WORDS BY SHELBY TRAYNOR & ILLUSTRATIONS BY BENEDICT LEADER
an essay and conversation about inheritance
CAN'T TOUCH MY POEMS
THINGS LEAVE US QUICKLY
ILLUSTRATIONS BY BENEDICT LEADER
Every time the seasons changed, a garbage bag full of second-hand clothes was dumped in the middle of our living room. It was the mid-2000s, time of the bedazzled camisole and as-seen-on-Lizzie-McGuire muscle tee, and my sister and I got the pick of the lot.
The hand-me-downs were always at the heart of a preteen struggle between excitement and pride. I hesitated to wear the clothes of the long-lost cousins and little-known family friends who had come before me. Choosing which clothes to wear was supposed to be practice in building an identity, but when the clothes were pulled from a formerly unwanted wardrobe, my identity felt borrowed and worn.
A: Did you ever get anything material passed down?
B: I got this ring from my great grandmother, Alice—and that’s why my middle name is Alice. She passed away a year after I was born. Everyone in my family says I’m like Alice… My family’s quite curvy, and then there’s me, tiny, little blonde stick figure. But my nana Alice was a really short, Irish redhead.
Sometimes I’d cut the clothes into pieces, trying, with limited sewing experience, to make the clothes just unfamiliar enough to be mine again. It’s textbook. Teen thrashes against expectations, taking perfectly good clothes down with her, leaving a trail of loose thread in her wake. I never wore these disasters in public, but when I was young I took scissors to t-shirts whenever I felt too familiar to myself—whenever I felt too comfortable, too expectable. I was finding distance. I was trying to put space between other people and me, one DIY halter top at a time.
But hand-me-downs aren’t limited to multicolour midi skirts or jumpers charitably thrown in a pile. Our families contribute to our narrative and identity just as much, giving us their stories, habits, fears, and eccentricities. At times, it can be easy to see: have you ever caught yourself using phrases borrowed from your mum? Snapping at a whistling stranger, just like your dad? The unnamed protagonist in Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane says:
“As we age, we become our parents; live long enough and we see faces repeat in time… Sometimes when I look in the mirror I see my father’s face, not my own, and I remember the way he used to smile at himself, in mirrors, before he went out.”
The people in my life have constructed me—somewhat accidentally, other times intentionally—into the person I am at this moment. My parents got my name from a newspaper article. There are anecdotes from my baby years that I can only retell because those stories were given to me by my mum. How the doctor accidentally cut my right hip when I was born. Or how, minutes before, she’d had a panic attack. I’m impatient, persistent, mediocre at small talk, and, because of my sisters childhood obsession with natural disasters, I know that in case of a hurricane you should lie in a bathtub with a mattress over your head. I come from a family of tempers and ticks, and I know that all of them have built me, piece by piece.
A: To what extent do you think our families contribute to our identities?
B: We’re the products of our parents
A: How do you mean?
B: I hear stories about what I was like as a little kid—I don’t have a lot of memories of my childhood at all. I have very limited memories—and Mum would tell me I was such a happy little kid, I was so confident… and I think, who the fuck was that person? It does depend on your surroundings, what aspects of your personality will flourish… Based on the surroundings that I grew up within, I think there are quite a few traits I can pinpoint to that.
If we are the products of the people around us, that can be a scary thing to notice in hindsight. I went through a mandatory phase of solipsism when I was a kid—“the philosophical idea that only one’s own mind is sure to exist”—which is typical of childhood, when the external world and other people’s thought processes are as alien as Area 51. There might be a comfort in solipsism—because for a while, as a kid, I was an original, wholly myself—but later on, when other people were real to me again, I realised I was a lot more fragmented, more like a patchwork quilt, or like a small child dressed in everyone else’s clothes. I felt the opposite of comfort. There was a flinch, a recoil.
Is that recoil universal?
A: Would you attribute some of those traits to your parents?
B: Yes. I think they are passed down from parents—I think parents are here for two things in life: to raise you until you no longer need to be looked after, and to scar you for life.
There’s inevitability to hand-me-downs. You look up one day, and holy cow, there it is—a familiar fragment of someone else in you. You sound like your sister, look like your mum, have the same tendencies as your brother. With that recognition comes the thrashing against familiarity, against genetics even. Finding physical distance from your family is hard when you live under the same roof, when you can measure the exact distance between you and everyone else. So when I was younger, unable to put physical space between me and the people around me, I found other ways to give myself space: cutting up hand-me-downs, listening to loud music, screwing up my nose at anything that supposed sameness.
A: And interest wise? Have you been pushed toward things because of your family?
B: I like to tell stories, and I like photography, and I like reading, and I like travel. None of that came from my family. That was stuff that I wanted to do because I had no other option. So all the stuff I’m interested in is, like, out. It was stuff I wanted to do because I felt trapped.
A: So you are influenced by them, in a way.
B: But, like, anti-influence. A negative influence. Instead of following, I’m running from it. But there’s still that central cause.
It was easier to consider myself a blip on the radar. An original, whole and untouched by the people around me. Now, it’s harder to acknowledge that I’ve brought all of this baggage with me from generations past, from my parents and my family. It’s harder to admit that I’m not entirely in control of my story, or even sometimes of my character. There is a cause and effect to my narrative and identity.
It isn’t in the nature of hand-me-downs to give the person on the receiving end a choice. Which is why, regardless of the stories, traits, genetic throwbacks I’m given, hand-me-downs are always two things at once for me: scary and exciting. I’m built, in part and at times irreversibly, by others. How terrifying is that? How wonderful is that? How much horrible potential do hand-me-downs have? When you look in a mirror, and suddenly you are your dad, smiling to himself the way he always did before he walked out the door.
The interrupting conversation throughout this essay is between my friend Rhiannon (B) and I (A), as we try to sort through the topic. It has been edited and condensed.
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