Just Like Brand New
At the monthly writing practice I attend, we blindly draw prompts written by each other as we arrive, with the option to follow the prompt or not. This time I decided to try to weave each prompt into the same piece.
It meant that what started out as a true memory took a turn into fiction and then back into true memory.
It was an interesting serial exercise to try for myself, especially as the prompts were so fun and surprising, accidentally seeming to relate to one another and then coming out of left field.
I found it funny that the prompt that pushed my piece toward fiction was actually the prompt I wrote, which was a quote from something someone said right before practice started. BTW, the pre-practice conversation I overheard about astrology and yes, potentially female centaurs, was story-worthy itself.
Here’s the prompts:
I remember . . .
I don’t remember . . .
If the centaur is female, then I take it in a different way . . . .
What was the question? . . .
Here’s what I wrote:
I remember getting in the car, where I always got the front sick on account of getting sick a lot, which meant my older sister would lean in between the bucket seats and talk a little louder to be heard. We never wore seatbelts in those days. I don’t know if our old cars even had them. So big sissy would stick most of herself into the front of the car and carry on a conversation with my mom that I wasn’t a part of because I was never happy about where we were going.
We were going to the Salvation Army store. That’s where poor people go to shop and nothing is new. You have to find a shoe that fits you on a big table full of shoes. It doesn’t matter if you like the shoe, only if it fits you. A little big is okay, because you can grow like a weed into it. You have to hunt around in the shoe pile for the matching shoe. Sometimes you find it and sometimes you don’t.
I don’t remember ever finding shoes that I liked. My sister never minded digging through the shoe pile, so mostly I just waited to grow into the ones she picked out. We’d be at the Salvation Army for hours. I’d be done in five minutes and then have to wait around for my mom and sis to go up and down every aisle like a snail. Walk, stand, “Oh, honey, look at this,” my mom would say. “It’ just like brand new.”
It didn’t matter if it was what we needed, like underwear, but if it was “just like brand new.” Our house was full of stuff that was just like brand new that the two of them picked out, angel statues and little dishes or curling irons or placemats. But even the just like brand new stuff had stuff wrong with it. The angel statue would turn out to have a chip in its wing and the dishes would get a crack if you hardly bumped them. My mother never seemed to mind. “We hardly paid a dime for it,” she would say.
I thought if we saved all those dimes from the Salvation Army I could have a new pair of jeans from Karcher Mall, which was a real store I’d been to once. It had rows and rows of stores with clothes. If a shirt didn’t fit, you could go around the rack and it would be there in different sizes until you found your own size.
My sister found a china statue of a horse-man that my mom said was a scenter. It was a horse in the back, with a tail, but then a naked guy coming out the front like he was standing where the horse’s head should be. It went on the shelf above our kitchen table along with the angel statues and other things. When no one was looking, I’d take the scenter down and play with it. I liked to pretend it was galloping and sometimes talk to it.
“Do you like being a horse man without a shirt?” I would say.
One day I broke the scenter in its center. We were galloping and I tripped on a hole in the rug that I knew about but sometimes forgot to step over and we both crashed onto the floor. The scenter broke in half and so did one of my front teeth. I cried and my mom gave me cod liver oil, but I wasn’t crying about the tooth, I was crying about the horse man.
We took a car ride to the dentist, and it hurt, and when I looked in the mirror there was a piece glued onto my tooth. I could see a line where the new piece went onto my tooth. I tried to glue the horse man back together, but he didn’t look right. There was a line of glue that showed, so he looked like everything else that was used at the Salvation Army. I broke the horse man in half again and threw him away.
The first thing I did when I was old enough was get a job so I could buy clothes that weren’t someone else’s worn-out ones. Every promotion meant more and better-made clothes, until I had a wardrobe for every occasion. I paid a dentist to give me a better tooth, too. It was a weak answer for a question not fully formed, but the answer to which I subscribed for several years.
After a very long absence, one day I walked into a Goodwill store. It looked much the same as I remembered, although the shoes were organized on sturdy shelves and the lighting was better. A woman with a Southern accent was announcing sales deals over a loudspeaker. I walked up and down the aisles, picked up things and put them down, half realizing I was looking for something that was just like brand new.
I stayed in the store for a long time and went up and down every aisle, looking for my mother in the beautiful women I saw there, one crouched down in front of a breadmaker that might still work, another standing and gazing thoughtfully at a chair with a faint stain on one flowery fabric arm.
Goodwill seems like an odd place to come to terms with one’s feelings about her mother, but it’s here that I find her and the place is comforting to me now that she’s gone. I go at least once a week, wander the aisles, look for something that’s just like brand new, and sometimes I buy it.
