returned, the candy.
    (I am still a chocoholic...but with a bit more knowledge of grace.)

  4. It was peer pressure that did me in. I can't remember my accomplice's name, but can still see him in my mind's eye. It was a comic book, some gum and candy. We had to have our parents call him within 48 hours. I was so scared and ashamed, I couldn't bring myself to tell my parents. I decided I would try to call him myslef and feign I was my father. I didn't work.
    I got the talking-to of my life. It really was stupid and so out of character for me. But, I was trying to be a tough guy. Guess I just wasn't cut out for a life of crime. lol
    Dad took me to the store, where I had to apologize to the manager and pay for the stuff I stole. I remember crying in his office and saying, "I didn't even WANT that stuff to begin with." The things we do to impress our friends, huh?
    I can't remember what happened to my friend or if he ever told his parents.

  5. I have another secret to confess. I wasn't really all that guilt ridden.

    Like Ray, I just don't know why I wasted my "petty shoplifting card" on something that was ultimately so unsatisfying.

    Like C.Frugal, I pretend like all my issues are in the past... yep, I'm totally over all that, and I agree, it was the shopowner's fault. So there. Shifting blame is so easy!

    Like Hawk's wife, I did need 30 some years to come clean, but now it's more a silly reflection and hopefully a joke about how hours in a fabric store will drive any child to a life of crime.

    And Karen, did you at least get to enjoy the chocolate, or did it languish with your ballet shoes? A friend of mine used to joke that guilt is God's way of reminding us we had fun. I have lots of chocolate guilt hanging around my thighs these days.


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