In my mind, I see my mother nodding approvingly. If it breaks, I didn’t spend more than a few dollars on it, and there’s always next week to try again. Sometimes I donate it back and sometimes it becomes a treasured keepsake. I think I have the question now to the answer I’ve been seeking.
What does “I remember” make you recall without thinking too hard about it? Or, you can always go with the centaur.
♥ Thanks to the folks at Goodwill in Bellingham’s Sunset Square—who work so hard to create an inviting and accessible shopping experience for so many people including myself—for allowing me to take pictures of the store’s interior.
♥ Props to my writing mates from June’s 1st Friday Writers—Carol, C’Elle, Sue, Ann, Lish, Tink (who should never forget to dance!), and C.J.—for their marvelous words.
♥ And thanks to the wonderful C.J. Prince for leading our 1st Friday Writers practice! Anyone is welcome, and we meet the first Friday of each month from 1-3 p.m. at the Sudden Valley Barn in Whatcom County.
Here’s some sweet stuff about town:
- Chuckanut Writers Conference is just around the corner, with pre-conference events starting on Thursday, June 20. Check out the full schedule and get ready for a great gathering of writers.
- Whatcom Young Writers and Village Books will co-host Write on 2013: Teen Writing Conference on Sunday, June 23, 9:30 a.m., at Village Books.
- The next open mic at Village Books with yours truly as emcee is Monday, June 24, 7:00 p.m., in the Readings Gallery of Village Books. Our optional topic is Seasonal Bounties.
- From Matthew Brouwer: Writing from the Heart, a Two-Day Intensive Retreat launches on Saturday, June 29, 9:30 a.m., at Allied Arts of Whatcom County. Topics will include Using Mythology to Center your Story, Connecting to the Wild and Weird in Yourself and Your Writing, and more!
- SpeakEasy 11 featuring the Poet’s Mind: Concept and Process, on Saturday, June 29, 7 p.m., at the Firehouse Performing Arts Center in Bellingham.
- From Cami Ostman of Red Wheelbarrow Writers: Don’t miss the Third Annual Wind Horse Half Marathon Run for Education on Saturday, July 20, 8:30 a.m., at Fairhaven Park.
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A very moving story, Laurel. Some of my favorite bits of kitsch are from Goodwill or St. Vinny’s. Whenever my sister comes down from Alaska, we go to the thrift stores. She looks for clothes, and I explore for cool knick knacks or something special to add to our costume collection. We have done this together since we were first out on our own.
Hi Naomi! Thank you so much for reading and for the good words. What a wonderful tradition to have with your sister. It’s that companionship you can have with only a sister or really close friend when you go out on such forays, and it always makes for amazing memories over time. I have to say what also caught my attention is that she lives in Alaska, a state I am fascinated with at the moment as I’m trying to write about a character who goes there (and I haven’t been there yet). So the plot is lying in wait for when I can get up there and figure out the setting. Meanwhile, I’m just glued to Deadliest Catch episodes. It’s so interesting to know what people collect. When you mentioned costume collection, I envisioned this huge closet with all kinds of cool costumes and accessories spilling out. So how big is this costume collection?
My sister Constance Baltuck is an established artist in Juneau, Alaska. The Alaska State Art Museum has several of her paintings in its permanent collection. You can find her website, with a heavy focus on Alaska Art, but also paintings from her travels to Italy, Romania, England, and France, as this address: http://www.constancebaltuck.com/
I love traveling to a place with a mission in mind, and book research is the best kind. Alaska is a unique place with a lively history. If you go up there, and I really hope you do, you should contact my sister and go out for coffee. Is your novel contemporary or historical? I wish you the very best with your writing!
As for costumes, playing dress up has been an important part of our lives, with parties often planned around a theme or historical period. I got my first wig when I was eight, and I still have it! From sci-fi to gangster to Old West to Medieval to the roaring Twenties to Viking and more, we have the costume and props for it. In our guest room we have four big chests of drawers, a freestanding wardrobe and a fair-sized closet, all stuffed with costumes created from scratch or collected over a lifetime from thrift stores, theater rummage sales, garage sales, hand-me-downs, etc. There is a rack on top of one dresser with everything from pirate boots to glitter shoes to hobbit feet. We used to lend costumes to the kids’ schools when they put on plays. I put into storage a couple of boxes of the best little person costumes for any grandkids that might come our way. Last year, when Bea went off to college, I gave away bags and bags of it, trying to pare down, but I kept the best of it, and there’s still not enough room in the costume room to hold it all. I don’t think it is a coincidence that Bea is a costume designer for the Stanford Shakespeare Company! The Shakespeare Company has a nice budget for costumes, but Bea was also doing costume design for another little campus theater company at Stanford. She had a budget of $80 to buy and make costumes for four one act plays, so when she went back to school after winter break, it was with a suitcase full of borrowed rawhide jackets, cowboy hats, and other props to use for their shows.
What a wonderfully creative family you have, Naomi. Not surprising I suppose, but always fun to learn that. Your sister’s website/art is amazing! Coffee in Alaska with your sis sounds like too much fun. The story I’m working on is set in the 1950s, about a guy who heads to Ketchikan in search of his missing sister. I have this idea to land myself there with $10 in my pocket like my character (and maybe a backup ATM card :)). It’s interesting that you and she take a different yet admittedly related approach to your art.
It’s really wonderful that Bea inherited a love of costumes and design. What a fantastic and creative endeavor, and where better to do it than Stanford? That is so exciting and she will have that passion to carry with her through life. My mom was an awesome sewer and made us great costumes when we were kids. She would have done backflips at the sight of your costume room. I think hers amounted to more like a couple boxes in the closet.
Thanks for such an enjoyable conversation!
There are so many parallels between my sister’s art and mine. And I see a parallel between your story and hers. She went up there with a one-way ticket on the ferry to Juneau, and within two weeks she had an art show scheduled, she was working at the radio station, and it wasn’t long before she was working at the city museum. It has changed since then, but it still feels like a small town.
You should definitely go. She could tell you about the way things used to be in Juneau. She went up there around 1980 or so. Here’s a link to a story–a previous post–about on location research that happens to involve my sister. http://naomibaltuck.wordpress.com/2012/03/02/the-real-thing/
Your sister sounds awesome! It’s no small feat as well as taking some courage to jump in feet first and make stuff happen. Her art is beautiful, but clearly she works hard.
Thanks for the link–I like your approach to finding the story and the way that it becomes a family endeavor. It’s so easy and maybe common to consider writing an individual endeavor, but every time I open myself up to a collaboration I’m amazed at how much fun it is and how productive it can be. I was just on your site looking at your Father’s Day tribute to your husband–beautiful!
What a lovely, lovely story! I could see that little girl being dragged around the Goodwill store, resentful of “just like” instead of truly brand new. And my heart broke with the “senter.” I love that you included the prompts that inspired the story. It’s always fun to hear about a writer’s process. Thanks for sharing it.
Thank you so much, Mary! I think I’ve been thinking about that story for a while without realizing it, so the prompts coming when they did worked for me. I don’t usually write to prompts, so I’ve been having some fun with figuring out how they can work for me and feed into projects I want to do. Your note means a lot to me. Thanks for reading!
As you were creating and reading this piece on Friday my mind wandered to my mom and her red wool dress. She loved that dress, if only briefly. After months of saving money, and constantly checking to see if the dress still hung on rack at Sears, the dress was hers. She brought it home, unwrapped the tissue paper cocoon and hung it among the Goodwill skirts and blouses on her side of the closet. On the other side hung the incredibly horrible, brown polyester suits she had machine sewn for my dad. The red wool sparked among the brown and grey cotton, off-whites and blues squashed beside it in the two foot by six foot space.
The dress went to only one party. (My parents attended parties once every three years at best.) My mom tucked it at the bottom of the laundry hamper to wait for a day when she could wash it by hand. Alas, this was not to be.
My turn to do laundry. I separated the lights from the darks and washed em up. Ta-da the beautiful red wool dress was small enough to fit Barbie. How was I to know as a ten year old that wool shrank in the wash?
That has to be one of those memories from childhood you’ll never leave behind–thank goodness you were cute as heck at ten I’m sure, so she had to forgive you quickly! Congrats on your interview with Red Wheelbarrow Writers!
God, I love your voice in this, Laurel! It is mesmerizing and takes me back to my own Goodwill in Portland, Oregon where I became obsessed with blue bottles and Chinese pottery.
That’s nice to know–thank you, Susan! Maybe everyone should be slightly obsessed with blue bottles and Chinese pottery. My grandma used to leave bottles in the window until the sun turned them purple, which fascinated me as a child and still does.
Thank you for the good words, Jill! I walked into the writing practice intent on working on a completely different story and came out with this piece, which now I want to expand sometime. I am fast becoming a fan of writing prompts and also group writing practice. The writer sitting next to me was blogger Lish Jamtaas, who is one of my past students, and she had me laughing so hard to her “I don’t remember” piece, about how she and her husband forget everything together, that I could hardly read mine out loud. Lish was just interviewed by Red Wheelbarrow Writers, a great writing group well known here in Bellingham. Her interview is at http://www.redwheelbarrowwriters.com/featured-writers/may-rwb-writer-of-the-month-lish-jamtaas/.
Laurel, this is a beautiful piece. Funny how those little prompts can sometimes “choose you” and bring about some transformative experience on the page.